NEW YORK (AFP) — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was to face angry protests Sunday in New York, where he was due to arrive amid a storm of controversy over his appearances at the United Nations and a top university.
The outspoken Iranian leader, who has openly called for the destruction of Israel and questioned the scale of the Holocaust, is due to speak at Columbia University on Monday, a day before addressing the UN General Assembly.
The Iranian leader said before leaving Tehran earlier Sunday that the visit would allow him to meet independent politicians from Tehran's arch foe and give Iran a platform to address the international community.
"The General Assembly of the United Nations is a good opportunity to present the solutions of the Iranian people to solve the problems of the world," he was quoted as saying by the Fars news agency.
"We need to take advantage of such opportunities to present the positions of the Iranian people as they (the Americans) are very keen to hear them."
The visit has sparked bitter controversy in the United States, where the Iranian leader is considered an ally of Islamic militants and insurgents blamed for the deaths of thousands of US troops deployed in Iraq.
The trip comes at a low point in relations between Iran and the United States, which have not had formal diplomatic ties since revolutionary students stormed the US embassy in Tehran in 1979.
City politicians and Jewish groups have led opposition to Ahmadinejad's visit, with New York City council speaker Christine Quinn urging Columbia University to withdraw its invitation to the Iranian leader.
"Ahmadinejad is a Holocaust denier, here for one reason -- to spread his hate-mongering vitriol on the world stage," she said.
Protesters were due to rally at Columbia on Sunday and Monday against his address to the university, while Iranian opposition exiles were to demonstrate at the United Nations on Tuesday while Ahmadinejad addresses the world body.
Columbia's president Lee Bollinger, however, defended the university's decision to invite Ahmadinejad, saying that Columbia "as a community dedicated to learning and scholarship, is committed to confronting ideas."
Bollinger said he would introduce the event and challenge Ahmadinejad's comments on the Holocaust, his calls for the destruction of Israel and Tehran's pursuit of a nuclear program in the face of international opposition.
What angered many New Yorkers more than anything was Ahmadinejad's plan to lay a wreath at Ground Zero -- the site of the September 11 attacks of 2001. New York City officials denied permission for the visit last week on security grounds.
President George W. Bush offered support to city officials, saying: "I can understand why they would not want somebody running a country who is the state sponsor of terror down at the site."
Ahmadinejad appeared surprised by the storm over the wreath-laying, telling CBS television: "Why should it be insulting?" He said he would not insist on visiting the site if city officials could not arrange it.
But foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini insisted a visit to Ground Zero was still on the itinerary.
"The visit to the site of the twin towers to pay tribute to the victims is part of president Ahmadinejad's program even if some people are trying to have it cancelled," he said.
The United States is obliged by diplomatic convention and as host of the United Nations to allow representatives of member states to visit areas within 40 kilometers (25 miles) of the world body's New York headquarters.
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