Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is wading into Lebanon's tumultuous political divides this week with a visit that underlines the power of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah and has put Western-backed factions in the government on the defensive.
Hundreds of posters of Ahmadinejad and Iranian flags have gone up in Beirut and Hezbollah's heartland in southern Lebanon in support of the Iranian leader, who is due to arrive Wednesday for his first state visit to the country.
Ahmadinejad will meet with Lebanon's president and the pro-Western prime minister — but the biggest splash will come from his welcome by Hezbollah. Iran has ironclad ties to Hezbollah, which boasts the strongest arsenal in the country and in many Shiite areas runs nearly a state-within-a-state.
During his visit, Ahmadinejad is to make public appearances expected to draw giant crowds in two Hezbollah strongholds — one in south Beirut, another in Bint Jbeil, a border village that was bombed during the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war. It is barely two and a half miles (four kilometers) from the Israeli border.
The visit has raised alarm among Hezbollah's rivals.
The coalition of Western-backed parties in the government, known as the March 14 alliance, has warned that Ahmadinejad is seeking to transform Lebanon into "an Iranian base on the Mediterranean."
Fares Soeid, a senior official with March 14, said Tuesday that the visit hurts Lebanon's unity and raises new fears of war with Israel.
"He is coming here to say to the international community, 'If the peace process is blocked between the Palestinians and Israel, Ahmadinejad is here ready to make a war from the south of Lebanon,'" he said.
The visit puts Tehran's weight behind Hezbollah at a time when growing tensions are threatening to bring down the fragile unity government that joins Hezbollah and the March 14 alliance, led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
A U.N. tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri — Saad's father — is expected to indict members of Hezbollah as soon as this month, which many fear could lead to violence between the Shiite force and Hariri's mainly Sunni allies.
Hezbollah's arsenal, which is separate from that of the national army, makes it Lebanon's strongest armed force — a fact that has drawn new concerns in recent weeks as the political crisis here deepens.
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 the Lebanese president, Michel Suleiman.
"We expressed our concern about it given that Iran, through its association with groups like Hezbollah, is actively undermining Lebanon's sovereignty," Crowley said in Washington.
Washington is at odds with Iran over its nuclear program, which it fears is aimed at making weapons, and with a military buildup by Tehran that it believes threatens the United States' Arab allies in the region as well as Israel. Iran says its nuclear activity is only for producing energy.
Ibrahim al-Hajj, 52, owns a sports shop in the southern Lebanon town of Marjayoun, said he is pessimistic about Ahmadinejad's visit.
"The problems is that he is supporting Hezbollah instead of supporting the state," al-Hajj said. "He is supporting a militia that brought us disasters such as the war in 2006. ... How can we not be worried?"