BEIRUT, Lebanon – Hezbollah’s leader said Saturday that the militant Islamic group’s war last summer with Israel has left the U.S. vision of a “new Middle East” in shambles and claimed the guerrilla group was ready to strike Israel again at any time.
During the 34-day war in southern Lebanon, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for a new era of democracy and peace in the region, “a new Middle East.”
But Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, said the U.S. vision aimed at reinforcing Israel.
“There is no new Middle East,” Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah told a mass rally in the southern town of Bint Jbeil, one of the towns hardest hit by the war. “It’s gone with the wind.”
Nasrallah did not personally attend the rally to mark the first anniversary of the war which Hezbollah calls “a divine victory. His speech was relayed to the crowd on a giant screen set up in the main square of Bint Jbeil.
Nasrallah said the guerrilla group would never be at peace with Israel.
“We will not wait for anyone to defend us. We will defend ourselves and our country,” he said. “We possess and we will continue to possess rockets that can hit any area in occupied Palestine if Israel attacks Lebanon,” he added.
“It is impossible to live with a back-stabbing enemy on our border, who has been assaulting us ever since it was born.”
Hezbollah triggered the war by crossing the Israeli border and capturing two soldiers who have not been seen or heard from since.
Nasrallah taunted Israel, saying Hezbollah had thwarted the Jewish state from achieving any of its declared objectives in the war, including freeing the captive soldiers.
“The enemy has even failed to return the two prisoners,” he said.
Nasrallah did not explicitly confirm that the two were still alive. But he said the only way to secure their freedom was through “indirect negotiations and a (prisoner) exchange” for Lebanese citizens held by Israel.
Nasrallah charged that the war was the result of “a U.S. decision” and the United States provided Israel with “political and material support.”
“There was American pressure on Israel to continue its war until the desired objectives were achieved,” he said in his address, broadcast live by Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television.
The offensive killed more than 1,000 Lebanese, most of them civilians, according to tallies by the Lebanese government, human rights groups, and The Associated Press. Hezbollah launched nearly 4,000 rockets at Israel during the war, which killed 119 Israeli soldiers and 39 civilians
Hezbollah’s critics also blame the group for prompting the current political crisis by stepping out of a coalition government.
The Hezbollah-led opposition has held street protests since Dec. 1 outside Prime Minister Fuad Saniora’s office in Beriut. It wants to force him to resign or share power in a national unity Cabinet that would give the opposition veto power.
Saniora, backed by the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority and the United States, rejects the opposition’s demand.
Rival governments could emerge if Parliament fails to elect a new president before Nov. 25, when opposition-backed President Emile Lahoud must step down. Iran and Syria back the opposition, while Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the West support the Saniora government.
Visiting French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner warned that Lebanon could face a new civil war if its feuding leaders fail to resolve the political crisis threatening to tear the country apart.
Kouchner delivered the warning on the second day of his visit for talks with Lebanon’s rival factions. France, the former colonial power, has encouraged dialogue between the Western-backed government and the Hezbollah-led opposition.
Also on Saturday, Lebanese troops pressed a 2-month-old assault on Islamic militants holed up in a Palestinian refugee camp, storming one of their hideouts and killing eight fighters in a clash, state-run media reported.
The army pounded Fatah Islam’s remaining positions with artillery, tank fire and rocket-propelled grenades, the National News Agency and witnesses said. The five-hour bombardment sent plumes of heavy black smoke up above the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon, witnesses reported.
The conflict has left more than 200 dead since it began on May 20 and has threatened to further destabilize the country.