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Lebanon: Hanging with Hezbollah

Hezbollah carefully controlled coverage of Iranian president's visit.

The towns on his southern tour were chosen symbolically to underline the Iranian leader’s message: Iran and Hezbollah united in Lebanon against Israel. Bint Jbeil is the sight of a bloody battle between Hezbollah and Israel. The battle reduced the town to rubble and killed dozens. Mostly rebuilt with Iranian funding, it remains a Hezbollah stronghold. Ahmadinejad also visited Qana and laid a wreath on a site commemorating 28 people who died during Israeli airstrikes in 2006.

My colleagues and I took a taxi from Beirut to Bint Jbeil, where Hezbollah press officials searched our bags, before loading us onto buses to the stadium. Bint Jbeil is close enough to the Israeli border for locals to throw rocks at soldiers on the other side. Earlier this month, I heard a rumor that Ahmadinejad planned to throw rocks across the border himself.

But the Iranian president didn’t saunter around town. He arrived by helicopter while an Arabic-speaking crowd below chanted “Welcome Ahmadinejad” in Farsi. As he took the stage, hundreds of red, white and green balloons — the Iranian national colors — were released into the air.

“Bint Jbeil is the fortress of the resistance and victory,” Ahmadinejad said in a booming melodic voice in Farsi. The Arabic translator repeated his cadence. “Let the world know that the Zionists planned to attack this town because they thought they could put boundaries to the Lebanese people.”

Israel, he concluded, will one day vanish.

After the Ahmadinejad motorcade whizzed out of town, Hezbollah officials lost interest in controlling the journalists’ movements. There were no buses or instructions, only throngs of revved-up supporters headed in every direction.

The Lebanese Army worked frantically to regulate traffic. Breathless locals approached us, eager to tell us why they loved Ahmadinejad and his stance towards Israel.

“The next war, and there is going to be a next war,” a 36-year-old man named Abdul told us gleefully. “It’s: we win.”