Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faced tough questions on Monday over his hardline leadership and his country's human rights recordas he made acontroversial appearance at Columbia University in New York.


'We love all nations,' Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in his speech Monday at Columbia University in New York. ((Stephen Chernin/Associated Press) )

"Mr. President, you show all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator," said Lee Bollinger, the president of the Ivy League school, citing imprisonments and executions of dissidents and academics in his stinging opening remarks.

Ahmadinejad— who arrived in the United States on Sunday andisslated to address the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday — was surrounded bytight security in the auditorium. He smiled as Bollinger challenged him to account for his statements denying the Holocaust and calling for the destruction of Israel.

"I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer any of these questions," Bollinger said to rousing applause from the students packing the auditorium.

When Ahmadinejad took the podium, he recited a brief passage from the Qur'an, thencalled Bollinger's comments an "insult to information and the knowledge of the audience here."

"We love all nations,"Ahmadinejad said of Iranians. "We are friends with the Jewish people."

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The Iranian leader has drawn international condemnation for saying Israel should be "wiped out" and referring several times to the Holocaust as a "myth."

"For the illiterate and ignorant, this is dangerous propaganda," Bollinger said in his remarks. "The truth is the Holocaust is the most documented atrocity in human history.… Will you cease this outrage?"

But Ahmadinejad said he was merely trying to uphold the rights of scholars and encouraging further "academic research" of a historical event.

"I'm not saying that it didn't happen at all," he said. "I believe I am an academic myself.

"But why is it not open to all forms of research.… Why is it that thePalestinian people are paying for an event they had nothing to do with?"

When asked about the continuation of Iran's nuclear program in the face of international condemnation, Ahmadinejad reiterated earlier remarks that his country's research — which Tehran says is aimed at making nuclear power plants not weapons — was "completely peaceful" and "within the framework of international law."

He also dismissed criticism of human rights in his country, including reports of the persecution of homosexuals and women.

"In Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country," he said, drawing boos from the audience. He then insisted women "are respected in Iran more than men."

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U.S. officials have accused Tehran of supplying militants in Iraq with weapons and explosives to be used against U.S. troops — a charge Ahmadinejad repeatedly has denied.

Before his appearance at Columbia, Ahmadinejad said, "Iran will not attack any country," including Israel, and added he didn't believe the United States is preparing for war against his homeland.

Ahmadinejad's visit has stirred debate about free speech and attracted criticism from people who argue he shouldn't be allowed into the United States.

Dan Gillerman, Israel's UN ambassador, called Ahmadinejad's visit to the United States "shameful and scandalous."

"If I were part of this administration, and I know it's not my job, I would refuse the entry of this murderer, this bigot, this person who denies the Holocaust while preparing the next one," Gillerman told CNN on Monday.

With files from the Associated Press