Iran’s leader sparks Western walkout at U.N. meeting

GENEVA — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad described the Holocaust as a “pretext” for aggression against Palestinians, prompting European diplomats to walk out of a speech disrupted by jeering protesters in rainbow wigs tossing red clown noses at the hardline leader.

Ahmadinejad was the first government official to take the floor at a U.N. racism conference opening on the eve of Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day. Two protesters in clown costumes tossed soft red objects 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 threw clown noses to “symbolize the mascarade that this conference represents.”

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 and victimize Palestinians “under the pretext of Jewish suffering.”

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 already were boycotting the event because of concerns about its fairness.

Ahmadinejad went on to accuse Israel of being the “most cruel and 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.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon met with Ahmadinejad before his speech and said he counseled the Iranian leader to avoid dividing the conference. Ban 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 U.N. member state. This matter is especially severe, as it took place on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day,” Israel said.

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.

Speaking directly after Ahmadinejad’s speech, Norway’s foreign minister 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,” Jonas Gahr Store said.

Ahmadinejad has been praised in the Muslim world for calling for Israel’s destruction and 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.”

His comments today 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.

“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.

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.

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