Ahmadinejad's US visit overshadowed by campus furore

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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad flew to New York last night for a session of the UN general assembly, as the president of Columbia university defended the college's decision to give the firebrand Iranian President a platform.

The UN session formally kicks off tomorrow with speeches by the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, President George Bush and Mr Ahmadinejad, but the Iranian leader's off-stage activities risk eclipsing the proceedings on the East river, where special debates have been scheduled on climate change and Africa.

Mr Ban, a South Korean who is hosting his first general assembly session since taking over as UN chief nine months ago, yesterday presided over the second meeting in two days during which the Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and his American counterpart, Condoleezza Rice, found themselves in the same room during discussions on Iraq and Afghanistan.

Before leaving Tehran, Mr Ahmadinejad said the American people had been denied "correct information" and his visit would give them a chance to hear a different voice.

"The United States is a big and important country with a population of 300 million. Due to certain issues, the American people in the past years have been denied correct and clear information about global developments and are eager to hear different opinions," Mr Ahmadinejad was quoted by the official news agency Irna as saying.

However, the head of New York City Council, Christine Quinn, said "the idea of Ahmadinejad as an honoured guest anywhere in our city is offensive to all New Yorkers", and protesters intend to gather outside Columbia in uptown Manhattan. New York police last week turned down an Iranian request for Mr Ahmadinejad to place a wreath at Ground Zero, the site of the 11 September terror attacks on the World Trade Centre, citing construction and security concerns. But they left no doubt that the decision was political.

The president of Columbia university said its commitment to "understanding the world as it is and as it might be" required engagement at times with "offensive and even odious" beliefs, as he justified holding its question and answer session today.

"It is a critical premise of freedom of speech that we do not honour the dishonourable when we open a public forum to their expressions. To hold otherwise would make vigorous debate impossible," said the university president, Lee Bollinger. The US and Iran have not had diplomatic relations since the 1979 hostage taking at the American embassy in Tehran, and the mutual hostility is being fuelled by US accusations that Iran is engaging in a "proxy war" against its soldiers in Iraq.