Iran's president has addressed tens of thousands of supporters in Beirut during a rally to welcome him to the Lebanese capital.
The mostly Shiite Muslim crowd celebrated President Mohammad Khatami's visit to Lebanon on Tuesday -- his first as president of the Islamic Republic -- by waving flags of Lebanon and Iran, as well as the militant Shiite groups Hezbollah and Amal.
In his speech, broadcast on a Hezbollah-run Lebanese television station (Al-Manar), President Khatami stressed the right of the Lebanese people to defend their country. Referring to Hezbollah, which Washington has pressured Lebanon to crack down on, Mr. Khatami said any party or faction that enjoys credibility or the respect of the Lebanese people cannot be removed through accusations and threats.
Earlier today on Tuesday, Mr. Khatami met with Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, as well as Lebanese President Emile Lahud and Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
Hezbollah has gained political popularity in Lebanon because it is widely seen to have been the catalyst for Israel's May 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon. But many Lebanese, particularly Christians, remain concerned about Hezbollah's Islamic agenda.
The Iranian president's visit has been billed as one of improving trade and other ties between the two nations. A series of cooperation agreements were signed between Beirut and Tehran, including an Iranian loan of 50-million dollars to finance Lebanese infrastructure projects.
Later this week, Mr. Khatami will make stops in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain before returning home.
The Bush administration has labeled Iran part of a so-called "axis of evil" and accused Tehran of sponsoring terrorism and seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran has denied the charges.