Hezbollah supporters rallied crowds in southern Lebanon Thursday ahead of a visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that will take him to within a couple miles of the Israeli border — a trip that the U.S. and Israel have called intentionally provocative.
Ahmadinejad arrived in Lebanon Wednesday to a rapturous welcome organized by Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite militant group backed by Iran. On the second day of his state visit, he was headed to Lebanon's Shiite heartland in the south to demonstrate Iran's support for Hezbollah's fight against Israel.
Residents of southern Lebanon were on their way to greet Ahmadinejad in Bint Jbeil, a border village and Hezbollah stronghold that was among the hardest-hit areas during the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war. Oil-rich Iran invested heavily in helping to rebuild the bombed-out village and other areas.
On the road heading south, schoolchildren handed out leaflets on the best route to take.
Ahmadinejad's visit has underscored the eroding position of pro-Western factions in Lebanon. More broadly, it has suggested that the competition over influence in Lebanon may be tipping toward Iran and its ally Syria, away from the United States and it Arab allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Bint Jbeil, about two miles (four kilometers) from the border, is dubbed "the capital of resistance" because it was a center for Hezbollah guerrilla action against Israel during the Jewish state's 18-year occupation of the south, which ended in 2000.
The Iranian leader also was to visit the village of Qana, where an Israeli airstrike in 2006 killed dozens.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev slammed the trip.
"Iran's domination of Lebanon through its proxy Hezbollah has destroyed any chance for peace, has turned Lebanon into an Iranian satellite and made Lebanon a hub for regional terror and instability," he said.
On an Israeli road leading up to the border area, a few onlookers stopped their cars to snap pictures or peer through binoculars at the other side.
Ahmadinejad has sought to depict his country as an ally of all Lebanese, not just Hezbollah. Iran, whose ties to the group date back nearly 30 years, funds Hezbollah to the tune of millions of dollars a year and is believed to supply much of its arsenal. Hezbollah boasts widespread support among Shiites and virtually runs a state-within-a-state in Shiite areas.
On Wednesday, crowds lined the streets along Beirut's airport road — controlled by Hezbollah — to welcome the Iranian leader, throwing flower petals and sweets at his motorcade. He moves under tight security, with a convoy of some 40 cars and helicopters buzzing overhead.
But Ahmadinejad's splashy arrival exacerbated fears among many Lebanese — particularly Sunnis and Christians — that Iran and Hezbollah are seeking to impose their will on the country and possibly pull Lebanon into a conflict with Israel. Many say the trip could aggravate tensions in a country with a long history of sectarian strife.
AP Writers Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Beirut and Daniel Estrin in Moshav Avivim, Israel, contributed to this report.