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An anti-Syrian Christian leader dismissed Hizbullah'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 just two days after a massive gathering by Hizbullah that attracted hundreds of thousands. The two sides have been at sharp odds over the future of the Lebanese government ever since this summer's Israeli-Hizbullah war.
Samir Geagea, a Christian former warlord, scoffed at Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah's declaration that his guerrillas achieved "a victory" against Israel in the war.
"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.
Hizbullah's fight with Israel sent its support soaring among Shi'ites. But a large sector - particularly among Christians and Sunnis - opposes Hizbullah and resents it for provoking the month-long fight by capturing two Israeli soldiers on July 12.
The war killed hundreds of Lebanese civilians and left part of the country's infrastructure in ruins, causing billions of dollars in damage to the economy.
Geagea, the former leader of a Christian militia who was only released from prison last year after serving more than a decade on multiple counts of murder dating to the 1975-90 civil war, backs the Western-leaning government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora.
The rally followed an annual mass to commemorate Christian militiamen - "martyrs" killed during the bloody sectarian conflict.
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 the town of Harissa, 27 kilometers north of Beirut.
The former warlord, whose party is a member of the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority, had not attended the annual mass for 12 years because of his imprisonment.
Addressing his supporters after the mass, Geagea rejected Nasrallah's vow to keep his weapons, saying the 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 Hizbullah's) weapons, then it will be possible to establish the state as it should be," he said.
Geagea, who strongly backs Hizbullah's disarmament, implicitly accused the Iranian- and Syrian-backed group of running "a state within a state" in south Lebanon.
"How can a state be established while there is a mini-state (within its borders)? How can this state be established while every day arms and ammunitions are smuggled (to Hizbullah) under (the state's) nose?" he said.
Hizbullah's push for a stronger political role could deepen tensions in a country already sharply 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.
Syria dominated Lebanon for nearly three decades, before it withdrew its troops last year under heavy international pressure following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Syria is accused of involvement in Hariri's death, which it denies.
Geagea was arrested in April 1994 and his group was banned, after a church bombing killed 10 people. He was later acquitted in the bombing but sentenced to three life terms on several other murder counts, including the killing of pro-Syrian Prime Minister Rashid Karami.
Geagea served 11 years in prison before he was released in July 2005, after Lebanon's parliament approved a motion to pardon him.
He led the Lebanese Forces - the country's most powerful Christian militia during the Lebanese civil war. Israel backed his militia during the war, and during the Israeli invasion in 1982 to expel Palestinian guerrillas.