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Originally published Monday, September 25, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Christian leader rips Hezbollah

An anti-Syrian Christian leader dismissed Hezbollah's claims of victory in its war with Israel as tens of thousands of his supporters rallied...

The Associated Press

BEIRUT, Lebanon — An anti-Syrian Christian leader dismissed Hezbollah's claims of victory in its war with Israel as tens of thousands of his supporters rallied Sunday in a show of strength that highlighted Lebanon's sharp divisions.

The rally north of Beirut came two days after a massive gathering by the rival Shiite Muslim Hezbollah that attracted hundreds of thousands. The two sides have been at odds over the future of the Lebanese government since this summer's Israeli-Hezbollah war.

Samir Geagea, a former leader of a Christian militia, scoffed at Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah's declaration that his guerrillas achieved "a victory" against Israel.

"I don't feel victory, because the majority of the Lebanese people do not feel victory. Rather, they feel that a major catastrophe had befallen them and made their present and future uncertain," he said.

Hezbollah's fight with Israel sent its support soaring among Shiites. But a large sector — particularly among Christians and Sunni Muslims — opposes Hezbollah and resents it for provoking the monthlong fight by capturing two Israeli soldiers July 12.

The war killed hundreds of Lebanese and left part of the country's infrastructure in ruins, causing billions of dollars in damage to the economy.

Geagea, who served more than a decade in prison on multiple counts of murder dating to the 1975-90 civil war, backs the Western-leaning government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. His party is a member of the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority.

Geagea's supporters, waving his pictures and the white, red and green flag of his Lebanese Forces Party, arrived in buses and cars at the shrine of the Virgin Mary in Harissa, 15 miles north of Beirut.

Addressing his supporters after a mass to commemorate Christian militiamen killed in the civil war, Geagea rejected Nasrallah's vow to keep his weapons, saying the guerrilla group was blocking the establishment of "a strong and capable [Lebanese] state" for which Nasrallah was calling.

"When we find a solution to [the issue of Hezbollah's] weapons, then it will be possible to establish the state as it should be," he said.

Geagea, who backs Hezbollah's disarmament, implicitly accused the Iranian- and Syrian-backed group of running "a state within a state" in south Lebanon.

Nasrallah vowed at a massive rally Friday in Beirut's southern suburbs not to disarm despite international pressure. Some 800,000 supporters cheered at the gathering to celebrate what Hezbollah called "a divine victory" against Israel in the 34-day war that ended Aug. 14.

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Nasrallah also called for the formation of a new government, repeatedly attacking Saniora's administration, which he called weak and unable to protect Lebanon from Israel.

Hezbollah's push for a stronger political role could deepen tensions in a country divided over the war.

Geagea rejected Nasrallah's call for a new government, defending Saniora's administration. Despite "some loopholes and defects," it is for the first time "a Lebanese, sovereign and independent one," he said.

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