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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began a controversial visit to Lebanon today, one that's causing U.S. officials some concern. They're afraid the Iranian leader will enflame tensions among Lebanon's various sects. But in public at least, Ahmadinejad is being warmly received by all of his Lebanese hosts. And as NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Beruit, that reception shows a growing recognition of Iran as a powerbroker in region.

(Soundbite of cheering)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Throngs of young Lebanese lining the airport road here screamed as if they were at a rock concert when an announcer bid the Iranian president a hearty welcome in his native Persian. Ahmadinejad waved and blew kisses at the crowd as he passed in his dark Chevrolet Suburban. Here in the southern suburbs of Beirut, where Iran-backed Hezbollah holds sway, there is little doubt that Ahmadinejad is popular. 18-year-old Batoul Bassa was one of thousands of Lebanese well-wishers who turned out to see him.

Ms. BATOUL BASSA: I think that his coming here holding a really great message that Iran is near us in all our times whether bad or good.

NELSON: Iran donated millions of dollars to help rebuild Lebanon following the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah a conflict that left much of Lebanon's Shiite heartland in ruins. Karim Makdisi, an assistant professor of international politics at the American University in Beirut, says the visit is also a chance for Lebanon to build up strategic alliances in the region not just with U.S. allies, but with other powerbrokers like Iran.

Professor KARIM MAKDISI (Assistant Professor of International Politics, American University Beirut): The way Lebanon functions politically is it needs to straddle both sides and to be able to survive without descending into some kind of chaos and war.

NELSON: Makdisi says adds that Ahmadinejad also benefits at a time when Iran is under increasing pressure from the U.S. and others to curb its suspect nuclear program.

Prof. MAKDISI: The massive reception, the deals he's going to sign, he's going to get a lot of attention and it's going to break the isolation that Iran is under and show that Ahmadinejad is a statesman in the region and that he has influence and that he is able to flex his muscle in the region. So clearly that all flies in the face of the U.S. and Israeli attempts to isolate Iran.

NELSON: Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah offered a spirited defense of Ahmadinejad in a televised speech at a rally for the Iranian president in Beirut's southern suburbs.

Mr. HASS NASRALLAH (Hezbollah): (Speaking foreign language)

NELSON: But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on a tour of the Balkans, sent a thinly veiled warning to the Iranian president.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (State Department): We reject any efforts to destabilize or inflame tensions within Lebanon. And we would hope that no visitor would do anything or say anything that would give cause to greater tension or instability in that country.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

NELSON: So far, Ahmadinejad appears to be embracing all of the Lebanese sects and not just the Shiites with whom is country is allied.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Beirut.

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