BEIRUT – Thousands of cheering Lebanese welcomed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Lebanon on Wednesday, throwing rose petals and sweets at his motorcade at the start of a visit that underscores deep divisions within this tiny Arab nation.
Ahmadinejad is making his first state visit to Lebanon at a time when tensions have mounted between Iranian-backed Hezbollah and Western-backed parties in the government. The growing crisis has raised fears over the fate of the unity government that includes both sides and has managed to keep a tenuous calm.
The visit by the leader of Iran — Hezbollah's most powerful ally — throws Lebanon's divisions into sharp relief. Trailed by heavily armed security in bulletproof vests, Ahmadinejad smiled and waved to the crowds from the sunroof of his black SUV as he headed to the presidential palace to meet President Michel Suleiman.
"Ahmadinejad has done a lot for Lebanon, we are here to thank him," said Fatima Mazeh, an 18-year-old engineering student who took the day off classes to join the crowds. "He's not controlling Lebanon. Everyone has a mind and can think for himself. We are here to stand with him during the hardest times."
Hezbollah's opponents in Lebanon often brand it a tool of Iran and fear the movement is seeking to impose control over the country. Hezbollah boasts widespread support among Shiites, virtually runs a state-within-a-state in Shiite areas, and has the country's strongest armed force. Iran funds Hezbollah to the tune of millions of dollars a year and is believed the supply much of its arsenal.
Hezbollah and its allies, in turn, say their political rivals are steering Lebanon too far into the American camp.
As Ahmadinejad arrived, thousands of Lebanese lined the main highway into the capital from Beirut's airport, located near the mainly Shiite districts of south Beirut. Many waved Lebanese and Iranian flags, and giant posters of Ahmadinejad towered over the road, while loudspeakers blasted anthems and women in the crowd sold Hezbollah flags and balloons to onlookers.
Ali Chehade, a 32-year-old math teacher, told his kids to take the day off to come to the airport road.
"Ahmadinejad is a big leader in the region because of his words about the resistance," he said, referring to Iran's support for what Hezbollah touts as its armed resistance to Israel.
But Hezbollah's rivals expressed concern over the message sent by the Iranian leader's visit.
A group of 250 politicians, lawyers and activists sent an open letter to Ahmadinejad on Tuesday, criticizing Tehran's backing of Hezbollah and expressing worry Iran was looking to drag Lebanon into a war with Israel.
"One group in Lebanon draws power from you ... and has wielded it over another group and the state," the letter said, addressing Ahmadinejad.
"Your talk of 'changing the face of the region starting with Lebanon' and 'wiping Israel off the map through the force of the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon' ... makes it seem like your visit is that of a high commander to his front line," it said.
But even in the mouthpiece newspapers of parties opposed to Hezbollah, criticism of Ahmadinejad was muted, as the government sought to treat the visit like that of any other head of state. The government is headed by the leader of the pro-Western factions — Prime Minister Saad Hariri — but his Cabinet includes members both from Hezbollah and from fiercely anti-Hezbollah parties.
Representatives from Hezbollah and several pro-U.S. factions attended as Suleiman welcomed Ahmadinejad at the presidential palace — and Hariri is also to meet the Iranian leader during his visit, which lasts until Friday.
But the biggest splash is from Ahmadinejad's welcome by Hezbollah. Ahmadinejad is to make public appearances expected to draw giant crowds in two Hezbollah strongholds — one in south Beirut later Wednesday, another the following day in Bint Jbeil, a border village that was bombed during the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war. The village lies barely two and a half miles (four kilometers) from the Israeli border.
The show of support from Iran comes as many Lebanese worry over a possible impending blow to the unity government.
A U.N. tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri — Saad's father — is expected to indict members of Hezbollah as soon as this month, raising concerns of possible violence between the Shiite force and Hariri's mainly Sunni allies.
Washington has come out against Ahmadinejad's trip. Last week, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton raised concerns about the visit with the Lebanese president, Michel Suleiman.
"We expressed our concern about it given that Iran, through its association with groups like Hezbollah, is actively undermining Lebanon's sovereignty," Crowley said in Washington.