NEW YORK, Sep 24 (Reuters) Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused Israel of occupation and racism today at the start of a visit to New York for the UN General Assembly meeting that has sparked protests and anger.
His comments came after he met leaders of an anti-Zionist Jewish group. Mainstream Jewish groups were among those who condemned an invitation by Columbia University for the Iranian leader to speak later today at its World Leaders Forum.
''We do not recognise that regime (Israel) because it is based on occupation and racism. It constantly attacks its neighbors,'' Ahmadinejad said in a video news conference from New York with the National Press Club in Washington, citing recent Israeli military action in Syria and Lebanon.
''It kills people. It drives people from their homes.'' He also took a swipe at the United States, saying: ''We oppose the way the US government tries to manage the world We think this method is wrong. It leads to war, discrimination and bloodshed.'' But the Iranian leader, who last year railed at the United States in his speech to the General Assembly, played down talk of conflict with the West over Iran's nuclear program, which the United States says it is using to try to build nuclear weapons.
''We think talk of war is a propaganda tool. People who talk have to bring a legal reason for war,'' he said.
Ahmadinejad's visit and planned address at Columbia University provoked anger in some quarters. ''The Evil Has Landed'' was the front-page headline in New York's Daily News newspaper.
The newspaper reported outrage among US critics who say a Holocaust denier accused by Washington of supporting terrorism should not be given a platform at one of America's most respected universities.
Washington also accuses Iran of fueling violence in Iraq by providing weapons to anti-American militants. Iran denies the charges.
MEETING WITH ORTHODOX JEWISH GROUP Ahmadinejad today morning met leaders of a movement called Neturei Karta International, which describes itself as an Orthodox Jewish group opposed to the existence of the State of Israel.
New York police said last week that Ahmadinejad, who has called for Israel to be wiped off the map, was denied a request to visit the World Trade Center site of the September 11 attacks.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said today that it would have been a travesty for Ahmadinejad to visit the site, known as Ground Zero.
''I think it would have been a travesty,'' Rice told cable TV channel CNBC in an interview. ''This is somebody who is the president of a country that is probably the greatest sponsor -- state sponsor -- of terrorism.'' She said she did not see a way to reach Ahmadinejad but she hoped more moderate elements in Iranian politics would see the futility of Iran's remaining so isolated in the world.
''(The) regime needs to change its behavior,'' she said.
Ahmadinejad said in a CBS television interview broadcast yesterday that Iran did not need nuclear weapons and his country was not heading for war with the United States.
Asked whether Iran and the United States were heading toward conflict over Tehran's nuclear ambitions, he said: ''It's wrong to think that Iran and the US are walking toward war. Who says so? Why should we go to war? There is no war in the offing.'' Reuters GT DB2349