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Growing support for Hezbollah in Lebanon is partly due to the funding it receives from Iran.
BEIRUT, Lebanon — When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took the stage Wednesday night, the crowd roared, frantically waving Iranian and Lebanese flags. Pictures of the visiting president were held high, while yellow Hezbollah flags fluttered from balconies high above.
“Lebanon is the school of resistance and perseverance against the tyrants of this world,” he said. “It is the streaming banner of glory and independence.” Tens of thousands of supporters packed in a stadium and lining the streets outside, cheered as he spoke.
In his first-ever visit to Beirut, Ahmadinejad made a splash, sharing the stage with the increasingly popular militant group his government supports in Lebanon: Hezbollah or “The Party of God.”
Traditionally, Hezbollah has lead Shiites in southern Lebanon, and in the poor southern neighborhoods of Beirut. But as Hezbollah grows stronger, richer and more prestigious, it is finding increased support in some unusual places.
In Washington, Hezbollah is known as a terrorist organization, devoted to the destruction of Israel. But in Lebanon, views on the Shiite group are far more diverse. Many Shiites see Hezbollah’s leadership as heroes who were able to protect Lebanon from an Israeli takeover in the 2006 war. They also see the group as providers, bringing water and electricity to slums ravaged by war, and building hospitals.
As rumors fly around Lebanon about the possibility of another war with Israel, many non-Shiites, who would otherwise fear Hezbollah’s un-checked military prowess, are also cautiously supporting the organization. The Lebanese Army, they say, cannot protect Lebanon from an Israeli invasion.
At the rally on Wednesday, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah was received like a rock star. Nasrallah, who rarely appears in public for security reasons, spoke to the crowd though a giant video screen, wasting no time in making his agenda clear: Iran and Hezbollah stand together against Israel.
“Do not listen to the Satans America and Israel,” he said. “From whom we only see war and destruction.”
The rally was held in a stadium in the southern suburbs of Beirut, an overwhelmingly Shiite area in this city divided between Shiites, Sunnis and Christians. The area is governed and controlled by Hezbollah.
Other Lebanese groups, however, are less enamored. According to Judith Palmer Harik, an American University of Beirut political science professor and the author of “Hezbollah: The Changing Face of Terrorism,” plenty of people in Lebanon also think that Hezbollah is the cause of the ongoing battles between Israel and Lebanon.
“They would regard Hezbollah as a group that might be calling down damage on Lebanon because of its competition with Israel, and its clashes with Israel,” she said. “As we all know, Lebanon remains a divided society.”
In the streets of Beirut, however, there also appears to be increasing support for a third way of thinking about Hezbollah. Students, workers, businessmen and retired military personnel in some of Beirut’s upscale shopping districts say Hezbollah is not a good thing for Lebanon, but it is necessary.
Many Christians say they would prefer it if Hezbollah turned its arms and authority in to the government. But, they say, since they don’t think that will happen, they prefer Hezbollah remain armed for the sake of national security.