Iran seeks 'unified' Lebanon, leader says
BEIRUT - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad emphasized his support for the Lebanese state Tuesday during a controversial visit that is underscoring the strength of Iran's alliance with the militant Shiite group Hezbollah, Lebanon's leading opposition movement.
Although some of Hezbollah's opponents in Lebanon and abroad interpreted his visit as a partisan gesture, Ahmadinejad struck a reassuring tone. In a news conference with his Lebanese counterpart, Michel Suleiman, he said he sought a "unified" Lebanon. He also stressed solidarity with Lebanon in the event of Israeli "animosities."
Thousands of people waving Lebanese and Iranian flags appeared to have heeded Hezbollah's call to greet Ahmadinejad, the first Iranian president to visit Lebanon since 2003, at the airport.
Al-Manar, Hezbollah's television channel, broadcast a song as he walked down the red carpet, lauding him as a "leader and master." Ahmadinejad later addressed tens of thousands of people at a Hezbollah-organized rally in Beirut's southern suburbs, where he described Lebanon as a "school of resistance" after being greeted with a burst of red tracer fire.
His visit comes at a time of increased tension. Rhetoric between Hezbollah allies and those of the Western-backed Sunni prime minister, Saad Hariri, has escalated amid expectations that a U.N. court will indict Hezbollah in the assassination of Hariri's father, former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri.
Ahmadinejad's visit to Beirut has also raised concerns in Israel as well as in the United States, which is seeking to curb Iranian influence in the Middle East and Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that Ahmadinejad "continues his provocative ways . . . even as he leaves his country further in economic distress and turmoil as a result of his actions that have led to international sanctions."
Iran and Lebanon also signed economic and natural-resource cooperation agreements, including financial support for power and water projects.
Although Lebanon's political elite staged a show of unity as it received Ahmadinejad at the presidential palace, the Lebanese public appeared divided in its reactions to the visit. "We are here to return a small favor to the Islamic republic," said Bahij Hamade, 35, who went to the airport to see Ahmadinejad.
As well as supporting Hezbollah, Iran has financed some of the reconstruction of infrastructure destroyed in the 2006 war with Israel. "No matter what we do, we'll never pay them back," Hamade said.
"It is a visit to Hezbollah, not Lebanon," said Mustafa Alloush, a former lawmaker from the predominantly Sunni city of Tripoli.
Some people remain concerned at Ahmadeinejad's proposed trip to southern Lebanon on Thursday.
But Timur Goksel, a former political officer with the U.N. peacekeeping force on the Israeli-Lebanon border, played down the risk of an incident. "I don't think he's going to do anything provocative," he said.
- Financial Times