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Iran's leader sparks walkout, shouts of 'shame'

Image: European Union delegates leave the assembly room during the speech of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
European Union delegates walk out as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad criticizes Israel during a U.N. conference on racism.Laurent Gillieron / EPA
/ Source: The Associated Press

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused the West of using the Holocaust as a "pretext" for aggression against Palestinians, prompting European diplomats to walk out Monday from a speech disrupted by jeering protesters in rainbow wigs tossing red clown noses at the hard-line leader.

A U.N. racism conference on the eve of Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Day disintegrated into chaos moments after Ahmadinejad became the first government official to take the floor. Two protesters in wigs tossed the noses at Ahmadinejad as he recited a Muslim prayer to begin his speech.

A Jewish student group from France later took credit for causing the disturbance, saying members were trying to convey "the masquerade that this conference represents."

'The pretext of Jewish suffering'
Ahmadinejad restarted his talk and delivered a speech that lasted more than a half-hour, saying the United States and Europe had helped establish Israel after World War II at the expense of Palestinians.

"They resorted to military aggression to make an entire nation homeless under the pretext of Jewish suffering," he said.

That prompted a walkout by some 40 diplomats from Britain and France and other European countries that had threatened to leave the conference if it descended into anti-Semitism or other rhetoric harshly critical of Israel, which marred the U.N.'s last racism gathering eight years ago in South Africa.

The United States and eight other Western countries were already boycotting the event because of concerns about its fairness.

Meanwhile on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged that there will be no second Holocaust at the opening ceremony of Israel's annual memorial day for the 6 million Jews who were killed by the Nazis of Germany and their collaborators during World War II.

Netanyahu criticized the U.N. conference as an anti-Israel event. He also blasted the president of Switzerland for meeting with Ahmadinejad, whom Netanyahu called a Holocaust denier who wants to perpetrate another massacre of Jews.

Netanyahu declared that Israel will not "allow Holocaust deniers to carry out another Holocaust against the Jewish people."

During his U.N. speech, Ahmadinejad went on to accuse Israel of being the "most cruel and repressive racist regime."

Protesters held placards reading "This is a circus. A racist cannot fight racism," and repeatedly interrupted the speech with shouts of "Shame! shame!" and "Racist! racist!"

Later, about 100 members of mainly pro-Israel and Jewish groups tried to block Ahmadinejad's entrance to a scheduled news conference.

'To accuse, divide and even incite'
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon met with Ahmadinejad before his speech and said he had counseled the Iranian leader to avoid dividing the conference. Ban later said he was disappointed Ahmadinejad had used his speech "to accuse, divide and even incite," directly opposing the aim of the meeting.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry condemned Ahmadinejad's speech and Ban's meeting with the Iranian leader.

"It is unfortunate that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon deemed it appropriate to meet with the greatest Holocaust denier of our time, the head of a U.N. member state who calls for the destruction of another UN member state. This matter is especially severe, as it took place on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day," Israel said.

Ahmadinejad has been praised by some in the Muslim world for calling for Israel's destruction and for other anti-Israeli comments. The hard-liner has often used international forums to criticize Israel including at last year's U.N. General Assembly where he said Israel was on "a definite slope to collapse."

But his comments Monday could also further strain efforts to improve relations with the United States, Israel's top ally. Iran has been mostly lukewarm to overtures from President Barack Obama, but last week Ahmadinejad said the Islamic Republic was ready for a new relationship with Washington.

'Vile and hateful speech'
Alejandro Wolff, the U.S. deputy ambassador to the United Nations, denounced "the Ahmadinejad spectacle" and the Iranian president's "vile and hateful speech."

"It's inaccurate. It shows disregard for the organization to which he is speaking, the United Nations, and does a grave injustice to the Iranian nation and the Iranian people," Wolff told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York.

"We call on the Iranian leadership to show much measured, moderate, honest and constructive rhetoric when dealing with issues in the region, and not this type of vile, hateful, inciteful speech that we all saw ... this morning," he said.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown's spokesman said Britain would return to the talks but "unreservedly condemns his offensive and unacceptable remarks."

"He ascribed all the problems relating to racism in the modern world to Israel and the Jewish state, and that was enough for me to walk out," British Ambassador Peter Gooderham said.

In Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy condemned what he called "an intolerable call to racist hate" and urged a firm reaction by the European Union.

Ahmadinejad's speech also took aim at the United States for its role in the global economic crisis and at Western countries for imposing unfair economic conditions on the developing world. Among his more brazen claims was the allegation that Zionists instigated the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in concert with weapons manufacturers.

Iran's state TV broadcast pictures showing some delegates cheering and other delegates leaving the conference.

"The president confidently continued his speech despite efforts by some Western diplomats to disrupt his address," it said.

Popularity waning in Iran
But Ahmadinejad's anti-Israel remarks may not be well-received among many others in Iran. Ahmadinejad is up for re-election in June, but his popularity has been waning as Iran's economy struggles with high-inflation and unemployment. Many have criticized Ahmadinejad for spending too much time on anti-Israel and anti-Western rhetoric and not enough on the country's economy.

Ahmadinejad, as head of state, had the right to speak and did not need a U.N. invitation to the weeklong event aimed at stamping out intolerance worldwide.

Joining the U.S. as boycotters were Australia, Canada, Germany, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand and Poland.

And even before Ahmadinejad's speech, Israel withdrew its ambassador from Switzerland on Monday in a harsh diplomatic response to a pre-conference dinner shared by Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz and Ahmadinejad. In their Sunday night conversation, Merz pressed the case of a jailed American journalist in Iran, acting in Switzerland's role as the official representative of U.S. interests in Iran.

The Swiss government said it also took up other "unresolved cases" of U.S.-Iranian relations in the meeting, which occurred Sunday night hours after Obama said the United States would communicate with Iran about journalist Roxana Saberi through Swiss intermediaries.

Speaking directly after Ahmadinejad's speech, Norway's Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store said the Iranian leader's comments "run counter to the very spirit of dignity of the conference."

Ahmadinejad "has made Iran the odd man out," he said.