Iranians stage anti-Israel protests

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The Independent Online

World leaders have condemned remarks made on Wednesday by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who repeated the words of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of Iran's Islamic revolution, by saying: "Israel must be wiped off the map."

Iran's Embassy in Moscow tried to soften the impact of Ahmadinejad's comments by releasing a statement today saying the president "did not have any intention to speak in sharp terms and engage in a conflict."

But the president joined thousands of Iranians in one of multiple street protests being held in the capital, Tehran, today. Rallies were being held in other cities such as Mashad in Iran's east.

State-run TV showed Ahmadinejad surrounded by protesters, many holding banners carrying anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian slogans including "Death to Israel, death to America."

Young girls wearing head-to-toe black chadors with green headbands covered in Islamic verses chanted anti-Israeli slogans below a banner showing caricatures of US President George Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Israeli counterpart Ariel Sharon.

The demonstrations are being held as part of annual al-Quds - Jerusalem - Day protests, which were first held in 1979 after Shiite Muslim clerics took power in Iran.

The state-organised rallies are expected to grow throughout the day ahead of midday prayer mosque sermons across Iran. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians have attended previous protests.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki defended his president's comments, saying they represented Iran's long-held policy of not recognizing Israel.

"Unfortunately the Western countries have remained silent on the increasing inhuman activities of Israel," Mottaki told Associated Press Television News during a Tehran march.

Shiite cleric Saeed Farahani also accused the West of blowing Ahmadinejad's comments out of proportion.

"They (the West) are now stressing on the president's comment about Israel and when it's finished they will stress on other issues to isolate our country," Farahani told APTN. "This is a fight between right and wrong and this fight will never end."

Countries from Britain and Russia denounced Ahmadinejad's comments. The United States said the Iranian leader's hostile underscored Washington's concern over Iran's nuclear program. Israel said the Persian state should be suspended from the United Nations.

Iran's Embassy in Moscow added in its statement that Ahmadinejad "underlined the key position of Iran, based on the necessity to hold free elections on the occupied territories."

The statement came after Moscow, a key ally of Iran, summoned the Persian state's ambassador seeking an explanation for Ahmadinejad's remarks.

Iran's seven state-run TV stations devoted coverage today to programmes condemning the Jewish state and praising the Palestinian resistance since the 1948 creation of Israel.

Three stations also showed live coverage of crowds of people gathering early today in streets throughout Tehran. One man appearing to be aged in his 30s carried a placard saying: "The late Khomeini said Israel should be wiped off the map."

After Khomeini toppled the pro-Western Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1979, he declared the last Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan as an international day of struggle against Israel and for the liberation of Jerusalem.

The Iranian government organises a central demonstration annually in Tehran, while other rallies demanding Israel's destruction are held around the world. Lebanon's Hezbollah staged a mass military parade in Beirut, with the group's leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah delivering a fiery sermon.