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.

Thousands of cheering Lebanese welcomed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Lebanon on Wednesday, throwing rose petals and sweets at his motorcade during a visit that underscores the growing power of Tehran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah.

Mr Ahmadinejad renewed on Tehran’s support for Lebanon at the start of his two-day visit to the country but urged often factious leaders to work together for a united country.

“We demand a united and strong Lebanon and we stand by the government and people so this people may achieve all its goals,” he said.

He also said Beirut’s restive political system required more stability, during a joint press conference with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman after talks.

Ahmadinejad went on to praise Lebanon for its “courageous” stand against neighbouring Israel. Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement fought a month-long war with Israel in 2006. “We support Lebanon’s bitter struggle in confronting Israeli assaults and we demand, with all seriousness and insistence, the liberation of all occupied land in Lebanon and Syria,” Mr Ahmadinejad said.

Iran received Lebanon’s backing for its controversial nuclear programme, which some Western powers say is designed to create weapons. “We stress the right of states, including Iran, to acquire nuclear energy and use it for peaceful purposes,” Mr Suleiman said.

Suleiman also slammed neighbouring Israel, saying tensions between the two countries were repelling foreign investment, badly needed to help build Lebanon’s economy.

According to a government source in Beirut, the Iran and Lebanon on Wednesday signed 13 agreements, including on trade. The visit is Mr Ahmadinejad’s first since taking office in 2005.

Mr Ahmadinejad, accompanied by Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and a delegation of business leaders, was met at the airport in Beirut earlier Wednesday by speaker of parliament Nabih Berri. He made his way from the airport in an open top car, waving to thousands of followers of the Hezbollah movement who had lined the streets.

The Iranian leader is to meet with Prime Minister Saad Hariri later on Wednesday. He is also due to meet with Hariri’s rival, Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, whose has rarely been seen in public since the devastating war between his militant organisation and Israel in 2006. Nasrallah is expected to appear alongside Ahmadinejad at a rally in Beirut.

Observers say the Iranian leader’s visit is designed to show support for the Hezbollah, which is strongly backed by Tehran but listed as a terrorist group by the United States and European Union.

The visit has drawn criticism from US officials who say Iran is “not playing a helpful role in the region.” Iran has countered with similar stabs at Washington’s involvement in the Middle East.

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.

Political divisions

The visit by the leader of Iran, Hezbollah’s most powerful ally, throws Lebanon’s divisions into sharp relief. Much of the welcome was organized by Hezbollah, and the trip includes an visit to the border with Israel on Thursday.

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 from 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 its control over the country. Hezbollah and its allies, in turn, say their political rivals are steering Lebanon too far into the American camp.

Hezbollah boasts widespread support among Shiites and has the country’s strongest armed force. Iran funds Hezbollah. Iran also helped rebuild homes in southern Lebanon’s Shiite heartland after the widespread destruction caused by Israel during the 2006 incursion.

As Ahmadinejad arrived on Wednesday, 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.

In the northern Lebanon town of Tripoli, home to many Sunnis, posters have gone up in recent days showing Ahmadinejad’s face crossed out, above the words- “No welcome to the rule of clerics.”

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 war. The village lies barely two and a half miles (four kilometers) from the Israeli border.

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 President Suleiman.

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