|Iranian President Khatami vows support for Hezbollah |
By The Associated Press
BEIRUT, Lebanon - Iranian President Mohammed Khatami urged the United States on Tuesday to quickly withdraw its troops from Iraq and warned against imposing a U.S.-installed government in Baghdad.
In an apparent rebuff to U.S. calls on Lebanon and Syria to rein in the Hezbollah militant group, Khatami, addressing a mass rally in Beirut on the second day of his visit to Lebanon, vowed Iran's continued support for the group, which is on the U.S. State Department list of terrorist organizations.
"The symbol for the survival of this country and its unity lies in this resistance (Hezbollah). All of Lebanon stood against methods used by the aggressive Israel. The legitimate resistance carried out by all (Lebanese) groups has made the victory a victory for all the people," Khatami said.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell recently urged Syria and Lebanon to rein in militant groups, including Hezbollah. Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon, supports Hezbollah politically but denies channeling arms to it. Iran, a Shiite-majority country, is Hezbollah's main financial backer.
Lebanon, Syria and Iran see Hezbollah as a legitimate resistance movement fighting against the former Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory. The group fought Israeli forces during the Jewish state's nearly 20-year occupation of southern Lebanon until it ended in 2000.
"The world has praised this great heroic resistance. We also are still praising it. Our support (for Hezbollah) is a support for all of Lebanon," Khatami said, drawing cheers from the crowds, who were waving Iranian, Lebanese, Hezbollah and Amal flags.
With Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah legislators sitting close to him in the first row, Khatami stressed that Israel's withdrawal from occupied Arab territories and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state were essential for peace in the Middle East.
The rally was organized by Hezbollah and its rival Shiite guerrilla group, the Amal Movement, in a show of support for the Iranian president.
Khatami is the first Iranian president to visit Lebanon in 24 years. His visit to Lebanon will be followed by a trip to Syria Wednesday.
Khatami also addressed the U.S. role in Iraq since the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
"We hope that the U.S. administration will leave the wounded Iraq as soon as possible to allow it to be run by the Iraqis," Khatami said.
"We warn the U.S. administration against plans to create other crises in the region and in the world following the Iraqi case," he told tens of thousands gathered at the 50,000-seat Sports City in Beirut's southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold.
Khatami warned Washington against imposing a U.S.-installed government in post-Saddam Iraq and called for "a one-person, one-vote" elections to allow the Iraqis to decide their future government. He said Iran was ready to help in this voting formula, which clearly favors the Shiites who constitute 60 percent of Iraq's population.
"The elimination of Saddam's dictatorship constitutes a valuable opportunity for the oppressed Iraqi people and also for the regional states. But we must not accept that the Iraqi people fall under the pressure of another injustice," Khatami said, apparently alluding to a U.S.-installed government.
He called for wide participation by Iraqis of all political and sectarian affiliations in the formation of a temporary government on the basis of "one vote for each Iraqi."
Khatami's visit to Lebanon came as news emerged that U.S. and Iranian officials have set aside decades of animosity to discuss issues such as Afghanistan and Iraq. A senior U.S. official said in Cairo on Monday that officials from America and Iran have met several times in Switzerland to try to ease friction.
Iranian Vice President Mohammed Ali Abtahi, who was with Khatami in Beirut, said Tuesday that the U.S.-Iran contacts dealt with the issues of Afghanistan and Iraq and did not discuss the restoration of bilateral ties severed since the 1979 U.S. Embassy takeover in Iran.
"After the (U.S.-led) war in Afghanistan and the occupation of Iraq, we have become America's neighbor. Whoever rules Iraq cannot ignore Iran because it has the longest border with Iraq," Abtahi said in an interview with the Lebanese Future television station.
Asked if there is a U.S.-Iranian understanding on the future of Iraq, he said, "We have a clear policy in Iran. We have suffered a lot from Saddam's presence. The elimination of Saddam is a positive thing. Our policy in Iran is that we reject foreign intervention in Iraq. The entire world should leave the Iraqi people decide their fate by themselves."