NEW YORK (AFP) — Plans by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to visit New York next week have sparked deep controversy in the United States, where the Iranian leader is considered an ally of Islamic militants and Iraqi insurgents.
Ahmadinejad is due to address the UN General Assembly on Tuesday and had wanted to tour Ground Zero -- the site of the September 11 attacks of 2001 -- during his visit, but was denied permission on Wednesday on security grounds.
However, the outspoken Iranian leader, who has repeatedly called for the destruction of Israel and questioned whether the Holocaust ever happened, is still scheduled to speak on Monday at Columbia, one of the top US universities.
President George W. Bush backed New York authorities Thursday in blocking a Ground Zero tour, saying: "I can understand why they would not want somebody running a country who is the state sponsor of terror down at the site."
State Department spokesman Tom Casey echoed Bush's comments.
"It does seem to be rather appalling and the height of hypocrisy for an individual who is one of the world's leading state sponsors of terror to want to visit a place where so many people, Americans and those from more than 80 other countries, lost their lives in a terrorist incident," he said.
Republican presidential hopeful Rudolph Giuliani, who was New York's mayor at the time of the attacks, had urged city authorities to reject the request.
"This is a man who has made threats against America and Israel, is harboring (Osama) bin Laden's son and other Al-Qaeda leaders, is shipping arms to Iraqi insurgents and is pursuing the development of nuclear weapons," he said.
Ahmadinejad appeared surprised by the storm over the visit, saying in an interview with CBS television "Why should it be insulting?... I'm amazed."
He said he would not insist on visiting Ground Zero if New York officials were unable to arrange it.
"If we have the time and the conditions are conducive, I will try to do that (visit the site)... local officials need to make the necessary coordinations. If they can't do that, I won't insist," he said.
Ahmadinejad's 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.
Columbia's president Lee Bollinger, however, justified the university's decision to invite Ahmadinejad. "Columbia, as a community dedicated to learning and scholarship, is committed to confronting ideas," he said in a statement.
Bollinger said he would introduce the event by challenging Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust, his calls for the destruction of Israel and any ambitions Tehran has to acquire a nuclear weapons capability.
In fulfilling its mission as a place of learning, Bollinger said, the university would on occasion encounter "beliefs many, most or even all of us will find offensive and even odious."
"We trust our community, including our students, to be fully capable of dealing with these occasions, through the powers of dialogue and reason."
"I would also like to invoke a major theme in the development of freedom of speech as a central value in our society," he said.
Republican presidential hopeful John McCain condemned the appearance, accusing Ahmadinejad of helping insurgents in Iraq attack US troops there.
"A man who is directing the maiming and killing of American troops should not be given an invitation to speak at an American university," he said.
The State Department's Casey, however, appeared to support Columbia, saying "I think I'd leave it to president Ahmadinejad and his government to restrict people's freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of access."
Another Republican candidate, Fred Thompson, said he would not have allowed Ahmadinejad into the country to begin with.
The United States allows representatives from countries with which it has no diplomatic relations to visit areas within 40 kilometers (25 miles) from UN headquarters, under its obligations as host of the world body.
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