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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, beginning a controversial visit to Italy marked by protests, denounced Israel as a “false regime.”

The Iranian president arrived in Rome on Tuesday to attend the World Food Summit of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, an event at which he was likely to be shunned by Western delegates due to his rhetorical attacks on Israel, Holocaust denials and nuclear program.

“I do not believe that my declarations create problems,” Ahmadinejad told reporters through an interpreter.

“People like my comments, because people will save themselves from the imposition of the Zionists. European peoples have suffered the greatest damage from Zionists and today the costs of this false regime, be they political or economic costs, are on Europe’s shoulders,” he said.

Neither the Italian government nor the Vatican made themselves available to meet Ahmadinejad.

He and another international pariah, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, were also left off the guest list for a ceremonial summit dinner Monday.

Various protests took place around the city, including a march by Roman Jews through the city center. The biggest planned protest was a “Free Iran” sit-in Tuesday night at Rome’s City Hall, organized by a local newspaper and backed by the Roman Jewish community and Mayor Gianni Alemanno.

Organizers said Ahmadinejad’s presence at a summit “addressing the tragedy of hunger in the world symbolizes the devastating contradiction between the violence of totalitarian governments and their demagogic statements.”

The World Jewish Congress on Monday deplored Ahmadinejad’s participation in the summit.

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