BINT JBEIL, Lebanon — Despite the fact that most of the people in the crowd of tens of thousands had been chanting and waving flags in the hot sun for hours in this town in southern Lebanon, they still managed to whistle and shout when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad finally took the stage.
I tried to ask people what it was about the Iranian president they loved so much, but a man in a black suit stopped me time and time again. I assumed he was a media minder for Hezbollah, which hosted the rally.
“Is it possible without a recorder?” I asked, putting my microphone into my bag, and holding up my hands to show I wasn’t carrying a pen. No. Not possible.
It was perhaps an unsurprising response after a week of navigating the somewhat torturous process of obtaining access to the rally from Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group classified as a terrorist organization by the United States.
Earlier, on Wednesday, the Hezbollah community center in southern Beirut was packed with sweating reporters, all of them waiting for approval from the organization to cover the rally that would mark Ahmadinejad’s first visit here. The Hezbollah official in charge of journalist security spoke perfect English.
“Murdock?” he said, referring to my name. “Like Rupert Murdoch?” It’s a familiar joke in the United States, but I didn’t expect it here.
Hezbollah officials had earlier told us that their leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, might also make an appearance at the rally. This was potentially big news. Nasrallah has lived in hiding since Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel. He usually appears publicly only via video link.
After men searched our bags, we filled out forms and handed in press cards or driver’s licenses. Inside the center, we drank bottles of water courtesy of Hezbollah's public relations corps. We then waited for cars to take us to the rally.
Escorts then met the cars and showed us to a cage that corralled all the members of the press.
The show was in full swing by the time I got to the crowded platform set up for reporters. Booming music, cheering fans and a strobe-light picture of Ahmadinejad projected on a building nearby gave the rally the feel of a rock concert. After Nasrallah appeared on a large screen above the crowd (not in person), the Iranian president took the stage, signifying his alliance with Hezbollah, a group the Iran has materially supported for years and which shares the president's distaste for Israel.
About 50 journalists vied for enough space to get pictures and video, but I saw no one leave the cage to conduct interviews. Talking to people in Hezbollah-controlled areas requires express permission from the Hezbollah media office. Reporters are often detained for short periods of time in Lebanon by the organization and investigated for espionage.
Local journalists say the detentions are mostly harmless. But no one easily forgets that in Hezbollah-controlled areas, they are beyond the reach of the Lebanese government or foreign embassies.
While taking pictures from inside the cage, a security officer in a black suit with a plastic ear-bug instructed a local journalist to look through my camera. There were no pictures of the security officers on my memory card, so she gave back the camera and told the officer that it was okay.
“If you take pictures of the men,” she said, “then you have to give them your camera. Sorry, eh?”
Western reporters were once able to roam freely in southern Beirut. But since the 2006 war, things have changed. Before asking a single question on the street, or taking a single picture, reporters are told to turn in copies of their passports, itineraries and questions.
Once all the materials are turned in, Hezbollah generally grants reporters access. They say they just want to protect themselves from Israeli spies.
After the rally, Ahmadinejad headed south, despite earlier pleas from Israel and the United States to the Lebanese government that it not host the Iranian leader so close to the Israeli border. The Iranian president is a sworn enemy of the Jewish state and regularly denies the Holocaust. Israeli officials later slammed the visit, saying Lebanon has now joined the “axis of extremist states that oppose peace and support terror,” according to the news service AFP.
The towns on his southern tour were chosen symbolically to underline the Iranian leader’s message: Iran and Hezbollah united in Lebanon against Israel. Bint Jbeil is the sight of a bloody battle between Hezbollah and Israel. The battle reduced the town to rubble and killed dozens. Mostly rebuilt with Iranian funding, it remains a Hezbollah stronghold. Ahmadinejad also visited Qana and laid a wreath on a site commemorating 28 people who died during Israeli airstrikes in 2006.
My colleagues and I took a taxi from Beirut to Bint Jbeil, where Hezbollah press officials searched our bags, before loading us onto buses to the stadium. Bint Jbeil is close enough to the Israeli border for locals to throw rocks at soldiers on the other side. Earlier this month, I heard a rumor that Ahmadinejad planned to throw rocks across the border himself.
But the Iranian president didn’t saunter around town. He arrived by helicopter while an Arabic-speaking crowd below chanted “Welcome Ahmadinejad” in Farsi. As he took the stage, hundreds of red, white and green balloons — the Iranian national colors — were released into the air.
“Bint Jbeil is the fortress of the resistance and victory,” Ahmadinejad said in a booming melodic voice in Farsi. The Arabic translator repeated his cadence. “Let the world know that the Zionists planned to attack this town because they thought they could put boundaries to the Lebanese people.”
Israel, he concluded, will one day vanish.
After the Ahmadinejad motorcade whizzed out of town, Hezbollah officials lost interest in controlling the journalists’ movements. There were no buses or instructions, only throngs of revved-up supporters headed in every direction.
The Lebanese Army worked frantically to regulate traffic. Breathless locals approached us, eager to tell us why they loved Ahmadinejad and his stance towards Israel.
“The next war, and there is going to be a next war,” a 36-year-old man named Abdul told us gleefully. “It’s: we win.”