Iranian leader threatens Israel's allies

Associated Press Writer

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad branded Israeli leaders "a group of terrorists" Friday, after Israel's prime minister warned Tehran would have "a price to pay" if it does not roll back its nuclear program.

The exchange was among the harshest from either leader, and reflected tension ahead of the planned circulation next week of a U.N. draft resolution on Iran's nuclear program.

Ahmadinejad called the U.N. Security Council and all its decisions "illegitimate" and said the world body was being used as a tool of Iran's enemies - the United States and Britain.

Across Iran, millions took to the streets on "Al-Quds Day," - Arabic for Jerusalem - a national holiday established by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to assert Muslim claims on the holy city. Rallies took place in Cairo, Beirut, Baghdad and elsewhere across the Islamic world.

Ahmadinejad, speaking to a crowd of hundreds of thousands in Tehran, threatened any country that supports Israel, and said the U.S. and its allies had "imposed a group of terrorists" on the region by their support of the Jewish state.

"It is in your own interest to distance yourself from these criminals... This is an ultimatum. Don't complain tomorrow," he cautioned. "Nations will take revenge."

His comments came a day after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned that Iran would have "a price to pay" if it does not give up its nuclear ambitions - and hinted Israel might be forced to take action.

He did not specifically threaten to cripple Iran's nuclear program with a military strike, as Israel did 25 years ago in Iraq when it sent combat planes to destroy an unfinished nuclear reactor. But Olmert, en route home from a three-day trip to Moscow, said Thursday the Iranians should "be afraid" of the consequences of their defiance.

"They have to understand that if they object to every compromise, there will be a price to pay," he said.

On Friday, Israel's army chief, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, said Israel cannot ignore the threat of a nuclear Iran. "This combination of nuclear weapons and an extreme regime which has the clear goal of destroying Israel is a combination to which we cannot remain indifferent," Halutz said.

Israel also accused the Iranian government of paying $50 million to Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal to block a deal that would have freed an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas-linked militants in June.

Diplomats have said they will seek limited sanctions against Tehran for its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment - a key process that can produce either fuel for a nuclear reactor or material for a warhead.

Iran claims enrichment as a national right, but says its program aims only to generate electricity. The U.S. and some in Europe accuse Tehran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

"What sort of Security Council is this? The whole world knows that the U.S. and Britain are enemies of the Iranian nation," Ahmadinejad said Friday.

The United States and Britain - along with France, Russia and China - have power to veto any Security Council measures.

"The time is over for such logic. Under such circumstances, the Security Council is illegitimate and its decisions are illegitimate," Ahmadinejad said, drawing chants of "Death to America" from the crowd.

A spokesman for British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Ahmadinejad's comments came as no surprise.

"They're consistent with what Mr. Ahmadinejad has said for some time," the spokesman said on condition of anonymity in keeping with government policy. "It's why we take the issue of Iran in general so seriously and the possibility of it acquiring nuclear weaponry so seriously."

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy also condemned Ahmadinejad's remarks as "unacceptable," although France's defense minister said Iran could avoid sanctions if it takes positive steps toward resolving questions over its disputed nuclear program.

Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said it was "very difficult to talk to Iran" because its officials may give the impression they are ready to change their stance, but then reverse themselves.

"When the factions are getting close there's a diplomatic step forward by Iran and then on the following day or three days later, when we think we're going to get into the talks once again, they step back and they stiffen on behalf of the Iranian government or president," she said.

Ahmadinejad, who has previously called for Israel to be wiped off the map, again predicted the Jewish state's demise Friday.

"This regime, thanks to God, has lost the reason for its existence," he said. "You should believe that this regime is disappearing."

Hundreds participated in pro-Palestinian rallies across the Middle East, but Iran's protests were the largest by far.

"Down down with Israel! Generation after generation we will never recognize the state of Israel!" chanted some of the 500 protesters at Cairo's Al-Azhar mosque, among the Sunni Arab world's most prominent institutions.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah's No. 2 leader said his group would never stop its resistance against Israel, after last summer's war.

"Israeli was defeated and fled from Lebanon. The Israeli society was shaken and its vulnerability was exposed from within," deputy leader Sheik Naim Kassem told hundreds of attendees at an "Al-Quds Day" concert in Beirut.

In Kfar Kila, near the Israeli border, Lebanese soldiers blocked hundreds of protesters carrying yellow Hezbollah flags from marching close to the border fence. Parades wove through at least two of Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps.

Some 60 demonstrators burned American and Israeli flags in Istanbul as well.