- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

GENEVA | Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused the West of using the Holocaust as a “pretext” for aggression against Palestinians, prompting walkouts Monday by every European Union country at a U.N. conference on racism.

The meeting turned chaotic almost from the start when two protesters in rainbow wigs tossed red clown noses at Mr. Ahmadinejad as he began his speech with a Muslim prayer.

Mr. Ahmadinejad restarted and delivered his speech of 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 the walkout by some 40 diplomats from Britain and France and other European Union countries. The Europeans 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 conference on racism eight years ago in South Africa.

The United States and eight other Western countries were already boycotting the event Monday, the eve of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, because of concerns about its fairness.

Mr. Ahmadinejad also accused Israel of being the “most cruel and repressive racist regime” and blamed the U.S. invasion of Iraq on a Zionist conspiracy.

Meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to send a Vatican delegation to the conference opened a new rift in relations with Jewish groups, according to Reuters news agency.

“By participating, the Vatican has given its endorsement to what is being prepared there [against Israel],” Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, told the Italian newspaper La Stampa.

Chief Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi defended the Vatican’s presence but condemned the Iranian leader.

“Naturally, speeches like that of the Iranian president do not go in the right direction, because, even if he did not deny the Holocaust or Israel’s right to exist, his expressions were extremist and unacceptable,” Father Lombardi said.

Most of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric was not new, but its timing and high profile could complicate U.S. efforts to warm up relations with the Islamic republic. Alejandro Wolff, the U.S. deputy ambassador to the United Nations, denounced what he called “the Ahmadinejad spectacle.”

He urged Mr. Ahmadinejad to “show much more 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.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with Mr. Ahmadinejad before his speech and said he had counseled the Iranian leader to avoid dividing the conference. Mr. Ban later said he was disappointed Mr. Ahmadinejad had used his speech “to accuse, divide and even incite” thus directly opposing the aim of the meeting.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry condemned Mr. Ahmadinejad’s speech and Mr. 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 ministry said.

Most Muslim delegations in Geneva declined to comment, but Pakistan said the protesters were wrong to interrupt Mr. Ahmadinejad’s speech.

Associated Press writers Bradley S. Klapper and Eliane Engeler in Geneva, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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