NEW YORK -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faced sharp criticism yesterday about his opinions on women, gays, Israel, nuclear weapons and the Holocaust in an appearance at Columbia University, where protesters bearing signs reading "Hitler Lives" lined the streets and the university's president issued blistering introductory remarks inside a crowded lecture hall.
Ahmadinejad exhibits "all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator," said Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger, who went on to question the Iranian leader's record on human rights and his statements that the Holocaust was a myth.
Ahmadinejad bristled at Bollinger's comments, calling the introduction to his speech "an insult to the knowledge of the audience here."
The confrontation continued during a question-and-answer period, with Bollinger accusing Ahmadinejad of avoiding questions on Israel and about Iran's treatment of women and gays.
Ahmadinejad, who previously has called for Israel to be "wiped off the map," was invited to speak at Columbia as part of his New York trip this week to the United Nations, in which he is scheduled to address the General Assembly today about sanctions imposed against Tehran over its nuclear program. His remarks come at a time when the U.S. has accused Iran of secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons.
Controversy surrounding the visit had been rumbling for days, with some groups demanding that the United Nations and Columbia deny Iran's president a public forum to express his views.
Bollinger defended Columbia's invitation to Ahmadinejad, saying it would provide a forum for free speech and healthy debate. New York City officials, bowing to the public pressure, had refused his request to visit Ground Zero. Ahmadinejad said he wanted to pay his respects to the Sept. 11 victims and their families.
New Yorkers awoke yesterday to a front-page headline: "The Evil Has Landed," from the New York Daily News, which also called the Iranian leader a "hatemonger." A New York Post headline read: "Madman Iran Prez."
Scores of people gathered across from the United Nations to protest Ahmadinejad's visit as heavily armed police surveyed the crowd. Schools across the region turned the day into a field trip, busing hundreds of students to the demonstration.
"Anybody who [seeks] to destroy Israel is a threat to the U.S.," said John Ganzarski, 17, who came with his 450 of his classmates from the Ramaz School on the Upper East Side.
"The United Nations has a history of inviting people who probably shouldn't be allowed to speak in the public eye," he added, referring to past visits by controversial leaders including Idi Amin, Yasser Arafat and Hugo Chavez.
At the U.N. rally, New York Rep. Eliot Engel told the crowd that Ahmadinejad "shouldn't be welcomed to speak; he should be arrested for terrorism."
An hour later, people lined the streets outside Columbia, as police barricades blocked the crowd from entering the campus. A few thousand students and visitors blanketed the campus lawn and sidewalks. They listened mostly in silence to Ahmadinejad's remarks, translated from Farsi to English over loudspeakers.
The remarks echoed across the quad, where students had plastered sidewalks and steps with posters accusing Iran of human rights abuses - such as one depicting teenagers who had allegedly been killed because they were gay.
Other posters defended Iran as a peaceful nation, including one that read: "Iranians held candle-light vigils to pay respect to the victims of 9/11 attacks."
Inside, the discussion was peaceful yet confrontational.
At one point, Bollinger read an audience question: "Do you or your government seek the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state?"
Ahmadinejad replied: "We love all nations. We are friends with the Jewish people. There are many Jews living in Iran with security."
He went on, "Our proposal to the Palestinian plight is a humanitarian and a democratic proposal. What we say is that to solve this 60-year problem, we must allow the Palestinian people to decide about its future for itself."
Bollinger asked him again.
"I think many members of our audience would like to hear a clearer answer to that question," the university president said, as members of the audience cheered and clapped. Bollinger repeated the question. "I think you can answer that question in a simple way, either yes or no."
"You ask the question," Ahmadinejad replied, "and you want the answer the way you want to hear it."
Reading another audience question, Bollinger asked about punishments against Iranian citizens who are homosexuals.
Ahmadinejad told the audience: "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country."
His response brought laughter from some Columbia students on the lawn.
Ahmadinejad continued: "In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who's told you that we have this."
The Iranian leader received some cheers inside and on the lawn when he referred to the situation in the Mideast as a "60-year" problem and questioned why the Palestinians should "pay the price" for the Holocaust.
Shaka Abubakar, 46, a Muslim with a daughter studying science at Columbia, said he was a fan of Ahmadinejad. "The man's mind is very clear. He makes statements that are provocative, but so does every other leader in the world."
Erika Hayasaki writes for the Los Angeles Times.