|Ahmadinejad received a hero's welcome from Hezbollah supporters on arrival in Beirut on Wednesday [AFP]
On the second day of a first official visit to Lebanon, the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is visiting the country's south - the stronghold of Hezbollah, a powerful political party which commands a loyal following among Lebanese Shia Muslims.
In what is being seen as a provocative move, Ahmadinejad on Thursday is addressing a huge crowd in Bint Jbeil - just a short distance from the border with Israel - as he tours southern villages destroyed during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict.
He was showered with rice and rose petals by thousands of Hezbollah supporters who lined the streets of Beirut and waved Iranian flags on Wednesday as his motorcade made its way from the airport to the presidential palace.
"Lebanon is the school of resistance and perseverance against the bullying forces of the world, and is like a university for jihad, for adventure in the way of the noble, human causes," Ahmadinejad said while calling for a united Islamic world.
At a news conference with his Lebanese counterpart, Michel Sleiman, Ahmadinejad praised Lebanon's resistance against the "Zionist regime" and offered his country's backing towards that end.
"We fully support the resistance of the Lebanese people against the Zionist regime and we want full liberation of occupied territory in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine," he said.
"As long as [Israeli] aggression exists in the region, we will not see stability."
Al Jazeera's Rula Amin, reporting from Beirut, said that many in the country's south will welcome Ahmadinejad as a hero.
"Residents there feel that without Iran's support to Hezbollah, they would not be able to confront Israel and end the occupation. And without the country's financial support, they would not be able to rebuild after the war in 2006."
Rally in south Beirut
Ahmadinejad later 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.
Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera's senior political analyst, said the fact that Ahmadinejad was speaking to a mostly southern Lebanese crowd on Wednesday night was significant as the south Lebanese "are the people that were mostly under Israeli occupation for 18 years, and they were able under Hezbollah's leadership, to resist that occupation ... in part through Iranian help".
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 the Middle East does not need 'interference' from 'outside powers' [Reuters]
Ahmadinejad repeated at the rally assertions that Israel's downfall was inevitable. "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.
The rally was held at an outdoor stadium where Iranian flags and photos of Ahmadinejad were hoisted alongside two life-sized pictures of overturned Israeli Merkava tanks.
Even though Ahmadinejad is on an official visit, Wednesday night's rally was not organised by the state, Al Jazeera's Zeina Khodr, reporting from Beirut, said.
She said quoting Hezbollah leaders that the rally was arranged by the group to "thank the Iranian leader for the political as well as the financial support the Islamic Republic of Iran provided, particularly to Hezbollah supporters, after the 2006 Lebanon-Israel war".
Hezbollah is locked in a standoff with Saad Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, over unconfirmed reports that a UN-backed tribunal is set to indict Hezbollah members over the 2005 assassination of Hariri's father, former prime minster Rafiq al-Hariri.
Tensions over the tribunal have grown steadily in recent weeks, raising fears of renewed sectarian violence and the collapse of Lebanon's national unity government.
At the Beirut rally, Ahmadinejad made a passing remark defending Hezbollah. "In Lebanon, a friend and patriot was viciously assassinated," he said in reference to al-Hariri. Western countries "are trying to sow sedition and conflict... by manipulating the media to accuse our friends [Hezbollah] and fulfil their aims in the region."
Gebran Bassil, Lebanon's energy and water minister, said Iran had approved a $450m loan for Lebanon to support power and water projects.
He said Ahmadinejad had stressed during the talks that "all the benefits of this visit would be for all the Lebanese", rather than for a single faction.
Nevertheless, Ahmadinejad's visit has prompted criticism by members of Lebanon's pro-Western parliamentary majority who see it as a bid to turn the country into "an Iranian base on the Mediterranean".
The US and Israel have also expressed concern, with the White House deeming the official visit "provocative" and Israeli officials saying it marked Lebanon's transformation into an "extremist state".
"We reject any efforts to destabilise or inflame tensions within Lebanon," Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said on Wednesday.
Yigal Palmor, Israel's foreign ministry spokesman, said Ahmadinejad's visit was "imbued with a message of confrontation and violence".