BEIRUT — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a show of strength in Lebanon on Wednesday, vowing before thousands of Hezbollah supporters that U.S. and Israeli power in the Middle East will soon be eclipsed.
Welcomed by crowds of cheering Shiites, Ahmadinejad, whose country is the main patron of the Shiite Hezbollah militant group, the most powerful military force in Lebanon, said, "We seek a unified, modern Lebanon."
He sought to depict his country as an ally of all Lebanon, not just Hezbollah. Iran, whose ties to the group date back nearly 30 years, supplies Hezbollah millions of dollars a year and is believed to provide much of its arsenal. Hezbollah boasts widespread support among Shiites and virtually runs a state within a state in Shiite areas. The United States and Israel criticized the visit, Ahmadinejad's first to Lebanon since he became president. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the leader is continuing his "provocative ways."
"We reject any efforts to destabilize or inflame tensions within Lebanon," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said.
After meeting Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and signing economic and commercial cooperation agreements, Ahmadinejad went to Hezbollah's stronghold in the Shiite district of south Beirut and gave a passionate speech denouncing the United States and Israel. Today, Ahmadinejad is scheduled to make a trip to the Israeli border. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Ahmadinejad "is the bearer of a violent message. He comes to a highly volatile region with the intention to play with fire."