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Middle East
Iran leader in Hezbollah stronghold
Thousands flock to hear Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Lebanon village close to Israel border on second day of his visit.
Last Modified: 15 Oct 2010 10:20 GMT


Zeina Khodr reports from south Lebanon on the controversial visit by Iran's leader.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, has praised Lebanon for its resistance against Israel, while addressing a huge crowd in a Lebanese village close to the Israeli border.

Speaking to 15,000 cheering Hezbollah supporters on Thursday in Bint Jbeil, the scene of fierce fighting between the Iranian-backed group and Israeli soldiers in July 2006, Ahmadinejad said the town was a symbol of resistance.

"Today the Lebanese nation is alive and is a role model for the regional nations," he said, declaring that the "Zionists are mortal".

Ahmadinejad, a known critic of Israel, is on a two-day visit to Lebanon.

On arriving in Lebanon on Wednesday, Ahmadinejad said that Iran would support Beirut in confronting what he said was Israeli hostility.

Ahmadinejad's visit to the south marked the closest he has ever come to arch-foe Israel.

Iranian flags and posters lined the main roads leading to Bint Jbeil and at the entrance to the town a giant banner read "welcome" in Farsi and Arabic. Signs on billboards and banners said: "The south welcomes the protector of the resistance".

Bint Jbeil is just four kilometres from the Israeli border, and Israel's Channel 2 Television said echoes of Ahmadinejad's welcome ceremony were audible on the Israeli side.

The town was heavily bombed in the 34-day conflict four years ago, and most of the houses around the stadium where Ahmadinejad spoke have been rebuilt since then.

Ahamdinejad's speech in Bint Jbeil had strong symbolism. In 2000, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah delivered a victory speech there two days after Israel ended its 22-year occupation of south Lebanon.

Controversial visit

But Ahmadinejad's speeches at Hezbollah-sponsored rallies have stoked controversy.

"Critics say he would be welcome here if he acted like a president of Iran and not like a president of certain parts of Lebanon," Al Jazeera's Zeina Khodr, reporting from Bint Jbeil, said.

"Part of [Ahmadinejad's] message was moderate, but not all of the message," Nadim Koteich, a Lebanese journalist, told Al Jazeera.

Referring to the "healthy and proper relationship with Iran that [Lebanon] strives for," Koteich criticised the Iranian leader's pro-Hezbollah rhetoric.

"Ahmadinejad's visit there isn't designed to increase stability in Lebanon, to reduce tensions in Lebanon. It's designed to do the opposite."

Nicole Shampaine, director with the Near East Affairs Bureau of the US state department

"We saw a sea of Iranian flags, Iranian slogans ... and a chorus of young men singing in the Iranian language ... This is the part that we had a problem with."

Ahmadinejad also visited Qana, the village where 105 civilians were killed in Israeli shelling of a UN shelter in 1996 during the Jewish state's "Grapes of Wrath" offensive on Lebanon.

Yigal Palmor, an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, said Ahmadinejad had brought a message of "violence and extremism".

"It is a deeply concerning development that he is transforming Lebanon into a platform for his aggressive plans against Israel and against other countries in the region," Palmor said.

"Hezbollah is an Iranian proxy in Lebanon," Nicole Shampaine, a director with the US state department's Near East Affairs Bureau, said.

"Ahmadinejad's visit there isn't designed to increase stability in Lebanon, to reduce tensions in Lebanon. It's designed to do the opposite."

Rally in south Beirut

On Wednesday, Ahmadinejad appeared at a rally in the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburb of Beirut, waving to a crowd of thousands before taking his seat next to Hezbollah's deputy commander, Naim Qassem.

Chanting "death to America" and "death to Israel," Hezbollah supporters turned out in large numbers to welcome Ahmadinejad.

Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, did not appear in person at the rally because of security concerns but welcomed Ahmadinejad in a speech broadcast via video link.

He echoed Iran's call for Israel to disappear, saying: "President Ahmadinejad is right when he says Israel is illegitimate and should cease to exist."
 
Ahmadinejad said in Beirut that the Middle East does not need "interference from outside powers".

"The Zionist regime will continue its downfall and no power can save it because of the resistance in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Turkey, Iran and the rest of the region," he said.

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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