Ahmadinejad Ends Lebanon Trip Near Israeli Border Iran's president wrapped up his first state visit to Lebanon Thursday. He spoke to an enthusiastic crowd in southern Lebanon near the Israeli border and then met with Lebanon's prime minister in Beirut.

Ahmadinejad Ends Lebanon Trip Near Israeli Border

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Iran's president enjoys courting controversy. And he didn't pass up the opportunity during his visit to Lebanon. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad traveled to Lebanon for a rally just a few miles from the Israel's border.

The U.S. and Israel denounced his trip to the border area as a provocation. But Lebanese villagers greeted the Iranian leader as a hero. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has this report.

(Soundbite of cheering)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: That Ahmadinejad was hours late didn't dampen the enthusiasm expressed by these thousands of men and boys who packed the sweltering stadium of Bint Jbeil. The village was decimated by Israel during its 2006 war with Hezbollah and then rebuilt with Iranian money. Some of the new buildings were adorned with posters of the Iranian president and his country's flag. Residents who attended the rally said they came to thank him.�

Mr. MOUSA ABU AHMAD: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Like Mousa Abu Ahmad, who is 86. He says he respects Ahmadinejad for defying his critics and coming here.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of cheering)

NELSON: The Iranian leader finally arrived at about 6 PM under tight security provided by the Lebanese military and Hezbollah guards in black suits.�

(Soundbite of applause)

Organizers released thousands of red, white and green balloons into the air, matching the colors of the Iranian flag. Ahmadinejad smiled and waved to the crowd from a makeshift balcony for the occasion. His wife, who wore a black, head-to-toe chador, stood on a separate balcony snapping photos of the cheering throng. Nearby, Israeli attack helicopters kept a close watch on their border.

President MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD (Iran): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Ahmadinejad called Bint Jbeil the capital of freedom and resistance. He claimed that if it weren't for the Hezbollah fighters here, Israel's territory might extend much further north.

President AHMADINEJAD: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: The Iranian leader urged them to keep up the fight. He declared that, quote, "Zionists are goners" and that, quote, "Palestine would be freed from the filth of occupation."

(Soundbite of applause)

Those statements echo his strongly held belief that Israel should be destroyed.

President AHMADINEJAD: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: He also promised Bint Jbeil residents that the Islamic Republic would stand by them until the end in the fight against Israel.

The 30-minute speech was much shorter than the Iranian leader's usual fare. That wasn't surprising given fears here that Israel might try and assassinate him.

But 25-year-old Mustafa Hussein says the message was exactly what he and others in Bint Jbeil wanted to hear.

Mr. MUSTAFA HUSSEIN: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Hussein complained that other leaders just talk.�He asked, which other world leader would dare to come here this close to the Israeli border?

The Iranian leader didn't stay. His motorcade took him to the seaside resort of Tir, an hour's drive north. Later, he headed to the airport in Beirut for the trip back to Iran.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Before he headed home, Ahmadinejad received a gift from Hezbollah -an Israeli rifle. Hezbollah said the weapon was captured from an Israeli solider during the group's 2006 war with Israel.

(Soundbite of music)

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