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Ahmadinejad speaks in rebuilt Lebanese town near Israel

Iran's president travels to within miles of archrival Israel and delivers a pointed if typical speech to tens of thousands of supporters, most of them backers of Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah militia.

October 15, 2010|By Borzou Daragahi and Alexandra Sandels, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and — Iran's controversial president on Thursday traveled to within a few miles of his nation's archrival Israel and delivered a pointed if typical speech to tens of thousands of supporters, most of them backers of Lebanon's Shiite Muslim Hezbollah militia.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on the second day of an official visit to Lebanon, began speaking to the crowd well past dark during his visit to Bint Jbeil, the southern Lebanese town that was turned into rubble during a 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel.

Thanks in large part to Iranian and Qatari money, the village has been largely rebuilt, and the tens of thousands of roaring supporters were thrilled that one of their benefactors was there and vowing to stand by Lebanon and Hezbollah against Israel.

"The world should understand that the Zionists will go," Ahmadinejad said during the 15-minute speech broadcast live on Lebanese and Iranian television. "Palestine will be liberated."

Members of the massive crowd, gathered at a stadium and standing on nearby rooftops, held portraits of relatives who died in various wars with Israel, and yelled in support.

It was a clear example of Ahmadinejad's particular brand of moxie, combining populist chords aimed at currying favor with the Arab street and geopolitical posturing meant to send a message to a nation that he has repeatedly threatened with extinction.

Ahmadinejad's visit to Lebanon, a divided and fragile nation wedged between Israel and Syria, has raised alarm bells in the West. Many in Lebanon, Israel and the West worry that Ahmadinejad will exacerbate domestic and regional tensions with his denunciations of Israel, the United States and its regional allies.

In any case the visit has made a huge symbolic impression and is likely to reverberate for some time.

Khosh amadid, Persian for "welcome," was plastered alongside Ahmadinejad's image on roadside posters all over Beirut and the south.

For much of the trip, Ahmadinejad stuck to the rules of diplomatic protocol. He met with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Saad Hariri, leader of Lebanon's pro-Western March 14 coalition, which was most upset by the Iranian's visit. He signed a flurry of deals on economic and cultural cooperation, received an honorary degree from a university and laid a wreath for Lebanon's martyrs.

But he also paid visits to the ideological and geographical power centers of Hezbollah, the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Shiite political organization and armed force that controls huge swaths of Lebanese territory and lords it over many official institutions.

Ahmadinejad spoke Wednesday night to tens of thousands in the southern Beirut suburb that is Hezbollah's stronghold. And in addition to Bint Jbeil, he visited Qana, the southern Lebanese town where more than 150 civilians were killed by Israeli bombs during warfare in 1996 and 2006.

Among southern Lebanon's Hezbollah supporters, Ahmadinejad was treated like a rock star or a beloved general coming to inspect front-line troops.

"I came today because I love my country," said Nour Mohammad, a 20-year-old student of English. "Ahmadinejad helped us win the war."

Iranian television and other news organizations broadcast nonstop coverage of Ahmadinejad's visit in an attempt to underscore his popularity abroad even as support for him flags in Iran over economic troubles.

In Lebanon, the visit will probably give Hezbollah a boost as it struggles to shake off anticipated indictments of its members in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the father of the country's current premier and the onetime leader of the country's Sunni Muslim community.

The United Nations-backed investigation of the killing has raised sectarian tensions in the country, and both Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah attempted to calm Shiites by urging their mostly young audiences at speeches over the last two days to pursue unity with other Lebanese to counter Israel and U.S. ambitions for the region.

"There's no doubt that your enemies fear your unity," Ahmadinejad told supporters. "Unity is the symbol of endurance, steadfastness and victory."

But in Bint Jbeil, few were in the mood for unity. Whenever a speaker mentioned the name of Hariri, whether father or son, the audience booed.

daragahi@latimes.com

Times staff writer Daragahi reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and special correspondent Sandels from Bint Jbeil.

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