By ELIZABETH A. KENNEDY and BASSEM MROUE, Associated Press
BEIRUT — Welcomed by thousands of Shiite supporters throwing rose petals, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sought to pull Lebanon firmly into his country’s fold Wednesday, Oct. 13, in a visit that underscored the growing power of Tehran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah.
Ahmadinejad’s first state visit is a bold demonstration by Shiite-dominated Iran that it is undeterred by U.S. attempts to isolate it and roll back the clout Tehran has built up around the Middle East through its alliances with militant groups like Hezbollah and its accelerating nuclear program.
The first visit by an Iranian president in seven years, it also underlines the eroding position of the West’s allies in the deeply divided country. A fragile unity government that combines a Western-backed coalition with Hezbollah and its allies is in power, but many fear it could soon collapse because of their rivalries.
While he was greeted with joy by many Shiites, Ahmadinejad’s dramatic arrival only exacerbated fears among many Lebanese – particularly Sunnis and Christians – that Iran and Hezbollah are seeking to impose their will on the country and possibly pull Lebanon into a conflict with Israel.
Standing alongside Lebanese President Michel Suleiman at a news conference, the Iranian leader sought to depict his country as an ally of the entire nation, not just the Shiite Hezbollah movement.
“We seek a unified, modern Lebanon, and we will stand with the people and government of Lebanon – and with all elements in the Lebanese nation – until they achieve all their goals,” Ahmadinejad said, adding that both countries oppose Israeli aggression.
“We completely support the Lebanese people’s fight against the Zionist enemy,” he said.
The U.S. and Israel expressed concern over Ahmadinejad’s two-day visit, saying support for Hezbollah militants undermines Lebanese sovereignty.
“We reject any efforts to destabilize or inflame tensions within Lebanon,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said. “We would hope that no visitor would do anything or say anything that would give cause to greater tension or instability in that country.”
Allies of the Western-backed, mainly Sunni parties that hold a slim majority in parliament also showed their worry.
A group of 250 politicians, lawyers, and activists wrote an open letter to Ahmadinejad, criticizing his support of Hezbollah.
“Your talk of ‘changing the face of the region starting with Lebanon’ and ‘wiping Israel off the map through the force of the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon’ … makes it seem like your visit is that of a high commander to his front line,” the letter said.
In Tripoli, a mainly Sunni city in the north, posters have gone up in recent days showing Ahmadinejad’s face crossed out, above the words: “No welcome to the rule of clerics.”
While Ahmadinejad was formally invited by Suleiman and was to meet on Thursday with the head of the pro-Western bloc in the government – Prime Minister Saad Hariri – the splashiest welcome came from Hezbollah, Iran’s stalwart ally.
Hezbollah boasts widespread support among Shiites, virtually runs a state-within-a-state in Shiite areas and its guerrillas are Lebanon’s strongest armed force. Iran, whose ties to the group date back nearly 30 years, funds Hezbollah to the tune of millions of dollars a year and is believed to supply much of its arsenal.
Iran also helped rebuild homes in southern Lebanon’s Shiite heartland after the widespread destruction caused in Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel.
For Ahmadinejad’s arrival, thousands of Lebanese – mainly Hezbollah supporters – lined the highway from the airport into Beirut, waving Lebanese and Iranian flags while loudspeakers blasted anthems and women in the crowd sold Hezbollah flags and balloons to onlookers.
Trailed by heavily armed security in bulletproof vests, Ahmadinejad smiled and waved to the crowds from the sunroof of his black SUV as he headed from the airport to the presidential palace to meet Suleiman.
“Ahmadinejad has done a lot for Lebanon, we are here to thank him,” said Fatima Mazeh, an 18-year-old engineering student who took the day off from classes to join the crowds. “He’s not controlling Lebanon. Everyone has a mind and can think for himself. We are here to stand with him during the hardest times.”
Ali Chehade, a 32-year-old math teacher, told his kids to take the day off for the visit.
“Ahmadinejad is a big leader in the region because of his words about the resistance,” he said, referring to Iran’s support for what Hezbollah touts as its armed resistance to Israel.
Ahmadinejad is to make public appearances expected to draw giant crowds in two Hezbollah strongholds – one in south Beirut later Wednesday, another the following day in Bint Jbeil, a border village that was bombed during the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war. The village lies barely two and a half miles from the Israeli border.
Israeli 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.
The visit suggests that the 5-year-old, seesawing competition over Lebanon may be tipping toward Iran and its ally Syria, away from the United States and its Arab allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Worsening the danger of the rivalry is the country’s sectarian divide – Sunni Muslims general back the pro-Western camp, Shiites the Iranian-Syrian one, with Christians divided.
Hezbollah’s other patron, Syria, also has been reasserting its role in Lebanon this year, with a prominent visit in June by Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Syria’s nearly 30-year domination of Lebanon was broken in 2005, when it was forced to withdraw its military, and the pro-Western coalition came to power. But the coalition suffered a heavy blow in 2008, when Hezbollah fighters soundly beat Sunni gunmen in street clashes that erupted in Beirut. The unity government was later formed, giving Hezbollah a virtual veto power over Cabinet decisions.
A tenuous peace has held since. But there are fears it could be broken soon. A U.N. tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri – the current prime minister’s father – is expected to indict members of Hezbollah as soon as this month, raising concerns of possible violence between the Shiite force and Hariri’s mainly Sunni allies.
Ahmadinejad’s visit is his first to Lebanon since he became president in 2005. The last Iranian president to visit Lebanon was Mohammad Khatami in 2003. That trip marked the first visit by an Iranian president to Lebanon since the 1979 Islamic revolution.