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Hezbollah leader pledges full battle to save Assad rule

Syrian National Council president George Sabra talked with other opposition members in Istanbul on Saturday.

OZANKOSE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Syrian National Council president George Sabra talked with other opposition members in Istanbul on Saturday.

BEIRUT — The leader of the powerful Lebanese militant group Hezbollah on Saturday decisively committed his followers to an all-out battle in Syria to salvage the regime of President Bashar Assad, saying that Hezbollah was fighting abroad to “immunize” Lebanon from an Israeli invasion he said would surely follow if Syrian rebels prevailed.

“It is our battle, and we are up to it,” the leader, Hassan Nasrallah, declared, in his most direct embrace yet of a fight in Syria that Hezbollah can no longer hide now that dozens of its fighters have fallen recently in and around the strategic Syrian town of Qusair.

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Outgunned Syrian rebels have held on for a week there against a frontal assault by Hezbollah and Syrian forces.

The speech was delivered via videotape on the 13th anniversary of the end of Israel’s 15-year occupation of southern Lebanon after years of battling Hezbollah’s guerrillas, which the group considers its greatest victory.

Nasrallah seemed to be preparing his followers for the heavy price in lives and political capital that the organization could pay as it embarks on an unprecedented intervention in a neighboring country, a move that could deeply destabilize Lebanon.

Nasrallah promised his supporters victory and evoked Hezbollah’s tenacity during its 2006 war with Israel — signaling that the organization considered the fight in Syria as important as its founding mission, opposing Israel and driving it out of Lebanon.

The speech came as Hezbollah and Syrian forces intensified their assault on Syrian rebels in Qusair, unleashing the heaviest shelling since the battle began a week ago, Syrian antigovernment activists said.

Syrian opposition activists said that they believed government forces and Hezbollah had ratcheted up the attacks in an attempt to allow Hezbollah to claim victory, or at least success on the battlefield, before Nasrallah’s speech.

“Hezbollah wants to score points and successes to justify the death of its soldiers in Syria,” said Rami Abdulrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group based in Britain that tracks the violence through a network of contacts inside Syria.

Hezbollah’s fighters have suffered unexpected losses in Qusair, reportedly numbering in the dozens, as the tenacity of the rebels has surprised Syrian government supporters and opponents alike who expected the outgunned rebels there to fall quickly.

George Sabra, the acting head of the Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition group in Syria, was among those criticizing Hezbollah’s deepening role in the war.

The death toll in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli rose to 29 in the worst sectarian clashes in years that are widely seen as spurred by the Qusair fighting. Hezbollah’s Sunni rivals in Lebanon support the Syrian rebels.

In Qusair, rocket and artillery attacks killed 22 people, wounded dozens, and destroyed houses and buildings where some civilians are still living, Abdulrahman said.

An opposition media activist, Hadi Abdullah, who often films himself at the front lines, described the fighting in messages on Twitter. “Al Qusair is getting destroyed and completely burned. Hundreds of shells and rockets in all types are falling nonstop on us,” he wrote. “Houses are burning and destroyed.”

Other antigovernment activists posted a 45-minute video on YouTube showing nonstop shelling and bombing in what seemed like a lifeless city.

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