BEIRUT: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hailed on Wednesday Lebanon’s resistance against Israeli "aggression" as he began a visit that will take him to the border of the Jewish state.
He was showered with rice and rose petals by tens of thousands of Hezbollah supporters who lined the roads as his motorcade made its way from the airport to the presidential palace.
"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," the hardline leader said at a press conference with his Lebanese counterpart, Michel Sleiman.
"As long as (Israeli) aggression exists in the region, we will not see stability," he added.
Ahmadinejad, whose two-day visit is seen as a boost for key ally Hezbollah, the most powerful military and political force in Lebanon, said Iran stood ready to assist the small Mediterranean country in all fields.
The two leaders signed a number of agreements in the health, tourism, energy, water and other sectors.
"Lebanon is not only a source of pride for the Lebanese but for the region," he added, "Because Lebanon has changed the balance of power in favor of the people of the region."
Hezbollah fought a devastating war with Israel in 2006 that killed 1,200 people in Lebanon, most of them civilians, and more than 160 Israelis, most of them soldiers.
Ahmadinejad ducked a question about criticism of his plans to tour south Lebanon on Thursday, near the volatile border with Israel.
Members of Lebanon’s pro-Western parliamentary majority have denounced the visit as a bid to portray the country as "an Iranian base on the Mediterranean."
The United States and Israel, which have sought to isolate Iran over its nuclear program, have also expressed concern.
Speaking in Kosovo on Wednesday. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she rejected any efforts to destabilize Lebanon.
"The United States supports the integrity and sovereignty of Lebanon. We reject any efforts to destabilize or inflame tensions within Lebanon," she said.
"We would hope that no visitor would do anything or say anything that would give cause to greater tension or instability in that country."
Ahmadinejad’s first visit since his election in 2005 highlights the clout Iran wields in Lebanon through Hezbollah, considered Tehran’s proxy, and comes at a sensitive time in politically turbulent Lebanon.
Hezbollah is locked in a standoff with Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri over unconfirmed reports that a UN-backed tribunal is set to indict members of the Shia group over the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father, ex-premier Rafiq Hariri.
Tensions over the tribunal have grown steadily in recent weeks, raising fears of renewed sectarian violence and the collapse of Lebanon’s hard-fought national unity government.
Ahmadinejad later Wednesday was to appear alongside Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah at a rally in Beirut.
Nasrallah has lived in hiding since the 2006 war and it was not clear whether he would appear in person.
The climax of the trip comes on Thursday when Ahmadinejad will be just a few kilometers (miles) away from the Israeli border as he tours southern villages destroyed during the 2006 conflict.
He is set to stop in Bint Jbeil, a Hezbollah bastion devastated during the war, and in Qana, targeted in 1996 and again in 2006 by deadly Israeli air strikes.
Iran has been a major donor in the reconstruction of southern Lebanon following the month-long 2006 war, and Ahmadinejad is set to receive a hero’s welcome in the area.
Official banquets organized in his honor will not include Western ambassadors to avoid any walkouts should Ahmadinejad launch one of his trademark tirades against Israel.
The Iranian leader has sparked international outrage by repeatedly casting doubt on the Nazi Holocaust and predicting the destruction of Israel.