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Iran's Ahmadinejad draws large crowds, wary officials in Lebanon

Lebanese leaders portray his visit as routine as thousands turn out to greet him in Beirut's pro-Hezbollah Shiite areas. An open letter urges him not to interfere in internal matters through Hezbollah.

October 13, 2010|By Borzou Daragahi and Alexandra Sandels, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Beirut — Iranian and Lebanese officials tried hard Wednesday to depict President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit as a run-of-the-mill diplomatic affair.

But Ahmadinejad is no typical president. Iran's ties to Lebanon are anything but ordinary. And Iran's relationship with the Shiite militia and political organization Hezbollah, which Tehran funds and arms, overshadowed the platitudes.

Officials of the two nations signed humdrum trade agreements, praised one other and ate lunch at the palace of President Michel Suleiman. Ahmadinejad presented Suleiman with a gift: a computer equipped for nanotechnology research.

"I came at the official invitation of the government," Ahmadinejad said at joint news conference. "Our message is one of unity and cooperation."

During an evening appearance before thousands in southern Beirut, he said: "Lebanon is a green garden with many flowers from many faiths and religions."

But from the beginning, the choreography of Ahmadinejad's trip overshadowed his carefully chosen words. Emphasis was on Iran's relationship with Hezbollah, which operates as a state-within-a-state and sometimes eclipses the power of the Lebanese government.

Arriving with an entourage that filled two Boeing 707s, the Iranian president declined to take an official helicopter ride from the airport to the presidential palace in the Beirut suburb of Baabda.

Instead Ahmadinejad opted for a slow-moving convoy of black SUVs that waded through huge roaring crowds waving Iranian flags in the mostly Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut. Hezbollah security forces guarded the way.

Standing through the car's roof, Ahmadinejad waved at the crowds who showered him with flowers and sweets. Hezbollah took the liberty of canceling grammar school classes in southern Beirut so children could attend.

After the stuffy luncheon with the suits, Ahmadinejad broke free from his official entourage and basked in the adulation of massive crowds in southern Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold.

Referring to Israel, with which Hezbollah fought a war in 2006, he declared: "The illegitimate Zionist regime is a permanent threat to the region and all the world governments."

Iran's relationship to Lebanon runs deep. Iran's 16th century monarchs imported Lebanese clerics to spread Shiite Islam. Many famous Lebanese clans trace their origins to Iran.

Iran has used Hezbollah, which emerged in the 1980s after Israel's invasion of Lebanon, as a way to extend its 1979 Islamic Revolution to the Mediterranean. Iran was among the main contributors to the reconstruction of Lebanon after the 2006 war, for which many Lebanese are grateful.

"I like him a lot because he's helping our country," said Nada Yazbeck, who attended the parade with her two daughters. "He gives electricity and water, and he's giving us weapons to defend our country."

On Thursday, Ahmadinejad plans to travel to the southern town of Bint Jbeil and deliver a speech within several miles of the border with Israel in a move Israeli officials have denounced as provocative. He will also visit Qana, a village that was the site of large-scale civilian killings by Israel during wars in 1996 and 2006.

"Ahmadinejad's visit to Lebanon and the warm welcome he receives are worrisome and attest to the problematic ties between Iran and the terror organization of Hezbollah, today a member of the Lebanese government," Israeli radio quoted former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni as saying.

Lebanese political leaders from all factions, including those opposed to Hezbollah, attended the luncheon in Ahmadinejad's honor. He was received warmly by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who is leader of Lebanon's Sunni Arab community as well as head of the country's pro-Western March 14 political alliance.

"Lebanon is capable of helping Iran," Suleiman, the president, said. "We express our thanks to Iran for standing side by side with us during Lebanon's confrontation with Israel."

But others not constrained by the protocols of office have described the visit as infringement on the country's sovereignty that could aggravate sectarian tensions between the country's Sunnis and Shiites and drag Lebanon into regional conflicts.

A letter to Ahmadinejad signed by 250 Lebanese politicians and activists, issued the night before his visit, reminded him that not all Lebanese supported Hezbollah.

"One group in Lebanon draws its power from you ... and has wielded it over another group and the state," it said. "You are repeating what others have done before you by interfering in our internal affairs."

One Christian Lebanese businessman in East Beirut, who declined to give his name, said he worried that the visit would provoke Israel.

"We don't like Ahmadinejad," the 48-year-old said. "He's ruining our country. He's arming Hezbollah. We want peace. We also have our own resistance, and if they attack us, we will defend ourselves."

Daragahi is a Times staff writer. Sandels is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Meris Lutz in Beirut and Batsheva Sobelman in The Times' Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.

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