With the long-awaited Syrian troop withdrawal under way, the future balance of power in Lebanon will be determined in the coming weeks as the country's rival political factions begin to jostle for influence and position.
With the anti-Syrian opposition having dominated the headlines over the past three weeks, it was the turn Tuesday of the pro-Syrian camp.
Lebanon's Shiite Hizbullah organization spearheaded a massive rally in central Beirut that drew at least 500,000 demonstrators who protested Western interference in Lebanon and denounced the UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for a withdrawal of foreign forces.
The huge crowds packed central Beirut and dwarfed recent anti-Syrian rallies, sending a powerful message to the Lebanese opposition and the international community that the Shiite party is a political force to be reckoned with.
"Now we see that the majority of Shiites are behind Hizbullah and if we want to talk about democracy and people power, we are witnessing this," says Amal Saad Ghorayeb, a professor of politics at the Lebanese-American University and author of "Hizbullah: Politics and Religion."
"What does the US have to say about that, Hizbullah will ask, 'Is the US going to turn around and say ... that's the kind of democracy we are not interested in?' This is the double-edged sword that a lot of people have been cautioning the US about."
Last month's assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister, sparked unprecedented protests calling on Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon. Stunned by the rapid pace of events, the outpouring of public sentiment, and the resignation of the Lebanese government last week, the pro-Syrians in Beirut, as well as Damascus, scrambled for a response.
Hizbullah, which commands a broad following among Lebanese Shiites and is the only party with an armed wing, was initially guarded, stressing national unity and dialogue with the opposition.
But the day after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced on Saturday in Damascus a two-stage redeployment of Syrian forces from Lebanon, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah's secretary-general, publicly outlined his party's position for the first time since Mr. Hariri's murder. Accepting a Syrian disengagement as inevitable, Mr. Nasrallah focused on the idea of allowing Syria to withdraw with "honor" under the terms of the 1989 Taif Accord, which helped end the 1975-1990 civil war, rather than being forced out by the demands of Resolution 1559.
When Nasrallah spoke Tuesday to the throngs of Hizbullah supporters he said he had a message for President Bush. At mention of the president, the crowd interrupted with boos. Quieting them down, he said, "You are wrong on Lebanon. Lebanon is above humiliation, above being divided, above dying. Lebanon will not change its name, history, nor identity nor will we remove our skins and throw our hearts to the dogs."
"We want to keep our special relationship with Syria, we want the resistance, we want the return of the [Palestinian] refugees [to their former homes] and we reject 1559," he said.
In Washington Tuesday, Mr. Bush demanded once again that Syria remove its troops from Lebanon and allow free elections. "All Syrian military forces and intelligence personnel must withdraw before the Lebanese elections for these elections to be free and fair.... Freedom will prevail in Lebanon," Bush said in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington.
As Bush spoke, the crowds in Beirut chanted "Beirut is free, America out" a few hundred yards from Martyrs' Square, the scene of daily anti-Syrian demonstrations.
They carried pictures of President Assad and banners reading, "No to 1559, Yes to Resistance," as well as Lebanese national flags. Not a single Hizbullah flag could be spotted, underlining the party's effort to portray the event as a national gathering rather than a political rally.
Hizbullah is maneuvering to ensure that Lebanon stays within the pro-Syria, anti-Israel, anti-American orbit as symbolized by the Taif Accord, analysts say. It regards Resolution 1559's call for the dismantling of Hizbullah's military as a threat to the organization and risks opening up Lebanon to unwanted Western political influence.
"Resolution 1559 contradicts the principles of the Lebanese ... We believe it is extremely dangerous to Taif," says Mustafa Haj Ali, a member of Hizbullah's political council.
Hizbullah employed its organizational skills to transport thousands of party supporters from south Lebanon to Beirut. Although the crowd dwarfed the recent anti-Syrian rallies, adding to the protest were thousands of Syrians bused in across the border overnight. Lebanon's Future TV station, which was owned by Hariri and leads anti-Syrian media coverage, interviewed several Syrians, asking why they were attending the rally. "We are here to support our Lebanese brothers and to support President Assad," said one Syrian.
The sight of Syrians helping make up the numbers for what was billed as a Lebanese demonstration will not have gone unnoticed by the opposition here and undermined the nationalist message conveyed by Hizbullah, some say.
"This is a dark moment for Hizbullah," says Michael Young, a Lebanese political analyst who sympathizes with the Lebanese opposition. "They are being used by Syria as enforcers. They can claim as much as they want that it's not against the opposition, but in reality its being perceived as a threat."
But other analysts saw the rally as a tactical maneuver by Hizbullah as political factions begin to vie for positions after Syrian withdrawal.
"We are just at the stage now where people are beginning to put their cards on the table," says Rami Khouri, editor at large for Beirut's English-language Daily Star newspaper. "The first three weeks were dominated by the opposition because of the emotional high and the real anger that was expressed.... We will find out in the next 10 days or two weeks the real balance of forces here."
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this article.