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Hezbollah rejects weapons call

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Anti-Syrian protesters flood the streets of Beirut, Lebanon.

Syria and Lebanon announce the pullback of Syrian troops.

(CNN) -- The head of militant Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah has said it will not give up its armed resistance, despite calls for it to join the mainstream political process in Lebanon.

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah made the statement in an interview with Hezbollah's al-Manar television a day after U.S. President George W. Bush suggested the group disarm and move out of the way of efforts being made towards Middle East peace.

"I'm holding on to the weapons of the resistance because I think the resistance ... is the best formula to protect Lebanon and to deter any Israeli aggression," Nasrallah said, according to a Reuters news report.

Hezbollah's weapons would only be used against Israel and not internally in Lebanon, the Sheikh said.

"Hezbollah's arms will not be used domestically. Their only role is against Israel," he said.

Hezbollah, designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, is an official political party in Lebanon and was the only militia left intact by the 1989 Taif accord, which ended Lebanon's 15-year civil war and authorized the presence of Syrian troops to help stabilize the war-torn country.

While reiterating his administration's condemnation of the group, Bush said he hoped Hezbollah would change.

"We view Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and I hope that Hezbollah would prove that they're not by laying down arms and not threatening peace," he said.

A senior administration official described the president's statements as a "softening of the language, not a shift in policy."

The official said Hezbollah would have to "disarm, renounce terror, and abandon any support for terrorism" if it wanted to "play a constructive role in Lebanon."

Only then, the official said, would the United States be willing to deal with Hezbollah as a legitimate political organization.

The call for Hezbollah to abandon its ways and join Lebanon's political mainstream was seen by some observers as an acknowledgment by the Bush administration that, even if Syrian forces withdraw and Lebanon had free elections, the immense support from the Lebanese and Syrians for Hezbollah means the group was there to stay, the official said.

The administration's strategy was to signal to the Lebanese people that it recognizes this reality, but make it clear that Hezbollah must change fundamentally, the official said.

"First things first," the official said. "Syria must get out and Lebanon must have unfettered elections, then Hezbollah must disarm. ... There is no place for an armed militia in a democratic society."

Hezbollah organized a huge, pro-Syria rally last week in the Lebanese capital of Beirut. (Full story)

The move followed weeks of demonstrations against Syrian troops in Lebanon after last month's assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Bush has called for Syrian troops to withdraw from Lebanon before the country's May elections, and a U.N. resolution also seeks those forces' immediate withdrawal.

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