New York Times: Ahmadinejad Makes State Visit to Lebanon


BEIRUT, Lebanon — President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran arrived here on Wednesday morning and was given an ecstatic welcome by supporters of Hezbollah, the militant Shiite movement his country backs. Thousands of cheering supporters thronged the road that leads from Beirut’s airport to the city, waving Iranian flags, throwing flowers, and chanting greetings in Persian as Mr. Ahmadinejad’s convoy slowly passed.

It is the Iranian president’s first state visit here since he was first elected in 2005, and it comes at a time of rising tension between Hezbollah and its political rivals. The Shiite group has been waging a campaign against the international tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, which is expected to indict several of the Shiite group’s members.

Hezbollah’s leaders have warned of disastrous consequences if that happens. They see the tribunal as an Israeli plot aimed at discrediting them and have pressured other factions to publicly disavow it. Even without indictments, some fear the tensions could lead to violence or the collapse of Lebanon’s tenuous unity government, in which Hezbollah and its allies wield veto power.

American officials voiced their disapproval last week of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s visit, which seems timed to embolden Hezbollah and underscore Tehran’s broader influence in Lebanon.

After his arrival, Mr. Ahmadinejad appeared at a news conference alongside the Lebanese president, Michel Suleiman, announcing several bilateral agreements on energy, water, and other issues. Iran, which has long provided arms and training to Hezbollah, has also offered repeatedly to help equip the Lebanese Army if the United States cuts off its military aid here. Iranian money was crucial to the rebuilding effort after the 2006 war with Israel, an array of reconstruction projects directed by Hezbollah but whose benefits — apartment blocks and roads — were not limited to its followers.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s trip had all the trappings of a typical state visit by a foreign leader, including news conferences, a formal lunch, and meetings with leaders of Lebanon’s various sectarian communities. But he was also hailed by many in the Shiite community — Lebanon’s largest — as something different: a heroic patron of the struggle against Israel. On Wednesday evening, he delivered a speech at a vast Hezbollah rally in Beirut’s southern suburb in which he railed against Israel as tens of thousands of supporters roared their approval. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah also spoke by video link, thanking Iran for its support and calling for Israel to be “wiped out of existence.”

On Thursday, the Iranian president plans to visit southern Lebanon — near the Israeli border — in a trip aimed at highlighting Iranian support for Hezbollah’s armed struggle with Israel. The Israeli daily Haaretz reported that Israel had asked the United States, France, and the United Nations to pass on the message that it viewed Mr. Ahmadinejad’s planned visit to southern Lebanon as a provocation.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s visit follows several other recent diplomatic missions to Lebanon, which has long been a battleground for regional powers. In August, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria met in Beirut in a rare show of unity. The Saudi king’s involvement was widely seen as an effort to legitimize greater Syrian influence in Lebanon, and over Hezbollah, in the hopes of countering Iran’s role here.

But Damascus has shown no sign that it will distance itself from Tehran, or modify its policies here. Earlier this month a Syrian judge issued arrest warrants for 33 Lebanese officials, including some close allies of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, saying they had misled the tribunal’s investigation. The Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, has disparaged the tribunal, adding to the pressure on Mr. Hariri and his allies.

As the Iranian president’s motorcade passed on Wednesday morning, a black-clad elderly Shiite woman who gave her name only as Um Ali — the mother of Ali — waved an Iranian flag as she stood in a thick crowd of admirers, many of them women. “He rebuilt Lebanon, we welcome him here in his second country,” she said. “God willing, we will have an Islamic republic in Lebanon.

Nearby, a group of butchers was preparing to slaughter 2 camels and 10 sheep in Mr. Ahmadinejad’s honor. “He’s an important guest, he deserves an important gift,” said Amir Salim, as he cleared the crowds away so that they would not be stained with the animals’ blood.

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