- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 17, 2010

BINT JBEIL, Lebanon | While tens of thousands of frenetic, sweating fans chanted and waved flags, Sam was stoic. He pressed up against the metal fence corralling the crowd and held his camera phone in the air for hours. He was at least 50 feet from the podium, but Sam would not miss his chance to photograph visiting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“Now Israel is very, very, very scared of our Lebanon,” Sam said on a rocky dirt road only miles away from the Israeli border after the rally. “That’s why Mr. Ahmadinejad came to Lebanon.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad left Lebanon late last week. In his wake, regional and local political tensions were left aggravated. But many Lebanese people — including Christians and Muslims — say Iran and its support for Hezbollah, a Shiite military group that controls much of Lebanon, are necessary for their country’s survival.

Analysts say Mr. Ahmadinejad’s visits to Lebanon and the Lebanese-Israeli border last week were intended to demonstrate Iran’s strength in the region and to boost the prestige of Hezbollah.

Like Hezbollah, Mr. Ahmadinejad is a sworn enemy of Israel, and he regularly denies the Holocaust publicly. During his Lebanon visit, he denounced the Jewish state while throngs of supporters cheered and waved Iranian, Lebanese and Hezbollah flags.

“It is in the interest of the Zionist entity’s leaders to return Palestine to its original owners,” he told a raucous crowd in southern Beirut on Wednesday night. “If not, then the wrath of the Palestinian people and the rest of the free peoples will leave little trace of them.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the Iranian leader’s visit to Lebanon in a speech to his Cabinet on Sunday. “We have recently heard new threats and blasphemies against Israel,” he said, according to Israeli news source YNet. “Lebanon is soon becoming an Iranian satellite, but we will know how to defend ourselves.”

Some Lebanese officials also fear Iran’s influence in the region. Early this month, Fares Soueid, coordinator of the Western-backed March 14 movement, Lebanon’s ruling parliamentary coalition, accused Iran of attempting to establish a base in the Mediterranean.

On the streets of Beirut, locals debate impact of the Iranian leader’s visit.

“There is a purpose in coming to Lebanon other than just an amicable relationship with the Lebanese,” one 74-year-old retiree said as he argued with his friends on a park bench outside a Starbucks coffee shop.

The men agreed that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s visit would bolster Hezbollah, which vies with the Western-backed parliamentary majority for power. In Washington, Hezbollah is classified as a terrorist organization.

In Beirut, Hezbollah is a political party, not a clandestine group. Several of its leaders are in the Lebanese parliament and Cabinet. It is also the strongest military operation in Lebanon.

The relationship between Hezbollah and the Western-backed factions of the government was strained, even before the visit of the Iranian head of state.

In 2005, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed along with 22 other people by a car bomb in Beirut. A U.N. tribunal set up to investigate the assassination is expected to announce the indictments of several key members of Hezbollah.

The organization has promised retaliation in parliament or on the streets if members are indicted.

Because of the large Shiite populations in many Persian Gulf nations, the outcome of the U.N. investigation holds regional interest and implications.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Syrian President Bashar Assad were to meet in Riyadh on Sunday, in part to discuss Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s dispute with Hezbollah over the tribunal on his father’s assassination, Agence France-Presse reported.

Lebanese who do not support Hezbollah say the group’s aggression toward Israel invites the wrath of the Jewish nation upon them, said Judith Palmer Harik, an American University of Beirut political science professor and author of “Hezbollah: The Changing Face of Terrorism.”

Others, however, view Hezbollah as the only thing standing in the way of an Israeli invasion.

“There is a safeguard for this country in an armed Hezbollah,” Ms. Harik said in her home in a village in the mountains outside Beirut. “Certainly, the Lebanese army cannot face the Israelis.”

The army, Ms. Harik said, shares intelligence and duties with Hezbollah. It serves as an engineer corps, providing emergency services and manpower. Most of the fighting, however, is left to Hezbollah. “There is an interesting relationship between Hezbollah and the army,” she said. “Which is all to Hezbollah’s growth of power.”

At the rally Thursday night in southern Lebanon, women wore Hezbollah scarves over their black veils. The Arabic-speaking crowd chanted “Welcome Ahmadinejad” in Farsi. Every time the Iranian leader was named, the crowd whistled and cheered. When the name of Western-backed Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was mentioned, the crowd booed.

Security guards in black suits prevented many people from speaking to journalists while waiting for Mr. Ahmadinejad’s speech, but as people poured onto the streets after the rally, breathless supporters jockeyed for the chance to show their support for Hezbollah and the Iranian leader.

“It was very, very exciting and beautiful,” said Um Mohammad, smiling in her black veil that, Shiite-style, revealed only her face. “It’s our dream. We see Ahmadinejad in our region. He is a very, very good person.”

Bint Jbeil, her home and the site of the rally, was in ruins after the bloody, month-long 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel. Since then, it has been largely rebuilt and the surrounding roads repaved.

Pinkish buildings now crowd the rocky hillsides, and the markets are packed with shops and teenagers.

This rebirth, and the rebuilding of much of Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon, was largely a result of funding from Iran. Residents of Bint Jbeil say Iran provides money for weapons to protect the strategic border town in battle and to rebuild after the dust clears.

The actual fighting and building is left to Hezbollah. In the region, both are adored, both respected.

Outside a shopping mall in Beirut, in a mostly Christian and decidedly Western neighborhood, Hezbollah and the Iranian president also enjoy a startling, if cautious, level of support.

Iran is a major donor to Lebanon, having recently pledged $450 million worth of investment into the country’s flailing water and electricity sectors.

Students, businessmen and retirees say they wish Hezbollah would turn over its arms and authority to the government.

But in the absence of that unlikely scenario, they prefer the organization remain armed.

“Hezbollah is protecting Lebanon,” said a tall, curly-haired real-estate agent named George. “Hezbollah is here because the state is not.”

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