- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2003

BEIRUT — Tens of thousands of Shi’ites whistled, cheered and waved flags as Iranian President Mohammed Khatami drove through the streets of Beirut yesterday, making the first visit here by an Iranian president in over two decades.

Mr. Khatami’s visit to Lebanon and Syria this week comes as the United States closely monitors the Iranian and Syrian governments to see whether they will aid or obstruct the reconstruction of neighboring Iraq.

Mr. Khatami was met at Beirut airport by Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Cabinet ministers, and Sheik Naim Kassem, deputy leader of Hezbollah — the leading Shi’ite militant group in Lebanon.

Iran, a Shi’ite-majority country, is the main financial backer of Hezbollah, which periodically attacks Israel across the south Lebanese border and is listed as a terrorist group by the United States.

Hezbollah’s inclusion in the red-carpet reception for Mr. Khatami was a departure from protocol, signaling the group’s acceptance into mainstream politics.

Yesterday’s visit is the first by an Iranian president since Iran’s 1979 revolution. Mr. Khatami, however, came to the country a few months before his election to the presidency in 1997.

As Mr. Khatami was driven to the city center, tens of thousands of Shi’ites lined the highway, applauding and waving the yellow flags of Hezbollah and the green flags of the rival Shi’ite group Amal, as well as Iranian and Lebanese flags.

Shi’ites are the largest sect in Lebanon, an estimated 1.2 million in a population of 3.5 million. Both Hezbollah and Amal had urged supporters to welcome Mr. Khatami.

In a commentary published in the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir yesterday, Mr. Khatami said American and British troops should immediately withdraw from Iraq and allow the “formation of a popular government.”

Mr. Khatami said coalition forces had suffered a moral defeat in Iraq.

“The greatest mistake will be if the invasion forces attempt to impose on the [Iraqi] people a system that is immoral and alien,” he said.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said establishment of an Iranian-style fundamentalist government in Iraq would be unacceptable to Washington.


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