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Middle east

Iranian leader backs united Lebanon on state visit

Video by Lucy FIELDER

Text by FRANCE 24 (with wires)

Latest update : 2010-10-13

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Wednesday his country backed a united Lebanon after arriving to a rapturous welcome in Beirut for a controversial two-day visit.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began Wednesday a two-day official visit to Lebanon, where he was warmly greeted by thousands of Lebanese. A crowd of mainly Shiite Hezbollah supporters gathered along the highway leading to Beirut airport, waving the colours of Iran. Balloons and posters of the Iranian head of state fluttered along the route, which passes through Beirut’s Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs.

"Hezbollah’s supporters welcomed Ahmadinejad like a hero, throwing rice on him, jostling to see the presidential motorcade advancing," said Isabelle Dellerba, FRANCE 24's correspondent in Lebanon. The Iranian president spent a long time waving to the crowd, in "an incredible and unprecedented scene for a foreign head of state visiting Lebanon," she added.

Upon his arrival in Beirut, he was welcomed by members of parliament, two Hezbollah ministers in the national unity government and Nabih Berri, the Shiite speaker of parliament and a Hezbollah ally. He then headed towards the presidential palace of Baabda, near Beirut, to an official welcome by Lebanese President Michel Sleiman, a Maronite Christian.

‘A unified Lebanon’

"We support a strong and unified Lebanon. We will always back the Lebanese government and its nation," he said, standing alongside Sleiman. Significant economic cooperation agreements should be signed by both parties, particularly in energy.

Ahmadinejad then delivered a speech at a rally in a Hezbollah stronghold in southern Beirut.

The rally was organised at an outdoor stadium where Iranian flags and photos of Ahmadinejad were hoisted alongside two life-sized pictures of overturned Israeli Merkava tanks.

Ahmadinejad reiterated his claim that the 9/11 attacks in New York had in fact been orchestrated by the United States; and also predicted the destruction of Israel.

Hezbollah’s secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah appeared at the rally via video-link. "President Ahmadinejad is right when he says Israel is illegitimate and should cease to exist," Nasrallah told the crowd.

The Iranian leader also defended Hezbollah in the case of murdered former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

Hezbollah is locked in a standoff with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Rafiq Hariri's son, over unconfirmed reports that an UN-backed tribunal is set to indict members of the Shiite militant group over the 2005 assassination of his father.

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.

"They (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.

A controversial visit

But the Iranian leader is far from being unanimously welcomed in Beirut. When this first official visit was confirmed in August, it sparked a controversy among political leaders and divided Lebanese public opinion.

"This visit can only damage the image of Lebanon, which is receiving a head of state who is in open conflict with the international community and is rejected even within his country after a disputed re-election," said Samir Frangie to France24.com. Frangie is a former MP and a member of the majority political alliance in Lebanon’s parliament.

On Thursday Ahmadinejad is due to visit the Hezbollah stronghold in southern Lebanon, near the border with Israel. "The Iranian president will spend a lot of time with Hezbollah, the Shiite party that Iran supports militarily, financially and ideologically. Together they should reaffirm their commitment to continue fighting against Israel," said FRANCE 24's Dellerba.

This gesture is seen as a "provocation" by the Lebanese parliamentary majority. "His presence near the border looks like a provocation, and the Jewish state can use the visit to strike a blow to [Lebanon’s] stability," said Frangie.

Hezbollah certainly does not see things the same way. "The Iranian president's visit is proof of the friendship and support that Tehran gives to Lebanon, be it to the resistance, the military or to institutions," declared Hezbollah’s number two Naim Kassem, on Monday. Founded in 1982 under the leadership of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to fight the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon, the "party of God" has never hidden its affiliation with the Iranian regime.

'Ahmadinejad is not an ordinary president'

Despite the withdrawal of Israeli troops in 2000 after 22 years of occupation, Hezbollah has maintained its arsenal in the name of "resistance against the Zionist enemy." Since then, Lebanon’s only armed party has been suspected by its detractors of wanting to extend Iranian influence in the country, short of establishing an Islamic regime. It is also accused of being an advance base for Iran in the Middle East and to base its agenda on Tehran's; charges that Hezbollah leaders deny.

"Ahmadinejad is not an ordinary president (...). In declaring a few years ago that Lebanon would be the cemetery of the United States or that the destruction of Israel would pass through the land of cedars [Lebanon], he saddled the country with a burden it cannot support," concluded Frangie.

Date created : 2010-10-13

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