Lebanon: A carnival-like atmosphere washed over southern Lebanon on Thursday as residents prepared to welcome Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad not far from the border of his arch-foe Israel.
Roads leading to the south were laced with Iranian flags and a giant picture of Ahmadinejad bearing the message "We Can" was hoisted at an Iranian-built park in the hilltop border village of Marun al-Ras, facing Israel.
"Ahmadinejad is going to terrify the Israelis," said Nabila, who was awaiting the president in nearby Bint Jbeil, a Hezbollah bastion where the hardline leader was set to speak. "We hope to see (Hezbollah chief Hassan) Nasrallah with him here and to see them both one day on the other side of the border," added the 36-year-old who declined to give her last name.
The main square in the village, demolished by Israeli strikes in the Jewish state`s 2006 war with Hezbollah, was flooded with banners hailing Iran`s assistance in rebuilding roads, bridges, hospitals and schools. Pictures of overturned Israeli tanks and weeping Israeli soldiers were also hoisted at the entrance to the village.
Ahmadinejad`s "presence here is a message of support for Lebanon and Palestine and shows that Lebanon and Iran form a common front of resistance," said Tarek, 44, who was among thousands gathered in Bint Jbeil.
Business was also booming for local vendors who were selling pins, scarves, key chains and flags bearing the faces of Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah as well as parliament speaker Nabih Berri, whose Shiite party is allied with Hezbollah. Ahmadinejad will also visit Qana, which has earned a grim place in history after being targeted by Israeli shelling that killed 105 civilians who had sought shelter in a UN base in 1996 during the Jewish state`s "Grapes of Wrath" offensive on Lebanon.
The village was again the site of tragedy when a shelter collapsed on dozens of residents, including disabled children, during Israeli strikes at the height of the month-long 2006 war. Across the border, Israeli officials and citizens were closely following the visit of the Iranian leader, who has described the Nazi Holocaust as a myth and consistently predicted the Jewish state`s demise.
"Right now we can see the stage they prepared for him, the giant portrait, where he`s going to make his speech on the mountain," Haim Biton, a resident of the Israeli border village of Avivim, told army radio. The border region, a stronghold of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, is often seen as the frontline in a proxy war between Israel and Iran.
Heavy security measures were imposed in the area Thursday with Hezbollah in charge of Ahmadinejad`s tour.
Many Lebanese flocked to the region from early morning from the capital Beirut and other areas. Ahmadinejad`s two-day visit, his first to Lebanon since his election in 2005, has underscored Iran`s reach into Lebanon through Hezbollah, the most powerful military and political force in the country.
The Lebanese themselves are divided over the trip, with the pro-Western parliamentary majority describing it as an attempt to turn the country into "an Iranian base on the Mediterranean."