President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran touched down in Beirut today for a deeply divisive two day visit to Lebanon, offering support to its militant Islamic ally Hezbollah and a not-so-veiled warning to Israel.
The trip to Lebanon is the first for the Iranian leader since his election in 2005 and comes at a time of high political tension in the country.
Tens of thousands of his supporters lined his route from the airport. Huge posters hung from every lamp post and as he passed by in his open topped car, people threw sweets and rice in traditional gestures of welcome.
"Ahmadinejad has done a lot for Lebanon, we are here to thank him," 18-year-old Fatima Mazeh told the Associated Press.
At the Presidential Palace he met Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and shook hands with Prime Minister Saad Harriri. He heads a fragile coalition government which includes the radical Islamic group Hezbollah.
Under Ahmadinejad's rule, Iran has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into Hezbollah's coffers and supplied it with thousands of rockets and missiles, depleted during its war with Israel in 2006.
The U.S. has backed a part of the Lebanese government that accuses Hezbollah of running a state within a state. The Hezbollah militia is widely recognized as being the strongest military force inside the country.
Analysts believe Ahmadinejad's visit is designed to boost Hezbollah's standing and send warning signals that Iran's allies in Lebanon enjoy powerful backing from Tehran.
Despite that, a group of 250 Lebanese politicians, lawyers and activists have written a letter of protest against the visit accusing the Iranian president of stirring up old divisions and pushing the country towards another conflict with Israel.
"Your talk of changing the face of the region starting with Lebanon.... and wiping Israel off the map makes it seem like your visit is that of a high commander to his front line," the letter said.
Ahmadinejad is scheduled to attend a rally in Beirut's southern suburbs, the traditional stronghold of Hezbollah. He may be joined there by the group's reclusive leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Iran's Ahmadinejad's Visit Considered a Provocation By Israel and U.S.
On Thursday Ahmadinejad will go to the south of the country, again a heartland of Hezbollah's Shia community and the scene of fierce fighting with Israel. He is due to deliver a speech in Bint Jbail, a village known as a Hezbollah base which saw fierce battles in 2006 and is within sight of the Israeli border.
Both the U.S. and Israel have called this leg of the visit a provocation.
Analysts say his tour is designed to remind Israel that should the Jewish state attack Iran's nuclear program Iran will retaliate through its proxy Hezbollah, and that that retaliation will be launched from Israel's northern border.