IRANIAN President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad received a hero’s welcome overnight 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 seen as a key boost for the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, but has prompted criticism by members of Lebanon’s pro-Western parliamentary majority who see it as a bid to portray the country as “an Iranian base on the Mediterranean”.
The United States and Israel have also expressed concern, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton overnight, denouncing any effort to undermine Lebanon’s sovereignty.
“We reject any efforts to destabilise or inflame tensions within Lebanon,” Mrs Clinton said 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.”
Israeli officials also slammed the visit, saying it marked Lebanon’s transformation into an “extremist state”.
“The Ahmadinejad visit signifies the completion of the transformation of Lebanon into an Iranian client,” a senior Israeli government official said.
“As such Lebanon has joined the axis of extremist states that oppose peace and support terror,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity
At a press conference with his Lebanese counterpart Michel Sleiman, Mr 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 said.
Mr Ahmadinejad was to appear later in the evening at a rally with Hezbollah’s reclusive leader Hassan Nasrallah, whose party is considered a proxy of Iran and fought a devastating war with Israel in 2006.
The rally was being held at a stadium in Hezbollah’s stronghold in Beirut’s southern suburbs, which were adorned with Iranian flags and photos of Mr Ahmadinejad.
Inside the stadium two huge pictures of overturned Israeli Merkava tanks were on display alongside a photo of a crying Israeli soldier bearing the message “Israel has fallen”.
Video footage of the 2006 war was broadcast on a giant screen.
“Iran is the heartbeat of the resistance,” said Hussein Khawi, 50, who was among thousands who turned out for the rally. “Israel won’t dare come near south Lebanon anymore.”
Said Hajj Hussein, a 65-year-old Lebanese who resides in Canada: “I came to thank Ahmadinejad for what he offered us.
“Iran stands by us and that means victory is ours.”
Mr 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.
The climax of Mr Ahmadinejad’s trip comes today when he will be just a few kilometres away from the Israeli border as he tours southern villages destroyed during the 2006 conflict.
He is set to stop in Bint Jbeil, a Hezbollah bastion devastated during the war, and in Qana, targeted in 1996 and again in 2006 by deadly Israeli air strikes.
Iran has been a major donor in the reconstruction of southern Lebanon following the month-long 2006 war, and Mr Ahmadinejad is set to receive a hero’s welcome in the area.