Page last updated at 19:21 GMT, Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Hezbollah woos crowds at Ashura rally

By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Beirut

Lebanese Shia women take part in the Ashura procession in Beirut
The procession was held in Hezbollah's stronghold in Beirut's suburbs

In Lebanon, this year's Ashura procession turned into a massive show of support for the Palestinians in Gaza.

Tens of thousands of Hezbollah supporters filled the streets of the southern suburbs of the capital Beirut to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein.

From the early morning, men and women, the elderly and children came to the streets dressed in black.

Many sat on the pavements, with their heads buried in their hands as they rocked to the chants of the mullahs, who recited the story of Imam Hussein's death through the loudspeakers installed across the streets.

Young boys in red shirts whipped themselves in mourning for Imam Hussein - the martyred grandson of the Prophet Mohammad.

Nasrallah's warning

Ashura, which marks the end of a 10-day festival is the most important, and the most dramatic event in Shia Islam.

A crowd listens to Hassan Nasrallah's message in Beirut
Hassan Nassrallah said Hezbollah was ready for any Israeli aggression

Across the world, millions of Shias still relate to the ancient celebration of martyrdom of the man who died in the 7th Century.

For Hezbollah, Ashura was also a chance to rally its supporters.

As the morning procession came to an end, the group's military band marched through the crowds, and Hezbollah security guards - equipped with walkie-talkies - ushered thousands towards the square in the heart of the southern suburbs of Beirut.

As the square filled up, all eyes focused on a huge screen installed in the centre. Men and women clapped and shouted in excitement as their leader, Hassan Nassrallah, appeared on the screen.

The Hezbollah leader does not appear in public because of security concerns, but his message via videolink on Wednesday was harsh and clear.

He spoke openly about the possibility of a renewed conflict with Israel.

Hezbollah was ready for any aggression and Israel, he said, would pay a heavy price if it decided to attack.

He called on Arab leaders who had made peace with Israel to cut all relations.

In militant mood

Hezbollah says it has already put its fighters on high alert along the Lebanese-Israeli border.

Hezbollah supporter with a child in Beirut
The memories of the 2006 war are still fresh in Lebanon

In 2006, Hezbollah's fighters fought a devastating war with Israel. And during the Ashura celebrations in Beirut, many young people said they were ready to take up arms again.

"I have come from Australia to fight Israel," said one young man who did not want to be identified. "We are ready for this war."

Here in Lebanon, the memories of the 2006 war are still fresh and, as the news comes of civilian casualties in Gaza, the mood among Hezbollah supporters has become increasingly militant.

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