NY university urged to cancel Ahmadinejad speech

NEW YORK Thu Sep 20, 2007 4:36pm EDT

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during a news conference in Tehran, August 28, 2007. Columbia University was urged on Thursday to withdraw a speaking invitation to Ahmadinejad, who will be in New York for the United Nations General Assembly.REUTERS/Caren Firouz

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during a news conference in Tehran, August 28, 2007. Columbia University was urged on Thursday to withdraw a speaking invitation to Ahmadinejad, who will be in New York for the United Nations General Assembly.

Credit: Reuters/Caren Firouz

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Columbia University was urged on Thursday to withdraw a speaking invitation to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who will be in New York next week for the United Nations General Assembly.

New York City Council speaker Christine Quinn wrote to the university urging them to cancel Ahmadinejad's planned speech

on Monday, which is part of a forum of world leaders.

"Ahmadinejad is a Holocaust denier," she wrote.

New York police said on Wednesday that Ahmadinejad, who has called for Israel to be wiped off the map, had been denied his request to visit the World Trade Center site of the September 11 attacks.

Ahmadinejad said on Thursday he was "amazed" by the reaction to his proposed visit to Ground Zero and he would try to go "if we have the time and the conditions are conducive."

Asked in an interview with CBS's 60 Minutes if he would press his request, he said that if local officials could not make the necessary arrangements, "I won't insist."

CBS released extracts of the interview in advance of Sunday when it will be broadcast in full.

Quinn said universities should be a forum for a healthy exchange of differing ideas, but that there were limits.

"An exchange of ideas should not include state sponsored terrorism and hate speech. He can say whatever he wants on any street corner, but should not be given center stage at one of New York's most prestigious centers of higher education."

Columbia University did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Its Web site says the forum aims to foster public debate on key economic, political and social questions.

U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Washington does not dictate to universities who should be allowed speak at such events.

"We have no particular desire to censor anyone's ideas. I wish I could say the same for Iran," Casey told reporters.

Other speakers at the Columbia event include the presidents of Turkmenistan, Malawi, Chile and Georgia.

SUPPORT FOR MILITANTS

When he came to New York for last year's General Assembly Ahmadinejad spoke at a closed event hosted by the influential Council on Foreign Relations think tank. The meeting was boycotted by leaders of several Jewish groups.

Senator John McCain, a Republican presidential candidate, recalled U.S. charges that Iran has been supporting militants in Iraq with weapons and explosives.

"A man who is directing the maiming and killing of Americans troops should not be given an invitation to speak at an American university," McCain said on Thursday, adding that Columbia should not be "rolling out the red carpet for the leader of a terrorist-sponsoring regime."

President George W. Bush, asked to comment on the decision not to allow the visit to the World Trade Center site, told reporters in Washington: "I can understand why they would not want somebody that's running a country who's a state sponsor of terror down there at the site."

In 2002 Bush labeled Iran as part of an "axis of evil" that also included Iraq and North Korea and has accused it of backing international terrorist groups.

The United States and other Western powers also say Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons. Iran insists it wants nuclear technology only for civilian electricity generation.

Ahmadinejad, who took office in 2005, railed against U.S. aggression in his speech to the United Nations last year, and then reveled in sparring with critics at the Council on Foreign Relations.

At that event, The New York Times quoted Ahmadinejad as repeatedly questioning evidence of the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were killed by the Nazis.

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington)

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