TEHRAN – Thousands of Iranians burned flags and chanted slogans against Israel and the United States on Wednesday in the largest demonstration in years outside the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran (search).
More than 10,000 demonstrators shouted "Death to America" and "Death to Israel" in front of the former embassy compound, marking the 26th anniversary of the Nov. 4, 1979 seizure of the embassy by student militants.
The demonstration came a week after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (search) called for Israel's eradication, saying the country should be "wiped off the map" -- comments that caused a flood of international condemnation and criticisms from moderates in Iran that he was needlessly stoking confrontation with the West.
Ahmadinejad has stuck by the comments, and on Friday he joined hundreds of thousands of demonstrators marching in Tehran and other cities to denounce Israel in the country's annual Quds -- or Jerusalem -- Day protest.
Wednesday's protest was far smaller -- but it was still the largest turnout in years for the annual protests organized at the former U.S. Embassy.
Demonstrators carried a large picture of Ahmadinejad emblazoned with his quote, "Israel must be wiped off the map." They burned U.S. and Israeli flags and effigies of President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Arial Sharon. Some wore a traditional Palestinian kaffiyah headdress, symbolizing their readiness to fight Israel.
"We have to continue our confrontation with the United States and Israel. This could help the world get rid of the arrogant powers," the hard-line Jomhuri Eslami daily said in an editorial.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution (search), Iranians have celebrated the Nov. 4 takeover of the embassy by militant students. The students took 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days.
Though the annual protest drew massive crowds during the heyday of the Islamic Revolution in the 1980s, during the lifetime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the past few years they have gotten smaller, drawing several thousand each time.
But Wednesday's was the first embassy rally held since Ahmadinejad's surprise victory in June presidential elections, which sealed the decline of Iran's reform movement and solidified the control of hard-liners over the government. Some Iranians fear Ahmadinejad -- a longtime member of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards -- will bring back the policies of restrictions at home and confrontation abroad seen under Khomeini.
The demonstrations were held two days early this year because of an upcoming religious holiday, which officials were concerned would hamper their efforts to mobilize school students to participate.
The protesters also supported Iran's nuclear program and asked the government not to give it up.
The United States, which broke off diplomatic relations with Iran since the embassy takeover, suspects Iran's nuclear program is a front for developing weapons. Iran has denied that and says it is interested only in generating electricity.