TEHRAN, Iran – Iran's ultraconservative president — spurning international outrage over his remarks about Israel — joined more than a million demonstrators who flooded the streets of the capital and other major cities Friday to back his call for the destruction of the Jewish state.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (search) stood fast behind his assertion that Israel should be wiped off the map and repeated the call during the nationwide protests Friday, the Muslim day of prayer.
But in an apparent attempt to blunt international outrage over Ahmadinejad's comments, the Iranian Embassy in Moscow issued a statement saying the Iranian leader did not want to "engage in a conflict."
Marching alongside the protesters, the 47-year-old former mayor of Tehran and one-time Republican Guard (search) commander renewed his criticism of the West.
"They become upset when they hear any voice of truth-seeking. They think they are the absolute rulers of the world," he said during the al-Quds — or Jerusalem — Day protest, which was among the largest since they were first held in 1979 after Shiite Muslim clerics took power in Iran.
His fellow marchers carried placards reading "Death to Israel, death to America." It is not uncommon for an Iranian president to join marches in the capital. Ahmadinejad was accompanied by five bodyguards, but otherwise security was not out of the ordinary for such an event.
Despite Ahmadinejad's continued harsh attacks on the West, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani tried to dial back the rhetoric, suggesting that Israelis and Palestinians hold a referendum to decide the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations.
"If Muslims and Palestinians agree (to a referendum), it will be a retreat but let's still hold a referendum," Rafsanjani said in his Friday prayer sermon.
The Iranian Embassy statement in Moscow said Ahmadinejad "did not have any intention to speak in sharp terms and engage in a conflict."
But that was not the message carried by the at least 200,000 Iranians who massed in Tehran to unleashed virulent condemnation against Israel, the United States and the West in general, accusing them of oppressing Palestinians and Iran.
Some demonstrators chanted "Israel is approaching its death" and wore white shrouds in a symbolic gesture expressing readiness to die for their cause.
A resolution was read at the end of the rallies backing "the position declared by the president that the Zionist regime must be wiped out."
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki (search) defended his president's comments, saying they represented Iran's long-held policy of not recognizing Israel.
"Unfortunately the Western countries have remained silent on the increasing inhuman activities of Israel," Mottaki said at the Tehran march.
Protests attracted at least 100,000 in each of Iran's eight largest cities, according to AP reporters. State television said millions of people assembled throughout the country. Major rallies also were held in other Middle Eastern countries.
In Beirut, the militant Hezbollah (search) group marked the day by staging a parade that saw more than 6,000 guerrillas march in uniform through the streets of the Lebanese capital.
The Shiite group, which supports it Iranian mentors, has sought to strengthen its position in Lebanon after the withdrawal of Syrian troops.
At least 30,000 Bahrainis marched in their capital, Manama, burning Israeli and American flags and demanding their government rescind its recent decision to end its economic embargo of the Jewish state.
The United States said the Iranian leader's remarks have only underscored Washington's concern over Iran's nuclear program. Israel said Iran should be suspended from the United Nations. U.N. chief Kofi Annan (search) expressed "dismay" at the comments in a rare rebuke of a U.N. member state.
The Vatican (search) condemned as "unacceptable" statements denying the right of Israel to exist, although it did not mention Iran by name. The U.N. Security Council also condemned the remarks, while Russia summoned the Iranian ambassador seeking an explanation for the president's words.
Iran's seven state-run TV stations devoted coverage Friday to programs condemning the Jewish state and praising the Palestinian resistance since the 1948 creation of Israel.
Three stations also showed live coverage of crowds of people gathering Friday in streets throughout Tehran.
In Washington, the State Department said it was skeptical the demonstrators had gone into the streets voluntarily.
"I think you have over the past decade seen examples of the Iranian regime organizing protests in support of some of their more outrageous policies," spokesman Sean McCormack said.
After Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (search) toppled the pro-Western Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1979, he declared the last Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan as an international day of struggle against Israel and for the liberation of Jerusalem. The founder of the Islamic regime had also called for Israel's destruction.