BEIRUT, Lebanon – The militant group Hezbollah (search), largely on the fence since anti-Syrian protests erupted in Lebanon last month, switched gears Sunday and threw its weight behind Syria and its allies — calling for massive rallies in Beirut to show loyalty to Damascus.
The move by Hezbollah's powerful and politically savvy leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah (search), could prove crucial: The Iranian-founded, anti-Israeli Shiite Muslim group, which the United States calls a terrorist organization, has emerged as a key player during Lebanon's latest slide into political instability — capable of tilting the balance either in favor of the pro-Syrian government or the anti-Syrian opposition.
Although Hezbollah is backed in part by Syria, the opposition had been courting the militia's support in its efforts to oust Syrian troops. Opposition leaders had said Hezbollah would not be forced to disarm if Syria leaves — while also warning that if the group tilted toward Syria, it would lose the support of many Lebanese.
But as the Syrian army is being driven out of Lebanon under international pressure led by the United States, the 23-year-old Hezbollah movement, whose name means The Party of God (search), is clearly feeling the heat, believing it could be the next target.
Among other things, its existence as a military force could be at stake after the dizzying changes in recent weeks, which culminated Saturday with Syrian President Bashar Assad's announcement of a two-step withdrawal of his 14,000 troops after nearly 30 years in Lebanon.
A Lebanese official said Sunday that Syrian troops will start moving toward eastern Lebanon near the Syrian border in a pullback that will take two or three days. The withdrawal will begin right after a meeting in Damascus of the presidents of the two countries, Lebanese Defense Minister Abdul-Rahim Murad told The Associated Press.
Hezbollah had remained mostly neutral in the three weeks of anti-Syrian protests triggered by the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Although it has participated in meetings of the pro-Syrian camp and has the backing of Syria, the group had not taken active part in any campaigns.
That changed on Sunday. Nasrallah called for a massive peaceful demonstration Tuesday in central Beirut to show loyalty to Syria. The protest, he said, was to denounce international interference, show support for resistance movements and foil any attempts to make a peace deal with Israel.
The protests also, despite his denials, are apparently designed to show Hezbollah's political strength.
Hezbollah is the best-armed group in Lebanon. It is widely admired both within Lebanon and across the Arab world for driving Israeli forces out of the country's south. It also has the organizational capability and party discipline to mobilize massive street protests, drawing its strength from the Shiite Muslim community, Lebanon's largest religious sect with 1.2 million people.
Yet a Syrian retreat under U.S. pressure could make Hezbollah vulnerable. Both the 1989 Taif Accord ending Lebanon's civil war and a recent U.N. Security Council resolution call for Syria's withdrawal to be accompanied by disarmament of all militias within Lebanon.
Hezbollah has rejected the demands in the U.N. resolution, saying they were Israeli-inspired.
The pro-Syrian Lebanese government backed them up, saying Hezbollah — which has thousands of fighters armed with rockets and mortars, maintains positions along the Lebanese-Israeli border and occasionally shoots at Israeli soldiers in a disputed area — does not count as a militia but rather as a resistance movement.
Official status aside, Hezbollah's military role could be "neutralized" without Syrian troops in the country for backup, said Ahmad Moussalli, associate professor of political studies at the American University of Beirut.
"Hezbollah has been used as a card in the politics of the area. We are going through a very tough time where Syria and Hezbollah will have to rethink their strategies," he said. "If Syria withdraws, what will Hezbollah do with its arms? They can't fight Israel because it will bring a severe response from Israel."
Nasrallah has already made clear the group will not disarm — a position he repeated on Sunday. "As long as Lebanon needs protection, it needs the resistance," he said.
Although the U.S. calls it a terrorist group, Hezbollah has joined mainstream politics with nine members in the current legislature, whose term expires in May. Hezbollah also does social and educational work across Shiite parts of the country, with medical clinics, a newspaper and a TV station.
Washington links it to pro-Iranian groups that carried out the 1980s suicide bombings of U.S. Embassy compounds in Lebanon and the Marine base at Beirut airport, killing about 270 Americans, as well as kidnapping of Americans and other Westerners in Beirut during the chaotic days of the 1975-90 civil war.
The group has denied any links to the attackers.