Hezbollah's leader said Friday his guerrilla force would not give up its weapons until Lebanon was "strong," demanding changes in the government as he spoke at a rally of hundreds of thousands of supporters in a defiant challenge to Prime Minister Fuad Saniora.
Sheik Hassan Nasrallah made his first public appearance since Israel launched its massive offensive against Lebanon on July 12, leading the "victory over Israel" rally in front of a sea of cheering supporters waving yellow Hezbollah flags in the bombed-out southern suburbs of Beirut.
The black turbaned cleric said Hezbollah possesses more than 20,000 rockets even after firing nearly 4,000 rockets at Israel during the 34 days of fighting, and he vowed that the U.N. peacekeeping force deploying in the south and helping guard Lebanon's borders from new weapons shipments will not affect the guerrillas' arsenal.
"No army in the world will be able to make us drop the weapons from our hands," he said.
Nasrallah's speech — and the massive rally itself — aimed to show Hezbollah's continued power despite the dramatically new situation in Lebanon: A beefed-up U.N. peacekeeping force and Lebanese troops are fanning out in the south, Hezbollah's longtime stronghold, with a mandate to keep the guerrillas under control.
But much of his speech was directed at Saniora's Western-backed government, which includes, in addition to Hezbollah, strong opponents of the guerrilla group who want to see it disarmed. Nasrallah derided the government as weak and unable to protect Lebanon from Israel and called for a new national unity government.
Former President Amin Gemayel, a sharp critic of Hezbollah, said parts of Nasrallah's speech were "dangerous."
"He is linking giving up Hezbollah's weapons to regime change in Lebanon and ... to drastic changes on the level of the Lebanese government," Gemayel said. "This is very surprising and dangerous, and leads us to ask, what kind of government does Sayyed Hassan want for what kind of Lebanon?"
He said Nasrallah on the one hand "extended his hand" to various Lebanese parties but on the other hand was "confrontational and made some very serious statements."
Faris Soueid, a Christian politican close to Saniora, insisted the government will not bend to Hezbollah pressure. "I believe it will not scare the government of Fuad Saniora," he said on Al-Arabiya television. "It will not fall, not in the street and not because of political speeches."
Nasrallah said Hezbollah would only consider giving up its weapons when a "strong, capable and just government" was in place.
He said giving up weapons now "under this government ... means leaving Lebanon exposed before Israel to kill and detain and bomb whoever they want, and clearly we will not accept that."
"When we build a strong and just state that is capable of protecting the nation and the citizens, we will easily find an honorable solution to the resistance issue and its weapons," he said.
"Tears don't protect anyone," he said in a barbed jab at Saniora, who wept several times in speeches during the Israeli offensive as he described the destruction and pleaded for international support.
The U.N.-brokered cease-fire that ended fighting between the guerrillas and Israel on Aug. 14 calls for Hezbollah to eventually be stripped of its weapons, but Nasrallah has so far been defiant.
Some 5,000 U.N. peacekeepers and 10,000 Lebanese troops have deployed in southern Lebanon, with a mandate to enforce a weapons-free zone on the Israeli border. They have said they will confiscate any Hezbollah weapons they encounter and will prevent new arms from reaching the guerrillas.
But they will not actively seek out and take hidden weapons, leaving the question of Hezbollah's disarmament to a political decision by the government.
Hezbollah's popularity among Shiites soared after it withstood weeks of punishing Israeli bombardment and kept firing rockets into northern Israel. The group has refused to give up its weapons. But the pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian group has come under renewed criticism from anti-Syrian factions who form a majority in Lebanon's government and accuse Hezbollah of doing Damascus' and Tehran's bidding.
Friday's rally filled a vast, 37-acre lot in the southern suburbs of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold where entire blocks were leveled by near daily Israeli bombardment during the fighting.
Supporters streamed in from across southern Lebanon, on foot, in buses and in cars, chanting Nasrallah's name and waving Lebanese and Hezbollah flags.
One Shiite woman, Mira Ali, said she came in response to Nasrallah's "religious order." The 42-year-old, wearing a black shirt and pants — head uncovered — waved a Hezbollah flag and said: We are with him (Nasrallah). I am here to say no to disarming Hezbollah."
Another attendee, Nancy Mekdad, carrying a picture of Nasrallah said, "We are all ready for the sacrifice for the Sayyed (Nasrallah)."
Nasrallah vowed his guerrillas will not free two captured Israeli soldiers, the spark of the fighting, except as part of a prisoner swap as Hezbollah has demanded.
As Hezbollah celebrated, Israeli soldiers continued to withdraw from south Lebanon Friday, in an area south of the Mediterranean coastal town of Naqoura, and near Maiss al-Jabal in the northern Galilee panhandle, a U.N. statement said.
The U.N. peacekeepers' commander, French Maj. Gen. Alain Pellegrini, said he expects the remaining Israeli troops — thought to number a few thousand — will be out by the end of the month.