Hezbollah leader says his forces will remain in Syria


LONDON — The head of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group, whose armed followers are fighting in Syria on the side of President Bashar Assad, pledged today that his forces would remain there as long as necessary.

The leader, Hassan Nasrallah, spoke at a Shiite ceremony in his stronghold in southern Beirut, the Lebanese capital, held to observe Ashura, one of the most important holidays on the Shiite religious calendar. It commemorates the killing of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

Nasrallah’s battle-hardened fighters joined the fray in Syria earlier this year to recapture a border town, and Assad’s foes say they have also been deployed on other fronts in the south near Damascus, the capital, and Aleppo in the north.

“As long as the reasons remain, our presence there will remain,” Nasrallah told thousands of his followers.

“Our fighters, our mujahedeen, are present on Syrian soil,” Nasrallah declared, adding that they were in Syria also to support Lebanon and Palestinian causes, “to confront all the dangers of the international, regional and takfiri attack on this country and on this region.” Takfiri refers to the extremist Sunni fighters aligned with al-Qaeda who have joined the attempt to overthrow Assad.

The Syrian leader is a close ally of Shiite-led Iran, Hezbollah’s patron, and is from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The civil war, which has claimed more than 110,000 lives and forced millions of Syrians to flee their homes, has deepened the polarization between Sunnis and Shiites in many parts of the Middle East.

Nasrallah’s remarks seemed to be directed specifically at the fighting within Syria and were not seen as a general call to arms, analysts said.

He also said Hezbollah, the dominant force in Lebanese politics, would not yield to demands from political rivals to pull out of Syria as a condition for resolving the impasse that has left Lebanon adrift under a caretaker government. He told his audience he would not trade what he termed an existential fight in Syria for seats in the Lebanese Cabinet.

As a security precaution, Nasrallah sometimes appears before his supporters by video link, reflecting Hezbollah’s concerns that he could be the target of an attack by Israel.

But Nasrallah made his remarks in person today, protected by bodyguards and other measures, including a ban on vehicles in the area where he spoke. It was his second public appearance in two days and his third this year.