Thousands of Shi'ite Hezbollah supporters greeted the president of Iran in Lebanon's "capital of the resistance" on Thursday, saying his visit was a victory for the guerrilla group over Israel.
For long a front line in conflicts with Israel, most recently in 2006, Bint Jbeil was an ideal place for Hezbollah to host its main Shi'ite ally, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a sworn enemy of Israel who has called for the state to be wiped off the map.
Families of "martyrs" who fought Israel, Shi'ites from throughout Lebanon and even abroad, said they turned out in force and defiance to show Israel, a mere 4 km (3 miles) away, that they would never be cowed by its military superiority.
The Hezbollah stronghold of Bint Jbeil bore the brunt of Israeli air raids during Israel's war with the guerrilla group four years ago. About 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 158 Israelis, mostly soldiers, were killed in the war.
"This visit is so important, especially for the strong, victorious people of the south," Kafa al-Samra, a 40-year-old woman from the border village of Kfar Kila, said at a packed stadium shortly before Ahmadinejad addressed the boisterous, flag-waving crowd.
"We are still at the beginning of the road, the first was in 2000, then in 2006, and this is the latest. The last victory will be when we eradicate Israel and pray in [Jerusalem's] Aqsa mosque," she said, referring to when prolonged guerrilla attacks forced Israel to withdraw from the south in 2000.
South Lebanon's Shi'ites, politically marginalised in the early years of Lebanese statehood, have seen their influence steadily grow since Iranian-backed Hezbollah was formed nearly three decades ago.
Many southern Lebanese said they were grateful for Iran's recent support, especially in post-war aid. Officials close to Hezbollah say Iran has contributed about e1 billion in aid.
Others said Iranian military support would be vital in any future confrontation with Israel, which they believed was inevitable.
"I am here to greet him because he has helped us with money and weapons. Nobody has stood by the resistance except for Iran," said Ali Tabboush, 35, who travelled from Saudi Arabia to attend the rally.
While Ahmadinejad took pains to frame his trip as one that benefited of all of Lebanon, his visit to the Shi'ite-dominated south had a more specific audience.
The main highway to the south was lined with Iranian flags, and anti-Israeli phrases by Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. "Israel is a cancerous tumor" and "Israel is pure evil" were printed on billboards. Fruit sellers sold Iranian flags.
At the stadium, pictures of Hezbollah guerrillas in war fatigues firing missiles and pictures of the Al-Aqsa mosque lined the venue, situated in the midst of newly built homes draped with Iranian flags.
Samra summed up the mood of the gathering: "We and Iran are two souls in one body."
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