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NEW YORK - Even if the Holocaust really happened, the Palestinian people must not be forced to pay the price, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told students and faculty at Columbia University in New York yesterday.

The Iranian leader defended his calls for more research into the Holocaust, saying it has been abused as a justification for Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians. "Why is it that the Palestinian people are paying the price for an event they had nothing to do with?" he asked.

"You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated," Columbia President Lee Bollinger said in response to Ahmadinejad's questioning of the Holocaust. "Will you cease this outrage?"

The Iranian leader ducked a question about his repeated calls for Israel's destruction, declining to either reiterate or deny them. "We love all nations," he said instead. "We are friends with the Jewish people; there are many Jews in Iran living peacefully with security."

He said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be resolved by allowing "the people of Palestine" - Jews, Muslims and Christians - to decide their own fate, without international intervention.

Introducing Ahmadinejad, whose address at the campus sparked widespread protests, Bollinger called him a "petty and cruel dictator." He took aim at Ahmadinejad's calls for Israel's destruction, asking: "We have ties with Israel, do you plan to wipe us off the map too?" He also demanded that the Iranian leader explain his country's recent execution of human rights activists and even children, its support of violence in Iraq and its oppression of women, homosexuals and Bahais.

Bollinger was strongly criticized for inviting Ahmadinejad to Columbia, and had promised tough questions. But the strident and personal nature of his attack was startling.

"Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator," Bollinger said, to loud applause. He said Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust might fool the illiterate and ignorant, but "when you come to a place like this it makes you simply ridiculous. The truth is that the Holocaust is the most documented event in human history."

Ahmadinejad, when he finally took the stage, called the introduction an "insult" designed to prejudice the audience. "There were insults and claims that were incorrect, regretfully," he said.

He did not address Bollinger's accusations directly, instead launching into a long religious discourse laced with quotes from the Koran before turning to criticism of the Bush administration and past American governments, for everything from warrantless wiretapping to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

'No war plans'

Earlier yesterday, Ahmadinejad said that Iran would not attack Israel or any other country, and he does not believe the U.S. is preparing for war against Iran.

"Iran will not attack any country," Ahmadinejad told The Associated Press. "Iran has always maintained a defensive policy, not an offensive one, and has never sought to expand its territory."

Asked whether he believed the U.S. is preparing for war against Iran, he responded: "That is not how I see it ... I believe that some of the talk in this regard arises first of all from anger. Secondly, it serves the electoral purposes domestically in this country. Third, it serves as a cover for policy failures over Iraq."

"We don't think you can compensate for one mistake by committing more mistakes," he added, explaining why he thought a U.S. war with Iran unlikely.

In what is believed to be his first comment on a reported attack by Israeli bombers inside Syria on September 6, the Iranian president said the attack stemmed from Israeli expansionism and had nothing to with Iran. In all his replies, he referred to Israel as the Zionist regime, and not by its name.

In a different interview, Ahmadinejad also accused Israel of occupation and racism. "We do not recognize that regime [Israel] because it is based on occupation and racism. It constantly attacks its neighbors," he said in a video news conference from New York with the National Press Club in Washington. "It kills people. It drives people from their homes."

He also took a swipe at the United States, saying: "We oppose the way the U.S. government tries to manage the world."

In the AP interview, Ahmadinejad dismissed U.S. claims that Iran secretly provides weapons to insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Why would we want to do that?" he asked. "This would really be inappropriate for us. We are friends with both Iraq and Afghanistan. Insecurity in Iraq and Afghanistan undermines our own national security."

"It saddens us that people lose their lives in Iraq. We also regret that American troops are losing their lives there," he added.