Iranian president gets cold welcome at Columbia

NEW YORK (AP) – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad questioned the official version of the Sept. 11 attacks and defended the right to cast doubt on the Holocaust in a tense appearance Monday at Columbia University, whose president accused the hard-line leader of behaving like “a petty and cruel dictator.”

Ahmadinejad smiled at first but appeared increasingly agitated, decrying the “insults” and “unfriendly treatment.” Columbia President Lee Bollinger and audience members took him to task over Iran’s human rights record and foreign policy, as well as Ahmadinejad’s statements denying the Holocaust and calling for the disappearance of Israel.

“Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator,” Bollinger said to loud applause.

He said Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust might fool the illiterate and ignorant.

“When you come to a place like this it makes you simply ridiculous,” Bollinger said. “The truth is that the Holocaust is the most documented event in human history.”

Ahmadinejad rose, also to applause, and after a religious invocation, said Bollinger’s opening was “an insult to information and the knowledge of the audience here.”

“There were many insults and claims that were incorrect, regretfully,” Ahmadinejad said, accusing Bollinger of falling under the influence of the hostile U.S. press and politicians. “I should not begin by being affected by this unfriendly treatment.”

During a question and answer session, Ahmadinejad appeared tense and unsmiling, in contrast to more relaxed interviews and appearances earlier in the day.

In response to one audience member, Ahmadinejad denied he was questioning the existence of the Holocaust: “Granted this happened, what does it have to do with the Palestinian people?”

But then he said he was defending the rights of European scholars, an apparent reference to a small number who have been prosecuted under national laws for denying or minimizing the Holocaust.

“There’s nothing known as absolute,” he said.

He reiterated his desire to visit ground zero to express sympathy with the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, but then appeared to question whether al-Qaeda was responsible.

“Why did this happen? What caused it? What conditions led to it?” he said. “Who truly was involved? Who was really involved and put it all together?”

Asked about executions of homosexuals in Iran, Ahmadinejad said the judiciary system executed violent criminals and high-level drug dealers, comparing them to microbes eliminated through medical treatment. Pressed specifically about punishment of homosexuals, he said: “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country.”

With the audience laughing derisively, he continued: “In Iran we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who’s told you that we have this.”

Bollinger was strongly criticized for inviting Ahmadinejad to Columbia, and had promised tough questions in his introduction to Ahmadinejad’s talk. But the strident and personal nature of his attack on the president of Iran was startling.

“You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated,” Bollinger told Ahmadinejad about the leader’s Holocaust denial.

During his prepared remarks, the Iranian president did not address Bollinger’s accusations directly.

President George W. Bush said Ahmadinejad’s appearance at Columbia “speaks volumes about really the greatness of America.”