Hero's welcome in Lebanon for Iranian leader
by Mohamad Ali Harissi Mohamad Ali Harissi – Wed Oct 13, 3:40 pm ET
BEIRUT (AFP) – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad received a hero's welcome on Wednesday on his first official visit to Lebanon, where he hailed the country's resistance against Israeli "aggression."
The hardline leader was showered with rice and rose petals by tens of thousands of Hezbollah supporters who lined the streets and waved Iranian flags as his motorcade made its way from the airport to the presidential palace.
The two–day trip is viewed as a boost for the Shiite militant Hezbollah but has prompted criticism by members of Lebanon's pro–Western parliamentary majority who see it as a bid to turn the country into "an Iranian base on the Mediterranean."
The United States and Israel have also expressed concern, with the White House deeming the official visit "provocative" and Israeli officials saying it marked Lebanon's transformation into an "extremist state."
"We reject any efforts to destabilise or inflame tensions within Lebanon," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday in Kosovo.
"We would hope that no visitor would do anything or say anything that would give cause to greater tension or instability in that country."
At a press conference with Lebanese counterpart Michel Sleiman, Ahmadinejad hailed Lebanon's resistance against the "Zionist regime" and offered his country's backing toward that end.
"We fully support the resistance of the Lebanese people against the Zionist regime and we want full liberation of occupied territory in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine," he said.
"As long as (Israeli) aggression exists in the region, we will not see stability," he added.
A beaming Ahmadinejad later appeared at a rally in the Hezbollah–controlled southern suburb of Beirut, waving to a rapturous crowd of tens of thousands before taking his seat next to the militant party's deputy commander Naim Qassem.
Chanting "death to America" and "death to Israel," Hezbollah supporters turned out en masse to welcome Ahmadinejad, whose country is a major financial, military and ideological supporter of their militant Shiite group.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, whose party fought a devastating war with Israel in 2006, on Wednesday echoed Iran's call for Israel to disappear.
"President Ahmadinejad is right when he says Israel is illegitimate and should cease to exist," Nasrallah told the ecstatic crowd via video link.
Ahmadinejad, who has called Israel a "tumour" and has denied the Holocaust, repeated at the rally assertions that the Jewish state's downfall was inevitable.
"The Zionist regime will continue its downfall and no power can save it because of the resistance in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Turkey, Iran and the rest of the region", he vowed.
The rally was held at an outdoor stadium where Iranian flags and photos of Ahmadinejad were hoisted alongside two life–sized pictures of overturned Israeli Merkava tanks.
"Iran is the heartbeat of the resistance," said Hussein Khawi, 50, who was at the rally. "Israel won't dare come near south Lebanon anymore."
Ahmadinejad's first visit since his election in 2005 highlights the clout Iran wields in Lebanon through Hezbollah and comes at a sensitive time in politically turbulent Lebanon.
Hezbollah is locked in a standoff with Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri over unconfirmed reports that a UN–backed tribunal is set to indict members of the Shiite militant group over the 2005 assassination of Hariri's father, ex–premier Rafiq Hariri.
Tensions over the tribunal have grown steadily in recent weeks, raising fears of renewed sectarian violence and the collapse of Lebanon's hard–fought national unity government.
At the Beirut rally, Ahmadinejad made a passing remark defending Hezbollah.
"In Lebanon, a friend and patriot was viciously assassinated," he said in reference to Rafiq Hariri.
Western countries "are trying to sow sedition and conflict... by manipulating the media to accuse our friends (Hezbollah) and fulfill their aims in the region," he added.
The highlight of Ahmadinejad's trip comes on Thursday when he will be just a few kilometres (miles) away from the Israeli border as he tours southern villages destroyed during the 2006 conflict.
Iran has been a major donor in the reconstruction of southern Lebanon following the month–long 2006 war, and Ahmadinejad is also set to receive a hero's welcome in the area.
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