Iran’s President Ahmadinejad has received a tumultuous welcome at the start of his visit to Lebanon which has highlighted western fears about Tehran’s influence in the region.
Thousands of Shiites lined the route from Beirut airport to the presidential palace. They came with Iranian flags, banners, balloons and posters of the visiting leader.
Many are grateful for Iranian support for Hezbollah, which fought a month-long war with Israel in 2006. Tehran has also helped finance the reconstruction effort.
During his two-day trip, Ahmadinejad is expected to go to the border with Israel, the country he wants to see wiped off the map.
The Iranian leader was greeted by President Michel Suleiman, who invited him to Lebanon.
He will also hold talks with Prime Minister Saad Hariri and address a rally in south Beirut at which Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is due to speak, possibly by video link.
The visit has raised concerns in Washington, which wants to isolate Iran over its nuclear programme. It has also alarmed pro-western politicians in Lebanon’s fragile unity government. The largest parliamentary group has accused Ahmadinejad of treating the country like “an Iranian base on the Mediterranean.”