Reporting from Beirut — Huge crowds waving Iranian flags greeted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as he arrived Wednesday in Lebanon on his first state visit and traveled from the airport in a motorcade through Beirut's mostly Shiite Muslim southern suburb.
Ahmadienjad, traveling slowly in a procession of black SUVs, appeared in a sunroof, waving at the crowd as it threw flowers in an extravagant parade organized by the Shiite militia and political party Hezbollah, which receives funding and political support from the Islamic Republic.
Iran was among the main countries that helped Lebanon rebuild after a devastating 33-day war between Israel and Hezbollah.
"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."
Ahmadinejad and a large entourage of Iranian officials arrived in Beirut as part of a controversial visit at a time of heightened local and international tensions.
On Thursday he plans to travel to the country's southern town of Bint Jbeil and deliver a speech within several miles of the Israeli border. He will visit Qana, a village that was the site of civilian killings by Israel during wars in 2006 and 1996. Israelis have described the visit to the south as provocative.
Hezbollah operates as a state within a state inside Lebanon, and the group's political rivals have described the visit's choreography as an infringement on the country's sovereignty and an aggravation of sectarian tensions between the country's Sunnis and Shiites.
"One group in Lebanon draws its power from you ... and has wielded it over another group and the state," said a letter to Ahmadinejad signed by 250 Lebanese politicians and activists and issued the night before his visit, according to Agence France-Presse. "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," said the 48-year-old. "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."
Ahmadinejad was greeted at the airport by parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, the Shiite leader of the Amal Movement, which is allied with Hezbollah.
"Your visit is very important for friends and has become more important thanks to our enemies," Berri said to Ahmadinejad, according to local media.
His motorocade drove him toward the presidential palace in the Beirut suburb of Baabda, where he was scheduled to meet with President Michel Suleiman.
He will also meet with Prime Minister Saad Hariri, leader of Lebanon's Sunni community as well as the standard-bearer for the country's pro-Western March 14 political alliance. He will head to southern Beirut Wednesday evening to give a speech.
Ahmadinejad's visit received extensive coverage on Lebanese and Iranian television. State television in Iran lauded the visit, describing a "glorious" red-carpet treatment for Ahamadinejad.
Lebanese television channels carried live minute-by-minute footage of the visit, showing Ahmadinejad shaking hands with Suleiman and other Lebanese officials before entering the presidential compound.
Sandels is a special correspondent.