BEIRUT, Lebanon – Hundreds of thousands jammed a central Beirut square Tuesday, chanting support for Syria and anti-U.S. slogans in a thundering show of strength by the militant group Hezbollah (search) — a rally that greatly outnumbered recent demonstrations against Syria's presence in Lebanon.
The demonstration came hours before Syria began redeploying its troops within Lebanon to an area closer to the two countries' border. President Bush, who rejects this as a half-step, said Tuesday that "freedom will prevail in Lebanon" and demanded that Syria (search) withdraw completely.
But that was not the sentiment among the protesters in Riad Solh square (search), where two huge banners read, in English: "Thank you Syria" and "No to foreign interference." The latter was a reference to U.S. and U.N. pressure on Syria — but not to the Syrian military, which the protesters made clear they were happy to have stay.
"We're here for the independence of Lebanon but not for Syria to leave," said 16-year-old Esraa Awarki, who traveled to Beirut by bus with a number of schoolmates from Sharkiya, in southern Lebanon. "Syria was helping to protect us."
The sprawling crowds sang, waved a sea of red-and-white Lebanese flags and burst into the national anthem, some touting posters with pictures of the Lebanese and Syrian presidents. Throughout the afternoon, loudspeakers blared songs of resistance and officials gave nationalist speeches.
"We are demonstrating here against foreign intervention in our internal affairs, and we're supporting Hezbollah," said Maha Choukair, a 21-year-old Lebanese University student. "Here we are saying thank you to Syria, not asking them to leave."
Hezbollah, an anti-Israeli party representing Shiite Muslims (search), organized the rally as a way of demonstrating that it will remain a powerful force in Lebanon even if Syria leaves. The Lebanese opposition, which opposes Syria's presence, has been trying to persuade Hezbollah to remain neutral in the country's political crisis.
Hezbollah is the best armed and organized faction in Lebanon and enjoys strong support among the country's Shiite community, which at 1.2 million is a third of the population. Respect for it extends beyond the Shiites because of its years of fighting against Israel.
The United Nations has joined the United States in calling for Syria to remove its forces and for Hezbollah to disarm. Syria, whose troops have been in Lebanon for more than a quarter century, says it will transfer its forces closer to the border and discuss with Lebanese officials their eventual withdrawal — but it has not given a date for a full pullback.
Lebanon's state news agency estimated 1.5 million participated in Tuesday's rally, but that seemed high for the nation of 3.7 million. An Associated Press estimate put the crowd's size at 400,000 to 500,000.
A large proportion appeared to have come in from the heavily Shiite regions of the eastern Bekaa Valley and the south. In those areas, loudspeakers urged followers to travel to Beirut for the protest.
Awarki, surrounded by dozens of fellow schoolgirls in gray uniforms and black and gray scarves over their heads, said "at least three-quarters" of her school had come to Beirut "because the sheik invited us" — referring to Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader.
Nasrallah addressed the crowd from a balcony on a building facing the square.
"I ask our partners in the country or those looking at us from abroad, `Are all those hundreds of thousands of people puppets?' Is all this crowd agents for the Syrians and intelligence agencies?'" he said.
Nasrallah directly addressed Israel, telling it to let go of "dreams for Lebanon."
"To this enemy we say again: There is no place for you here and there is no life for you among us. Death to Israel!" he said.
"Lebanon is not Ukraine," Nasrallah said, referring to that country's "orange revolution" last year. "If anyone thinks you can bring down a state with a few demonstrations, a few scarves, a few shouts, a few media, he is suspect, he is wrong."
Nasrallah also warned Washington against any military action to achieve its goals.
"The fleets came in the past and were defeated. They will be defeated again," he said to the cheers of supporters wildly waving Lebanon's cedar-tree flag.
The weeks of anti-Syrian demonstrations in Beirut followed the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Many Lebanese accuse Syria and Lebanon's government of responsibility for Hariri's death; both deny any involvement. At one point in Tuesday's rally, the crowd observed a moment of silence for Hariri.
Tuesday's rally was far larger than the more than 70,000 anti-Syrian protesters who filled the nearby Martyrs' Square the day before. That square, just a few blocks away, was mostly quiet during the Hezbollah rally, and Lebanese army armored vehicles blocked the roads leading between the squares.
At least one opposition leader said the pro-Syrian government pressured people to turn out and some reports said Syria had bused in people from across the border. But on a mountain road leading to Beirut, only one bus with a Syrian license plate was spotted in a convoy of pro-Syrian supporters heading to the capital and Hezbollah officials denied the charges.
Dory Chamoun, an opposition leader, dismissed Hezbollah's demonstration as "muscle-flexing."
"Yes, we all know that Hezbollah has the material capability to mobilize such large numbers of people and more," he told AP. "But the difference is that in our demonstrations, people arrive voluntarily and on foot, not in buses pushed by someone to demonstrate against something most of them don't even understand."
The pullback of Syrian forces from central Lebanon toward the border began late Tuesday, when scores of trucks carrying soldiers and towing howitzer guns left the Aley region in the hills overlooking Beirut and headed up the mountain road to eastern Lebanon to mountaintops and down to the Bekaa Valley in the east. The convoys included several tanks on flatbed trucks, witnesses reported.
Lebanese officials said the pullback would be completed by March 23. Deputy Prime Minister Issam Fares said he believes the next phase, the full withdrawal from Lebanon, will be "speedy" — but he did not give a date.
Lebanese Defense Minister Abdul-Rahim Murad told AP that the Syrian pullback would include the main Syrian intelligence offices in Beirut.
The withdrawal of Syrian intelligence — a key part of Damascus' control — is a central demand of the United States and Lebanese opposition. Washington has said Syria's pullback to the border is not enough, demanding all Syrian forces and intelligence out by Lebanese elections in May.
Syria has had troops here since 1976, when they were sent as peacekeepers during Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war. When the war ended, the troops remained and Syria has dominated Lebanon's politics since.