TEHRAN, Iran &

Iranians today called the combative introduction of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by the head of Columbia University "shameful" and said the harsh words only added to their image of the United States as a bully.




In a region where the tradition of hospitality outweighs personal opinions about people, many here thought Columbia University President Lee Bollinger's aggressive tone &

including telling Ahmadinejad that he exhibited the signs of a "petty and cruel dictator" &

was over the top.




"The surprising point of the last night meeting is the behavior of the university president," state-run radio reported, describing Bollinger's introduction as "full of insult, which was mostly Zionists' propaganda against Iran."




The chancellors of seven Iranian universities issued a letter on Tuesday to Bollinger saying his statements were "deeply shameful" and invited him to Iran.




In the letter, they asked him to respond to 10 questions ranging from: "Why did the U.S. support the bloodthirsty dictator Saddam Hussein during the 1980-88 Iraqi-imposed war on Iran?" to "Why has the U.S. military failed to find al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden even with all its advanced equipment?"




Ahmadinejad's visit to New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly has created a stir and thousands have protested his there.




Despite calls to cancel Ahmadinejad's question-and-answer forum at Columbia, Bollinger said the hardline leader, known for his anti-Israel and U.S. rhetoric, should be allowed to speak.




Ahmadinejad smiled at first in response to Bollinger's words, then decried the "insults" and "unfriendly treatment." In his speech, Ahmadinejad portrayed himself as an intellectual and argued that his administration respected reason and science. He even drew audience applause at times, such as when he bemoaned the plight of the Palestinians.




But the Iranian also found himself drawn into the type of rhetoric that has alienated American audiences in the past. He questioned the official version of the Sept. 11 attacks and defended Holocaust revisionists.




While Ahmadinejad likely expected at worst a hostile grilling by the audience, Bollinger's sardonic comments reflected a blatant disregard for the tradition of hospitality revered in the Middle East. His comments may deflect some of the U.S. criticism he got for issuing the invitation to the Iranian president, but it could also backfire by drawing sympathy for Ahmadinejad, even in quarters where he would normally be sharply criticized.




"I don't know why he (Ahmadinejad) stayed there and did not leave the meeting. Their attitude was an insult to the nature of the meeting. They should not treat him as a suspect," said Mahmoud Rouhi, a nurse, in Tehran. Though state media did not broadcast Monday's event live in Farsi, state-run TV showed a recorded version today.




"The meeting and their approach showed that Americans, even in a cultural position, are cowboys and nothing more," said Rasoul Qaresi, shopping at a grocery store in Tehran.




Ahmadinejad's international allies have also taken his side. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is expecting a visit from Ahmadinejad later this week, said he spoke by phone with the Iranian leader on Monday after his tense showdown at Columbia.




"I congratulate him, in the name of the Venezuelan people, before a new aggression of the U.S. empire," Chavez said, adding that it seemed Ahmadinejad was the subject of "an ambush."




Ahmadinejad is set to address the U.N. General Assembly later today. Thousands of people protested Ahmadinejad's visit Monday and more were expected to rally in the streets today when the Iranian leader attends the meeting for the third time in three years.




Tensions are high between Iran and the U.S. over Washington allegations that Tehran is secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons and supplying Shiite militias in Iraq with deadly weapons that kill U.S. troops. Iran denies both claims.




German Chancellor Angela Merkel threatened tougher sanctions against Iran if it remains intractable on the dispute over its nuclear program.




Merkel said she intends to make clear in her address to the General Assembly later today that an Iranian nuclear bomb would have devastating consequences not only for Israel and the whole of the Middle East, but for Europe and the rest of the world.




"For this reason, the international community must not let itself become splintered" in dealing with Iran, Merkel said.




"The world should not have to prove to Iran that it is building a (nuclear) bomb, but Iran must convince the world that it doesn't want to build a nuclear bomb," Merkel told reporters in New York.