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Hezbollah leader emerges for anti-film protest

ZEINA KARAM

Published: Monday, Sept. 17 2012 11:50 a.m. MDT

Hezbollah supporters wave their flag and hold up Arabic banners that read, "At your service God's prophet, America equals terrorism, and America does not equal freedom," during a rally denouncing an anti-Islam film that has provoked a week of unrest in Muslim countries worldwide, in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Monday Sept. 17, 2012. Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah, nor shown, who does not usually appear in public for fear of assassination, called for Monday's protests in Beirut, saying the U.S. must be held accountable for the film because it was produced in America.

Hussein Malla, Associated Press

BEIRUT — In an appeal that could stoke more fury over an anti-Islam film, the leader of the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah called for sustained protests in a rare public appearance Monday at a rapturous but peaceful rally attended by hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters in Beirut.

Rioting demonstrators battled with police outside a U.S. military base in Afghanistan and the U.S. Embassy in Indonesia as violent protests spread to Asia after a week of unrest in Muslim countries worldwide.

The turmoil surrounding the low-budget movie that denigrates the Prophet Muhammad shows no sign of ebbing nearly a week after protesters first swarmed the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, and the U.S. ambassador was killed in Libya. At least 10 protesters have died in the riots, and the targeting of American missions has forced Washington to ramp up security in several countries.

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah group, has rarely been seen in public since his Shiite Muslim group battled Israel in a month-long war in 2006, fearing Israeli assassination. Since then, he has communicated with his followers and gives news conference mostly via satellite link.

On Monday, he spoke for about 15 minutes before a huge crowd of hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters, many of them with green and yellow headbands around their foreheads — the colors of Hezbollah — and the words "at your service God's prophet" written on them.

Police officials estimated the crowd at around 500,000 — an exceptionally large turnout even by standards of the Hezbollah group whose rallies normally draw huge numbers.

Nasrallah, who last appeared in public in December 2011 to mark the Shiite holy day of Ashoura, said the U.S. must ban the movie and have it removed from the Internet and called for his followers to maintain pressure on the world to act.

"This is the start of a serious campaign that must continue all over the Muslim world in defense of the prophet of God," he said to roars of support. "As long as there's blood in us, we will not remain silent over insults against our prophet."

He called for a series of demonstrations this week to denounce the video but unlike protests elsewhere, Monday's protest south of Beirut was peaceful.

Diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut have started to destroy classified material as a security precaution and sent local Lebanese employees home early amid the anti-American protests.

In Washington, a State Department official said there was no imminent threat to the heavily fortified Beirut embassy, which is about an hour away from where the nearest demonstration is planned. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss security procedures, said the decision to "reduce classified holdings" was routine and made by embassy staff.

Hezbollah's rallies seem aimed at keeping the issue alive by bringing out large crowds. But the group also appeared to be trying to ensure it did not spiral into violence, walking a careful line. Notably, Hezbollah held Monday's protest in its own mainly Shiite stronghold of Dahieh in south Beirut, far from the U.S. Embassy in the mountains north of the capital or other international diplomatic missions.

For the group, anger over the low-budget movie that denigrates the Prophet Muhammad provides a welcome diversion from the crisis in Syria, which has brought heavy criticism on Hezbollah for its support of President Bashar Assad. But stoking riots in Beirut could also bring a backlash in the tensely divided country.

"Some people still don't know the level of insult done to our prophet," Nasrallah said. "The world should understand the truth of our relationship and ties to our prophet."

"America, you are the Great Satan," the crowd shouted.

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