BEIRUT – Hezbollah supporters used mosque loudspeakers Thursday to rally crowds ahead of a trip by Iran's president to southern Lebanon near the border with Israel, a visit the U.S. and Israel have called intentionally provocative.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Lebanon on Wednesday to a rapturous welcome organized by Hezbollah. His country is the main patron of the Shiite militant group, the most powerful military force in Lebanon.
On Thursday, Ahmadinejad is scheduled to make a trip to Lebanon's Shiite heartland in the south and the Israeli border, which will emphasize Iran's support for Hezbollah's fight with Israel.
Residents of southern Lebanese were heading to Bint Jbeil, a border village that was bombed during the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war, to greet the Iranian president Thursday afternoon.
The village, barely two and a half miles (four kilometers) from the border, is dubbed "the capital of resistance" because it was a center for Hezbollah guerrilla action against Israel during the Jewish state's 18-year occupation of the south, which ended in 2000.
Many students in the south skipped school Thursday to await Ahmadinejad.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev slammed the trip Thursday, saying "Iran's domination of Lebanon through its proxy Hezbollah has destroyed any chance for peace, has turned Lebanon into an Iranian satellite and made Lebanon a hub for regional terror and instability."
Ahmadinejad's visit has underscored the eroding position of pro-Western factions in Lebanon. More broadly, it has suggested that the competition over influence in Lebanon may be tipping toward Iran and its ally Syria, away from the United States and it Arab allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
The Iranian president's arrival also exacerbated fears among many Lebanese — particularly Sunnis and Christians — that Iran and Hezbollah are seeking to impose their will on the country and possibly pull Lebanon into a conflict with Israel. Many say the trip could aggravate tensions in a country with a long history of sectarian strife.