Iran protesters denounce Israel, back Ahmadinejad

TEHRAN - Chanting "Death to Israel" and "Death to America", thousands marched through Tehran on Friday in support of the Palestinians, days after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for Israel to be "wiped off the map".

The demonstrations, which also took place in other parts of Iran, were organised by Islamic hardliners to mark "Qods Day" (Jerusalem Day), which the Islamic republic observes on the last Friday of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Iran says Israel has no right to exist. Tehran denies US allegations that it backs Islamic groups opposing Arab-Israeli peace accords and says it gives them only moral support.

The demonstrators, marching from nine different points in the Iranian capital, trampled on Israeli flags and set fire to both Israeli and US flags.

Some shouted "Palestine, Palestine, we support you" at the state-sponsored rally, attended by most of Iran's senior officials including Ahmadinejad.

His comments on Israel were strongly condemned by the United States, Canada, Russia and European countries, as well as Israel itself which said Iran should be expelled from the United Nations.

Soldiers, civil servants and women wearing head-to-toe black chadors joined the demonstration.

"Ahmadinejad talks on behalf of all Iranians. We are ready to die for Palestine," said Mohammad Mirzayi, 25, a hardline volunteer member of the Basiji militia which enforces social restrictions such as Islamic dress codes for women.

Support for the Palestinian cause is a key commitment of Iran's foreign policy.

Basiji men and women, some dressed in camouflage uniforms and others wearing white shrouds symbolising suicide bombers, proclaimed their loyalty to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and denounced Israel and the United States, which broke ties with Iran after the 1979 revolution.

"We support Ahmadinejad's domestic and international policy," said Masoumeh Tala, a Basij woman.

The crowd marched to Tehran University for mass prayers, carrying pictures of Iran's late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his successor Khamenei.

Iran's hardline state media have been whipping up anti-Israeli sentiment for the past week to encourage a bigger turnout at the demonstrations.

- REUTERS

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