Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was welcomed on Wednesday by thousands of Lebanese - mostly Hezbollah supporters - in a visit that underscores the deep divisions between the Shiite militant group and the country's pro-Western factions.
During a news conference with Lebanese President Michael Suleiman, Ahmadinejad said he was a friend of all Lebanese, and emphasized the need to fight Israel.
"We seek a unified, modern Lebanon, and we stand by the Lebanese government and
people," he said.
He said both Lebanon and Iran oppose the occupation and aggression and the crimes committed by the "Zionist enemy" and those who support it.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the Ahmadinejad visit is intentionally provocative. "It is quite clear that he is the bearer of a violent message. He comes to a highly volatile region with the intention to play with fire," he said.
"It emphasizes that a state within a state has emerged in Lebanon over the last few years, referring obviously to the Hezbollah state," he added. "It seems that after he stole votes in Tehran, he is now coming here to steal the whole country."
Ahmadinejad gets hero's welcome in Lebanon
Representatives from Hezbollah and several pro-U.S. factions attended as Suleiman welcomed Ahmadinejad at the presidential palace. The outspoken leader is expected to meet with a number of public figures and dignitaries during his visit, including Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Thousands of Lebanese lined the main highway into the capital from Beirut's airport, where Ahmadinejad arrived Wednesday. Many waved Lebanese and Iranian flags, and giant posters of Ahmadinejad towered over the road, while loudspeakers blasted anthems and women in the crowd sold Hezbollah flags and balloons to onlookers.
The crowd broke into cheers and threw sweets as the motorcade slowly passed, and Ahmadinejad stood and waved from the sunroof of his SUV.
Ahmadinejad will tour the Shi'ite Dahiya neighborhood of Beirut and is expected to visit southern Lebanon. He is also due to give a speech in Bint Jbail, the site of one of the most well-known battles waged between Israel and Hezbollah during the Second Lebanon War.
Israeli defense officials said they believe Ahmadinejad will use his visit to Lebanon to demonstrate support for Hezbollah and hurl insults at Israel, but that the trip is not intended to ignite another round of violence in the region.
In the build-up to Ahmadinejad's arrival, signs and banners both for and against the visit have been hoisted across the country. Pictures of Ahmadinejad with a large X superimposed over his face can be seen in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, indicating he is not welcome there. In Shi'ite-dominated areas, however, photos of the Iranian president as well as spiritual leaders in Tehran have been disseminated. The roadways connecting Beirut's international airport with the city center, and major highways in the south, have been adorned with Iranian flags.
Samir Geagea, a prominent Christian political leader known for his anti-Hezbollah stance, said Ahmadinejad would be welcome in Lebanon if he came as the president of Iran, and not as the president of parts of Lebanon.
During Ahmadinejad's visit, Lebanese authorities are banning the screening of a documentary produced by an Iranian filmmaker that chronicles Iran's opposition movement.
The tension surrounding the visit is compounded by concerns about the ramifications of the release of the final report to be issued by the UN-appointed tribunal investigating the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the slain leader's son, made a lightning trip to Cairo on Monday for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. In light of the hostile relations between Tehran and Cairo, the move was seen as part of Hariri's effort to challenge Iran and Hezbollah.
After the Hariri-Mubarak talks, a spokesperson for the Egyptian leader said Cairo supports the tribunal investigating the assassination.
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