Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived to a rapturous welcome in Lebanon on Wednesday for a controversial two-day visit that will take him to the country's south, a region dominated by Iran's ally Hezbollah.
REUTERS - President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday used his visit to Lebanon on Wednesday to assure the government that Iran would stand by Beirut in confronting what he called hostilities from neighbouring Israel.
Ahmadinejad, making the first official state visit by an Iranian president to Lebanon, was given a tumultuous welcome by thousands of Shi'ite Muslims who lined the road from the airport, throwing rice and petals at his motorcade.
"The Iranian nation will always stand beside the Lebanese nation and will never abandon them ... We will surely help the Lebanese nation against animosities, mainly staged by the Zionist regime (Israel)," he said.
In a message apparently aimed at easing months of tension between pro-Western politicians and Tehran's Shi'ite ally Hezbollah, Ahmadinejad said Iran supported a strong and unified Lebanon.
His trip raised concerns in Washington, which wants to isolate Iran over its nuclear programme and says Iran's support for Hezbollah militants undermines Lebanese sovereignty.
It also alarmed pro-Western politicians in Lebanon's fractious unity government, who have protested that Ahmadinejad treats Lebanon like "an Iranian base on the Mediterranean".
But Ahmadinejad made no mention of Hezbollah in his comments at the presidential palace, emphasising instead Iranian support for Lebanon as a whole.
"We support a strong and unified Lebanon. We will always back the Lebanese government and its nation," he said, standing alongside President Michel Suleiman, a Maronite Christian.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday that Washington rejected any efforts "to destabilise or inflame tensions" in Lebanon.
"We are very committed to supporting the Lebanese government as it deals with a number of challenges in its region and we would hope that no visitor would do anything or say anything that would give cause to greater tension or instability in that country...," she said during her visit to Kosovo.
Lebanon's Energy and Water Minister Gebran Bassil said Iran had agreed a $450 million loan for Lebanon to support power and water projects. He said Ahmadinejad had stressed during the talks that "all the benefits of this visit would be for all the Lebanese", rather than for a single faction.
Lebanon's government, which includes Hezbollah ministers, is deeply split over an international investigation into the killing of former premier Rafik al-Hariri which is expected to indict Hezbollah members.
Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, son of the slain statesman, is resisting escalating pressure from Hezbollah and its allies to renounce the U.N.-backed probe before it issues indictments.
"We have confirmed the importance of maintaining Lebanese national unity...supporting the state and its institutions and strengthening the foundations of stability," Suleiman said after the talks.
Ahmadinejad had a rare telephone call on Tuesday with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, whose country supports Hezbollah's Sunni Muslim rivals, but no details were given of their conversation.
Iran has also offered to step in to supply Lebanon's poorly equipped army after U.S. military aid was held up by political objections in Congress following a border clash between Lebanese and Israeli troops in August.
The West accuses Iran of supplying arms to Hezbollah, which says it has an arsenal of more than 30,000 rockets.
Officials close to Hezbollah stress instead Iran's support for reconstruction, saying they have spent about $1 billion of Iranian money since 2006 on aid and rebuilding.
Gulf Arab states Saudi Arabia and Qatar, vying for influence with Tehran, have also provided funds.
Thousands of people lined the airport road on Wednesday to welcome Ahmadinejad, throwing rice and flowers at the smiling Iranian leader who waved from the open roof of his car.
Iranian flags, banners, balloons and posters of Ahmadinejad were draped along the airport road -- as well as pictures of Iran's spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the founder of Iran's Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
"He helped us rebuild Lebanon. If he hadn't, our houses would still be destroyed and we would still be living in tents," 50-year-old Mahmoud Darwish said as he waited with his son.
Later on Wednesday Ahmadinejad was due to address a rally in south Beirut at which Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah was also expected to speak -- possibly by video link because of security concerns.
Ahmadinejad is due on Thursday to visit towns near the Israeli border which were heavily bombed by Israel during its 34-day conflict in 2006 with Hezbollah which ended in stalemate.
Date created : 2010-10-13