BEIRUT, Lebanon, AP – Recent riots in Beirut by Shiite Muslim supporters of Hezbollah demonstrate that the anti-Israeli guerrillas can still control the streets of Lebanon — driving home how difficult it will be for the government to disarm the militant group.
Thousands of Hezbollah supporters rioted Thursday night in their strongholds of south Beirut and southern and eastern Lebanon after a television satire poked fun at Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the organization’s leader.
Men and women carrying Nasrallah’s pictures blocked roads by setting tires afire and roamed the streets. A key artery from Beirut to the international airport was shut for several hours.
There was some damage and a few injuries but, perhaps more importantly, the political fallout from the riots continues to reverberate. The riots raised alarm particularly among Sunni Muslims and Christians in this nation of 3.5 million where political and sectarian tensions run high.
“That was shameful and wrong behavior. … There was no need for people to take to the streets,” Talal Salman, the publisher of the As-Safir daily, which is sympathetic to Hezbollah, wrote in a front-page editorial Monday.
“The resistance did not need this kind of defense, which harms its cause, leadership and weapons and turns people against it.”
Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, was already under fire from political opponents — the anti-Syrian groups that now dominate the parliament and government.
Last year, Hezbollah lost Syrian protection inside Lebanon when Damascus was forced to withdraw its army under international pressure over the February 2005 assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri. There are now calls from abroad for the guerillas to surrender their arms, including a 2004 U.N. Security Council resolution and subsequent follow-up measures.
Hezbollah refuses and claims its weapons are needed to defend Lebanon against possible Israeli attack. Earlier this year, Nasrallah said his men will “chop off the hands and heads and take away the lives of those who try to disarm Hezbollah by force.”
Hezbollah officials say the group faces a U.S. and Israeli campaign to discredit it and undermine its support in preparation for disarming the organization. The United States lists Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
Clearly on the defensive, the charismatic Nasrallah said Monday the riots were spontaneous and that his activists helped restore order rather than inflame tensions. He rejected characterizations of the incident by anti-Syrians, whom he accused of hyping the disturbance.
“All that’s happening will not undermine the determination and will of the resistance (against Israel),” he said. “If those carrying out these actions think that through such language and behavior they could reach a point where they can besiege, isolate and finish off the resistance they are wrong. … I promise them that they will fail, God willing.”
Hezbollah’s guerrilla campaign helped drive Israel out southern Lebanon in 2000 after an 18-year occupation, the first time Israel was forced to withdraw its army from Arab land. The group has been keen to sustain that image while trying to convince skeptics that the 12,000-plus rockets in its arsenal are designed to deter a possible Israeli attack.
But there is concern that Hezbollah wants to use its powerful military machine against anti-Syrian groups and other parties in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s detractors also worry it could come to the aid of Iran by attacking Israel. U.S. intelligence officials go even further, saying they believe the group could carry out terror attacks on Tehran’s direction.
Iran is under pressure from the United States and its allies to stop enriching uranium, a process that can lead to the development of a nuclear weapon. Iran insists it has a peaceful civilian nuclear program.
Nasrallah sought to assuage the concerns in his news conference Monday.
He said he had instructed his men to offer payment for damages from the riots. Aides also scrambled to reassure Christian and Muslim spiritual leaders, who were obviously unsettled by the speed with which ordinary Shiites took to the streets after the television program.
“If we had called for it (the protests), there would have been much larger number of people on the streets,” he said.
The group, which has 11 seats in the 128-seat legislature and two Cabinet ministers, enjoys wide support among Lebanon’s Shiite community of 1.2 million people, believed to be the largest religious sect in the country.