Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has begun his first state visit to Lebanon, giving a strong show of support to the Shiite militant group Hezbollah and stirring up the country's tumultuous political divides.
Thousands of Lebanese - mostly Hezbollah backers - are lining the main highway into the capital from Beirut's airport, where Ahmadinejad arrived Wednesday. Loudspeakers blasted the Lebanese and Iranian anthems, as well as a song welcoming Ahmadinejad to the "land of glory," as women sold Hezbollah flags and balloons to onlookers.
Some women held photos of relatives who were killed during the Second Lebanon War. "I am here to show my support for Iran," a woman waving an Iranian flag said. "We're in the same boat of the fight against Israel," she said.
Knesset Member Arieh Eldad (National Union) said, "History would have been different if in 1939 some Jewish soldier would have succeeded in taking Hitler out. If Ahmadinejad will be in the crosshairs of an IDF rifle when he comes to throw rocks at us, he must not return home alive."
Ahmadinejad is expected to tour Beirut and attend a rally with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. On Thursday he will tour south Lebanon, but it remains unclear how close he will come to the border with Israel.
'Helped rebuild Lebanon.' Ahmadinejad arrives (Photo: AFP)
"He stood by us during Lebanon's troubles, and the 2006 aggression. It's not much to stand here to welcome him -- even if we had to stand for two whole days," 50-year-old Mahmoud Darwish said as he waited with his son to greet Ahmadinejad.
"He helped us rebuild Lebanon. If he hadn't, our houses would still be destroyed and we would still be living in tents."
About an hour before Ahmadinejad landed, a bomb attached to the vehicle of a Shiite cleric with ties to Hezbollah exploded, but there were nor reports of injury.
Iran is the most powerful ally of Hezbollah, which holds widespread support among Lebanon's Shiites and boasts the country's strongest military force. But Ahmadinejad's visit has sparked concern among Western-backed factions locked in a political struggle with Hezbollah over the direction of the country.
Roee Nahmias, Dudi Cohen, Roni Sofer, AP and Reuters contributed to the report
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