Hezbollah Rejects Bush's Suggestion

Hezbollah's leader on Wednesday rejected a suggestion by President Bush (search) that his militants disarm and enter the political mainstream, saying the group will never leave Lebanon defenseless.

Sheik Hassan Nasrallah (search) criticized Bush for not responding to Lebanese demands that Israeli warplanes stop flying over Lebanon, and for not calling on Israel to release its Lebanese detainees.

"He (Busg to stop the overflights and its aggression or for the release of the prisoners. Instead, he provides it (Israel) with protection," Nasrallah said in a three-hour interview on Hezbollah's Al-Manar television.

"We are ready to remain until the end of time a terrorist organization in Bush's view, but we are not ready to give up protection of our country, our people, their blood and their honor," Nasrallah said.

The United States has long condemned Hezbollah (search), but Bush has said that the Iranian-backed militant group could shed its terrorist label and win U.S. recognition if it disarms and stays out of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

"Hezbollah is on the terrorist list for a reason, and remains on the terrorist list for a reason," said Bush.

But Bush said Washington looked forward to working with the elected leaders of "a free — truly free, Lebanon."

Lebanon is to hold legislative elections next month, and Bush has demanded that all Syrian troops and intelligence officials leave the country before the elections.

Under intense international pressure, Syria's 14,000 troops have been pulling back into Syria and the Lebanese side of the border. On Wednesday Syrian intelligence agents ended their 18-year presence in Beirut.

Drawing its support from Lebanon's 1.2 million Shiites Muslims, Hezbollah is widely admired in the country and the Arab world for its military role in forcing Israel to leave southern Lebanon in 2000 after an 18-year occupation.

Nasrallah said it was "very big fallacy" that Hezbollah sought to disrupt Palestinian-Israeli peace.

"We don't carry out operations in occupied Palestine. ... The Israelis say Hezbollah is behind the operations by Palestinian factions. This is not true. This is a honor that we don't claim," he added.

Nasrallah said "the core" of Bush's remarks was disarmament.

"The real goal before the eyes of the Americans and the Israelis is disarming Hezbollah and undermining the most important elements that Lebanon possesses," Nasrallah said.

"What is required is that Hezbollah be disarmed so that Lebanon can be left without protection," he added.

Nasrallah's strong statements contrasted sharply with the more moderate comments made earlier in the day by a member of Hezbollah's political bureau, Nawaf Moussawi.

In an interview with Al-Arabiya satellite television, Moussawi said Bush was "trying to propose an approach different from the traditional American approach toward Hezbollah."

Hezbollah has repeatedly spurned calls to disarm. Its deputy leader, Sheik Naim Kassem, said last week the group would not disarm as long as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict persists and poses a threat to Lebanese security.

In the past month, Hezbollah has demonstrated its political influence by organizing two huge rallies in support of Syria's military presence in Lebanon. On Tuesday, Hezbollah supporters took part in an anti-U.S. protest of several thousand people outside the American Embassy in Beirut.

At the same time, there have been calls for the United States to support moves to nudge Hezbollah into mainstream political life in Lebanon as Washington pushes for an end to Syrian influence there.

The United States and many other Western nations have linked Hezbollah to the pro-Iranian militants that carried out the suicide bombings of the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Marine base, killing about 270 Americans, during the 1980s. Hezbollah was also widely blamed for the kidnapping of Americans in Beirut during the 1975-90 civil war.

Hezbollah denies links to those militants and kidnappers.