GENEVA — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dropped language describing the Holocaust as "ambiguous and dubious" from a speech attacking Israel at a United Nations racism conference, the U.N. said Tuesday.
The U.N. and the Iranian Mission in Geneva did not comment on why the change was made, but U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Monday that he had met with Ahmadinejad before his speech and reminded him that the U.N. had adopted resolutions "to revoke the equation of Zionism with racism and to reaffirm the historical facts of the Holocaust."
Ahmadinejad's accusation that the West used the Holocaust as a "pretext" for aggression against Palestinians still provoked walkouts by a stream of delegates including representatives of every European Union country in attendance. But others, including those from the Vatican, stayed in the room because they said he stopped short of denying the Holocaust.
The walkout came after Ahmadinejad accused Western nations of complicity in violence against Palestinians surrounding the foundation of Israel.
The original text of his speech said, "Following World War II, they resorted to military aggression to make an entire nation homeless on the pretext of Jewish sufferings and the ambiguous and dubious question of Holocaust."
U.N. spokeswoman Marie Heuze said that U.N. officials had checked back with the interpreters and the Farsi recording of Ahmadinejad's speech, and determined that the Iranian president had dropped the terms "ambiguous and dubious," referring instead in Farsi to "the abuse of the question of the Holocaust."
The meeting turned chaotic almost from the start when two protesters in rainbow wigs tossed red clown noses at Ahmadinejad as he began his speech with a Muslim prayer. A Jewish student group from France said it had been trying to convey "the masquerade that this conference represents."
Some in attendance who disrupted the speech were expelled Tuesday.
The United States and eight other Western countries were already boycotting the event on the eve of Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Day, because of concerns about its fairness.
In Paris, France's foreign minister said he was optimistic the U.N. could move on and approve a declaration by Tuesday night committing the world to fight racism.
Bernard Kouchner also criticized the administration of President Barack Obama when asked by a reporter about the U.S. decision to stay away from an event featuring Ahmadinejad while declaring itself open for negotiations on Iran's nuclear program.
"More than a paradox, it could really be a mistake," Kouchner said.
Most of Ahmadinejad's rhetoric was not new but its timing and high profile could complicate U.S. efforts to warm ties with the Islamic republic: Alejandro Wolff, the U.S. deputy ambassador to the United Nations, denounced what he called "the Ahmadinejad spectacle."
The global body was nonetheless hopeful that the conference could turn the page on Ahmadinejad's appearance.
"In the drama of yesterday everyone forgot what the conference is actually about," U.N. spokesman Rupert Colville said. "I think we're back on track now."
In Tehran, around 200 people gathered at the airport to give Ahmadinejad a hero's welcome., welcoming him with bunches of flowers.
State TV described him as having defended Palestinian rights against a racist regime. The official IRNA news agency, which strongly supports Ahmadinejad, quoted lawmaker Mohammad Reza Bahonar as saying that Ahmadinejad's speech in Geneva was a "great achievement for the (Iran's ruling) system."
Iran's state television also said Tuesday that the parliament speaker has warned Israel against a possible attack on the country's nuclear facilities.
Conference organizers in Geneva had sought desperately to avoid the problems that marred the last global racism gathering eight years ago in Durban, South Africa. The U.S. and Israel walked out midway into that event over an attempt by Muslim countries to liken Zionism — the movement to establish a Jewish state in the Holy Land — to racism.
Even though any final document will have no enforceable measures, it has aroused great passion from all governments.
Israel is not mentioned anywhere in the declaration prepared for the current meeting, which seeks to avoid any offense but has angered many in the Muslim world for its failure to point the finger directly at the Jewish state for its treatment of Palestinians.
Also Tuesday, the U.N. said it expelled 13 people from the conference, including members of Jewish and Iranian groups that disrupted the speech by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It first said 375 had been excluded, but later called it a mistake to have barred additional individuals not directly linked to Monday's disruptions.
"At the United Nations we demand that conferences and debates be held in a spirit of mutual respect and dignity," Heuze said.