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(photo credit: AP)
On the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, nations from around the world applauded a speech in which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for the destruction of Israel.
"Governments must be encouraged and supported in their fights at eradicating this barbaric racism... Efforts must be made to put an end to Zionism," Ahmadinejad said as he addressed the UN's weeklong World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, which opened Monday in Geneva.
While he paid lip service to human rights, spoke about the oppressive nature of Western powers and called for reform of the UN Security Council, the bulk of his remarks centered on the evils of Zionism.
Israel was a "most cruel and oppressive, racist regime," which was created from the "pretext of Jewish suffering" during World War II, Ahmadinejad said.
Click on PLAY icon to watch clown heckler disrupting Ahmadinejad and EU delegates walk out
Upon hearing his opening barbs against Israel, the French delegation stood up and walked out. Some 40 diplomats from more than 20 countries, mostly Europeans but including Morocco, followed suit, as did several nongovernmental organizations, including B'nai B'rith International.
Some hecklers did not even wait for him to open his mouth. French Jewish students wearing multi-colored clown wigs and red plastic clown noses shouted out "racist" as Ahmadinejad stood up to speak.
Protesters at the event held placards reading: "This is a circus. A racist cannot fight racism," and repeatedly interrupted the speech with shouts of "Shame! shame!" and "Racist! Racist!"
The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem criticized the Norwegian representative's decision to sit through Ahmadinejad's speech.
"We are terribly disappointed in the attitude of Norway, not only sending its high ranking representative to the conference, as opposed to countries such as France and Britain, but he was the only representative of a Western country not to have left the room when the Iranian president started making his hate speech," ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said.
At a press conference in Geneva, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who earlier in the day had met with Ahmadinejad, slammed his manipulation of the conference to sew incitement.
"I deplore the use of this platform by the Iranian president to accuse, divide and even incite. This is the opposite of what this conference seeks to achieve. This makes it significantly more difficult to build constructive solutions to the very real problem of racism," Ban's statement read.
"It is deeply regrettable that my plea to look to the future of unity was not heeded by the Iranian president. At my earlier meeting with him, I stressed the importance of the conference to galvanize the will of the international community toward the common cause of the fight against racism," it continued.
"We must all turn away from such a message in both form and substance," he said.
Ban also noted that he "reminded the president that the UN General Assembly had adopted the resolutions to revoke the equation of Zionism with racism and to reaffirm the historical facts of the Holocaust respectively."
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband also commented on the speech in a statement, calling the remarks on Israel "offensive, inflammatory and utterly unacceptable."
"That such remarks were made using the platform of the UN's anti-racism conference is all the more reprehensible," continued Miliband.
"The UK delegation, along with many others, rightly walked out of President Ahmadinejad's speech because such hate-filled rhetoric is an intolerable abuse of free speech and of the conference," he said.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown's spokesman said Britain would return to the conference but "unreservedly condemns his offensive and unacceptable remarks."
In Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy condemned "an intolerable call to racist hate" and urged a firm reaction by the European Union.
France Humanitarian Ambassador Francois Zimeray told The Jerusalem Post that his country intended to remain at the conference.
US Deputy Ambassador to the UN Alejandro Wolff, whose country is one of nine, including Israel, which is boycotting the event, denounced "the Ahmadinejad spectacle" and the Iranian president's "vile and hateful speech."
"It's inaccurate. It shows disregard for the organization to which he is speaking, the United Nations, and does a grave injustice to the Iranian nation and the Iranian people," Wolff told reporters at UN headquarters in New York.
Before Ahmadinejad's speech, Iranian dissident Ahmad Batebi told a side panel at the conference that the president did not represent the Iranian people. Unlike Ahmadinejad, the Iranian people do not want to wipe Israel off the map, he said.
Almost immediately after the speech, Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel said, "Ahmadinejad has been denying the Holocaust and issuing mortal threats to the State of Israel from the beginning." He spoke at a press event organized by the Touro Institute on Human Rights and the Holocaust in Geneva.
Later in the evening, Geneva's Jewish community gathered outside the UN building to hold a memorial ceremony for the six million Jews slaughtered by the Nazis. They lit an eternal flame and read out names of victims.
Earlier in the day, just a short distance away, Ahmadinejad accused Western powers of setting off both WWI and WWII.
"Those in authority at the time set off two world wars," he said. He went on to accuse Western powers of "killing hundred of millions of people and causing mass destruction," also in Africa and Asia.
"Those who won [WWII] considered that the world was with them and set up laws that were oppressive and trampling," he said.
After that war, "armies occupied other territories and people were transferred from territories. In reality, under the pretext of compensating for the evil done in the name of xenophobia, they in fact set up the most violent xenophobes, in Palestine," he said. "They resorted to military aggression to make an entire nation homeless under the pretext of Jewish suffering."
Ahmadinejad's also took aim at the US for its role in the current global economic crisis and at Western countries for imposing unfair economic conditions on the developing world.
Among his claims was the allegation that Zionists instigated the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq in concert with weapons manufacturers.
Iran's state TV broadcast pictures showing some delegates cheering and others leaving the conference.
"The president confidently continued his speech despite efforts by some Western diplomats to disrupt his address," it said.
Ahmadinejad blamed the UN and its Security Council for making it "possible for that illegitimate government [Israel] to be set up. For 60 years, this government was supported by the world. Many Western countries say they are fighting racism, but in fact support it with occupation, bombings and crimes such as those committed in Gaza. These countries support the criminals."
He then went on to criticize the UN: "The Security Council set up after World War II, let's analyze it. The veto vote - is that equality? Is that justice? Is that equality among human beings? Or rather is it arrogance and humiliation? The Security Council must be the most important body for decision-making in order to promote peace. If a law is based on force, how can we secure peace and justice? The seeking of power and arrogance means racism, injustice and occupation."
Brenda Gazzar, AP and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.