Sept. 18 (Bloomberg) -- Tens of thousands of supporters of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah filled the streets of Beirut to denounce the U.S. for an anti-Islamic film.
Many waved the group’s yellow flag as they chanted, “America, America, you are the greatest Satan” and “Israel, Israel, you’re the enemy of Muslims.”
The protest yesterday followed a call by Hassan Nasrallah, the chief of the pro-Iranian militant group. Making a rare public appearance at the protest, Nasrallah told the crowds to deafening cheers: “We will not remain silent over the insult to our prophet.”
The film, which the U.S. has described as “very offensive,” last week triggered violent demonstrations and attacks on U.S. and European targets across the Muslim world. U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three colleagues were killed in an attack in Benghazi, while Muslim protesters in Tunis and elsewhere died in clashes with government security forces.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the protests in many instances were a test for the new, elected leaders who have taken office in the wake of the Arab Spring democracy movement.
Mideast governments have demonstrated “a lot of will to protect us, but may have overestimated their ability,” Nuland said. That has led to high-level conversations to address the need to improve security, she said.
“We can’t abandon these people now, particularly as they’re facing extremism in their midst,” Nuland said. “That’s all the more reason we have to work with them.”
Egypt has taken steps to safeguard the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, so “we are feeling much better about the security now,” Nuland said.
The U.S. Embassy in Lebanon yesterday said it had received reports indicating an increased possibility of attacks against American citizens and urged them to take additional security measures. In a statement posted on its website, the embassy said dangers include kidnapping and “the potential for an upsurge in violence.”
The Hezbollah protesters marched in southern Beirut, while the U.S. Embassy is in a suburb north of the city.
Nasrallah said the protests will continue until the film is removed from the Internet and the people responsible for it are held accountable. He said the U.S. should understand that the broadcast of the film in its entirety will have “grave” repercussions worldwide.
Nasrallah said Internet sites that broadcast the film should be boycotted and that Islamic governments should pressure the international community to issue laws that criminalize insults to religions.
He said the failure of the Muslim community to act would keep the door open for “new films and new insults.” Yesterday’s protest is the beginning of a “serious” movement to defend the Prophet Muhammad, Nasrallah said.
Last week, the U.S. imposed financial sanctions against Nasrallah for aiding Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. Hezbollah is designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and Israel.
Lebanese President Michel Sleiman instructed Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour to prepare a proposal for a law that would be submitted at the Arab League that would criminalize insults to religions, the official National News Agency said. He said reactions to the film should be “peaceful and civilized,” the agency said.
Demonstrations were also held in Asia. In Indonesia, about 400 protesters clashed with police outside the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta. Police fired tear gas when the demonstrators started throwing rocks at officers outside the embassy, spokesman Rikwanto, who goes by only one name, said by telephone yesterday.
Police in Pakistan’s central city of Lahore resorted to baton charging and fired tear-gas shells after protesters tried to storm the U.S. consulate by scaling its main gates, according to a telecast by Express TV.
In Libya, the armed Islamist group linked by Libyan officials to the killing of Stevens in the attack on the U.S. consulate denied involvement, even as it blamed the U.S. for allowing the release of the anti-Islamic film and failing to evacuate its consulate.
“We completely and categorically deny involvement,” Youseff El Gehani, spokesman for the Ansar al-Sharia brigade, said yesterday in an interview at a Benghazi hotel. “The embassy knew how sensitive it was to allow that film, they should have evacuated. If America wants respect in the Arab world, it should avoid spilling blood in places such as Syria and Afghanistan, and avoid insulting the prophet.”
Libya’s de-facto head of state, Mohammed Magariaf, said in an interview that elements of the al-Sharia brigade were involved in the consulate attack, citing intelligence intercepts shown to him by U.S. officials.