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.
On a warm night earlier this week, a 70-year-old former Lebanese Army man said he is not a Muslim and doesn’t care for Hezbollah ideology. But, he said, he is worried for the security of the state. Hezbollah is well armed, well trained and operates a formidable intelligence machine.
“Just because I want to be against Israel, I support Hezbollah,” he said.
Hezbollah’s surge in popularity began two years ago, after a cease-fire ended a month-long war with Israel. The group suffered crushing losses, but was largely viewed as victorious in Lebanon. After the war, funds from Shiite ex-pats and supporters at home flowed into the Hezbollah coffers. The group now has a micro-credit company and a banking system.
“People saw them as heroes,” Harik said. “And worthy of funding.”
The Iranian president’s visit to Lebanon this week is also billed as an official state visit, boosting the organization’s credibility. Iran is a major donor to Lebanon and last week pledged to invest $450 million in Lebanon’s flailing water and energy sectors.
Many are skeptical about Iran’s motives in Lebanon. Early this month, Fares Soueid, the coordinator of the Western-backed March 14 movement, Lebanon’s ruling parliamentary coalition, accused Iran of attempting to establish a base in the Mediterranean. “The message is that Iran is at the border with Israel," he told AFP.
But at a quiet bus station in East Beirut, one 17-year-old high school student said that perhaps the rumors of eminent war are overblown, and that Iran might help his family have running water for more than six hours a day.
“I have been hearing rumors all summer,” said Elio, grinning. “Maybe there will be war tomorrow. But I don’t see any signs of war.”