- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 3, 2002

VIENNA, Austria Austrian politician Joerg Haider, who has outraged liberals and conservatives alike with a visit to Saddam Hussein and favorable remarks about Nazis, is burnishing his image by hosting a group of New York City children who lost parents in the World Trade Center attacks.

About 100 children, most of them sons and daughters of New York City policemen and firefighters, are winding up a two-week tour through the southern province of Carinthia, where Mr. Haider is governor, and the northern Italian border state of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia.

The governments of the two states teamed up to sponsor the children, who are accompanied by 60 parents and guardians. They will return home tomorrow.

"We are very happy that the project has come to fruition," said Niger Innis, national spokesperson for the Congress of Racial Equality, which helped arrange the trip following a visit to New York by Mr. Haider last fall.

"The fact that this individual who has this image is trying actively to change that image is a good thing. This is bigger than just one individual. Frankly, even bigger than a couple of countries," Mr. Innis said.

The gesture is one of few by Mr. Haider that have not angered anyone.

The entry of his nationalist Freedom Party into a governing coalition two years ago so angered the European Union that it imposed sanctions against Austria, prompting Mr. Haider to step down as party leader.

Critics denounced his strong anti-immigration stance and past statements that praised Nazi employment policies, referred to concentration camps as "punishment camps," and honored SS war veterans.

Supporters view the charismatic leader as someone who will follow through on promises of job security, tax cuts and social benefits. He appeals to them as a populist leader who will protect their jobs from the encroachment of immigrants from former Eastern bloc countries.

Earlier this year, Mr. Haider angered conservatives at home and abroad by meeting with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.

The visit, described by Mr. Haider as a humanitarian mission to set up a blood bank, was condemned by the U.S. State Department and by Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, who said Mr. Haider should not have associated with a dictator "with blood on his hands."

Facing mounting criticism, Mr. Haider went on national television in February to announce that he would resign from national politics. He later reversed his decision.

Last week he changed his mind one more time, stating once again that he will resign from national politics, this time over a battle about tax reforms.

But he has received high marks for his effort on behalf of the New York children.

"Haider was one of the first visitors to New York" after September 11, said Daniel Weygandt, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, which participated in a low-key welcoming ceremony for the children.


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