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Ahmadinejad on Israel's Doorstep during Lebanon Visit - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, gestures at a speech during a rally organized by Hezbollah in a southern suburb of Beirut. (AP)

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, gestures at a speech during a rally organized by Hezbollah in a southern suburb of Beirut. (AP)

BEIRUT (AFP) – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad comes the closest he has ever been to his arch-foe Israel on Thursday when he tours Lebanon’s southern border region on the second day of a high-profile visit.

The hardline leader, who has questioned the Holocaust and described Israel as a “tumour,” will stand some four kilometres (about two miles) from the Jewish state on the final leg of a controversial two-day visit to Lebanon that Washington has described as “provocative”.

Israeli officials have also slammed his visit as a sign Lebanon had “joined the axis of extremist states.”

Ahmadinejad has received a hero’s welcome in the tiny country, especially among supporters of Shiite militant Hezbollah who turned out en masse and showered him with rice and rose petals upon his arrival on Wednesday.

But his trip has drawn criticism from Lebanon’s pro-Western parliamentary majority, who see it as an attempt to turn the country into “an Iranian base on the Mediterranean.”

Thursday’s tour includes a stop in Bint Jbeil, a village demolished by Israel during its 2006 war with Hezbollah and rebuilt with the help of Iran, a financial, military and ideological supporter of the movement.

He will also visit Qana, which has earned a grim place in history after being targeted by Israeli shelling that killed 105 civilians who had sought shelter in a UN base in 1996 during the Jewish state’s “Grapes of Wrath” offensive on Lebanon.

The village was again the site of tragedy when a shelter collapsed on dozens of residents, including disabled children, during Israeli strikes at the height of the month-long 2006 war.

Ahmadinejad on Wednesday hailed Lebanon’s resistance against the “Zionist regime” and offered his country’s unconditional backing to that end after meeting with his counterpart Michel Sleiman and other Lebanese officials.

A beaming Ahmadinejad later appeared at a rally in the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburb of Beirut, waving to a rapturous crowd of tens of thousands.

In a speech, he repeated his prediction that Israel would disappear — a cry echoed by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who has lived in hiding since the 2006 war.

“President Ahmadinejad is right when he says Israel is illegitimate and should cease to exist,” Nasrallah told the rally via video link.

Before heading to the southern border, Ahmadinejad on Thursday will lunch with Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who is going head-to-head with Hezbollah over a UN-backed tribunal on the assassination of his father, ex-premier Rafiq Hariri.

The tribunal is rumoured to be set to indict members of the Shiite militant group over the 2005 assassination, and tensions have grown steadily in recent weeks, raising fears of renewed sectarian violence and the collapse of Lebanon’s hard-won national unity government.

Though Ahmadinejad has treaded carefully since his arrival in Lebanon in addressing domestic issues, he nonetheless rose to the defence of Hezbollah at the rally, saying the UN court was framing the Shiite party.

The Iranian leader on Thursday will also give a speech at the state-run Lebanese University, which will present him with an honorary doctorate in political science.

Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters via video link during a rally to celebrate Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Lebanon. (R)

Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters via video link during a rally to celebrate Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Lebanon. (R)

Lebanese Hezbollah supporters wave Iranian, Hezbollah and Lebanese flags during a rally to celebrate Ahmadinejad's visit to Lebanon. (R)

Lebanese Hezbollah supporters wave Iranian, Hezbollah and Lebanese flags during a rally to celebrate Ahmadinejad’s visit to Lebanon. (R)

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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