Iran hosts conference to raise money for Palestinian government

TEHRAN, Iran—Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Friday called Israel an "unending and unrestrained threat" to the Islamic world and urged regional leaders to support the cash-strapped Palestinian government.

Ahmadinejad's remarks came at the opening of a two-day conference that's intended to rally support for the Palestinian cause. More than 600 delegates from 50 countries, including representatives from the militant Islamic groups Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah, attended the opening ceremony.

The United States and Europe cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority after the militant Islamic group Hamas, which Iran supports, won elections in January.

The Iranian leader's speech on Friday was filled with jabs at Israel, which he called "a decaying and crumbling tree that will fall with a storm."

"If there are doubts regarding the Holocaust, there are really no doubts about the Palestinian disaster," Ahmadinejad said.

But Friday's speech was more subdued than statements he made last year, when he questioned whether the Holocaust occurred and said Israel "must be wiped off the map."

It was the second time in a week that Iran has quarreled with the United States and Europe. On Tuesday, Ahmadinejad said Iran had conducted small-scale uranium enrichment in defiance of a demand by the United Nations Security Council that it suspend its nuclear program.

Israeli officials have called Ahmadinejad an anti-Semite whose nuclear efforts must be stopped.

Huge pro-Palestinian posters hung throughout the conference hall, including one that showed the Israeli flag superimposed over the face of Adolf Hitler.

During breaks in the conference, large video screens played grisly footage of dead Palestinian children, Israeli missile strikes and the funerals of dead fighters. One video showed the Star of David made of barbed wire and emanating flames.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made a rare public appearance at the conference to call on Islamic countries to help Palestinians against the "merciless and unbridled savagery" of the United States, Israel and their Western allies.

"Your martyrs are our martyrs, your sorrow and grief are our own sorrow and grief, and your victory is our own," Khamenei told Palestinians.

After his speech, delegates swarmed to embrace the elderly cleric, and laughter broke out when a woman placed a black-and-white checkered scarf—the kaffiyeh, which is long considered a symbol of support for Palestinians—around Khamenei's shoulders.

Ahmadinejad, Khamenei and several other speakers also lashed out at the United States as a tyrannical force that imprisons Muslims in "dungeons" in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Ahmadinejad didn't say how much money he hoped to raise in support of the Palestinian Authority, which has been struggling since the U.S., Europe and Israel stopped aid.

In Ramallah, the West Bank city that's the seat of the Palestinian government, Ahmed Mubarak, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said that the new Hamas-led government is counting on Iran and other nations, not just in the immediate crisis, but over the long haul.

"We are confident that Iran will not leave us alone in this difficult situation," he said in a phone interview. "This is their role and duty."

The Tehran conference came as Hamas launches efforts to raise money from other Middle Eastern countries. The Arab League started an Internet and television campaign earlier this week asking individuals to donate money to the Palestinian Authority.


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Dion Nissenbaum contributed to this report.)


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): IRAN-MIDEAST

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