Beirut: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad received a hero`s welcome on his first official visit to Lebanon, where he hailed the country`s resistance against Israeli "aggression."
And on Thursday he was due to defy his international critics by touring villages in the south of the country, just a few kilometres (miles) from the Israeli border, that were destroyed during the 2006 conflict.
Ahmadinejad was showered with rice and rose petals Wednesday by tens of thousands of Hezbollah supporters who lined the streets and waved Iranian flags as his motorcade made its way from the airport to the presidential palace.
He can also expect a hero`s welcome in southern Lebanon Thursday, where Iran has been a major donor in reconstruction following the month-long 2006 war.
The two-day trip is viewed as a boost for the Shiite militant Hezbollah. Members of Lebanon`s pro-Western parliamentary majority however have criticised it as a bid to turn the country into "an Iranian base on the Mediterranean."
In Washington, the White House described the official visit as "provocative", while Israeli officials said it marked Lebanon`s transformation into an "extremist state."
"We reject any efforts to destabilise or inflame tensions within Lebanon," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday in Kosovo.
"We would hope that no visitor would do anything or say anything that would give cause to greater tension or instability in that country."
At a press conference with Lebanese counterpart Michel Sleiman, Ahmadinejad hailed Lebanon`s resistance against the "Zionist regime" and offered his country`s backing toward that end.
"We fully support the resistance of the Lebanese people against the Zionist regime and we want full liberation of occupied territory in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine," he said.
"As long as (Israeli) aggression exists in the region, we will not see stability," he added.
A beaming Ahmadinejad later appeared at a rally in the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburb of Beirut. He waved to a rapturous crowd of tens of thousands before taking his seat next to the militant party`s deputy commander Naim Qassem.
Chanting "Death to America" and "Death to Israel," Hezbollah supporters turned out en masse to welcome Ahmadinejad, whose country is a major financial, military and ideological supporter of their militant Shiite group.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, whose party fought a devastating war with Israel in 2006, on Wednesday echoed Iran`s call for Israel to disappear.
"President Ahmadinejad is right when he says Israel is illegitimate and should cease to exist," Nasrallah told the ecstatic crowd via video link.
Ahmadinejad, who has called Israel a "tumour" and has denied the Holocaust, repeated at the rally assertions that the Jewish state`s downfall was inevitable.
"The Zionist regime will continue its downfall and no power can save it because of the resistance in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Turkey, Iran and the rest of the region", he vowed.
The rally was held at an outdoor stadium where Iranian flags and photos of Ahmadinejad were hoisted alongside two life-sized pictures of overturned Israeli Merkava tanks.
"Iran is the heartbeat of the resistance," said Hussein Khawi, 50, who was at the rally. "Israel won`t dare come near south Lebanon anymore."
Ahmadinejad`s first visit since his election in 2005 highlights the clout Iran wields in Lebanon through Hezbollah, but it comes at a sensitive time in politically turbulent Lebanon.