REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- Making a rare public appearance, the leader of Hezbollah struck a defiant note Tuesday, warning those “banking on change” that the militant Shiite Muslim group in Lebanon is continuing to build its military arsenal.
The surprise appearance by Sheik Hassan Nasrallah at a rally to commemorate the Shiite festival of Ashura appeared calculated to instill confidence in supporters at a time of upheaval in the Arab world, including in Syria, a key backer that has come under growing international pressure for its bloody crackdown on protests.
Ashura, one of the holiest days on the Shiite calendar, commemorates the 7th century killing of the prophet Muhammad's grandson, Imam Hussein.
Nasrallah has rarely been seen in public since 2006, when Hezbollah fought a 34-day war with Israel. Arab television networks showed the leader, flanked by black-clad bodyguards, wading through a throng of ecstatic supporters in his stronghold in Beirut’s southern suburbs.
He spoke only briefly from the podium, telling the large crowd, “I wanted to be with you for just a few minutes, although I love to be with you always.” He was then hustled off the stage by bodyguards, but said he would soon be back to address them from large video screens.
“Wait for me,” he said jokingly. “Don't go away.”
"Every day we are growing in number, our training is getting better, we are becoming more confident and our weapons are increasing,” Nasrallah said in his statement.
Although he expressed support for reforms in Syria, he said Hezbollah would stand by the government of President Bashar Assad and accused the United States of plotting to destroy Syria “to make up for their defeat in Iraq.”
He was also critical of the Syrian National Council, the most prominent opposition bloc, which he accused of trying to "present their credentials” to the United States and Israel.
The council’s leader, Burhan Ghalioun, has been quoted as saying that a government formed by his organization would distance itself from Iran and organizations like Hezbollah.
“There will be no special relationship with Iran,” Ghalioun told the Wall Street Journal in an interview published last week.
-- Alexandra Zavis and Alexandra Sandels
Photo: Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah leaves with his bodyguards after he delivered a speech Tuesday in southern Beirut during a rare public appearance. Credit: Wael Hamzeh / EPA