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Usual suspects

UN | World's despots win spotlight at General Assembly, but freedom-loving protesters tell their story in the streets

Issue: "Africa, Inc.," Oct. 10, 2009

NEW YORK-In his rambling 100-minute diatribe at the UN's General Assembly, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddhafi complained that everyone was falling asleep. He blamed jet lag and then suggested the UN move to another hemisphere as more of his fellow heads of state walked out.

Inside the UN halls the usual cast of despots enjoyed the opportunity the annual General Assembly affords for venting against the West, but outside that day, thousands and thousands took advantage of Western freedom to protest the despots.

The Wall Street Journal called it the largest such protest in 30 years.

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Iranian-Americans formed the largest flank of protesters, shouting, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Ahmadinejad's got to go!" with signs showing bleeding and beaten Iranians from recent street protests in Tehran. They filled the wide space of a city avenue, wrapping green scarves around their mouths and carrying fans bearing the face of Neda, the beautiful protester whose on-screen death made her an icon of the Green Movement.

One stylish young woman tucked into her hair a green headband reading, "Death to the Dictator." Another's eyelids were covered in green eyeshadow. A big green fist topped a tent pole where speakers rallied the crowd.

Some participants urged revolution and said it was only a matter of time before the regime collapsed. Others said they requested only two things: human rights and the removal of Ahmadinejad. Some approved President Barack Obama's reluctance be involved in Iran's inner turmoil, saying it is more dangerous for the protesters when the U.S. president supports them. But many said Obama should not meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In Obama's first speech before the General Assembly, he warned that if Iran and North Korea "put the pursuit of nuclear weapons ahead of regional stability and the security and opportunity of their own people . . . then they must be held accountable." To that end, Obama met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao to solicit their support for sanctions on Iran. While Russia seemed to toughen its stance toward Iran-Medvedev said that sometimes sanctions are "inevitable"-China's spokeswoman said that sanctions "are not the way to solve problems and are not conducive for the current diplomatic efforts on the Iran nuclear issue."

Obama hopes to unite the nations before Oct. 1, when Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States meet with Iran. The six nations issued a statement telling Iran they "expect a serious response" at the meeting.

Ahmadinejad gave one of his usual incendiary speeches that night, saying his nation had just completed "a glorious and fully democratic election," and condemning "the murderers of the defenseless people of Gaza." Britain, the United States, France, and other European delegations walked out to protest the anti-Semitic portions of his speech.

Outside the General Assembly, no one had trouble building a consensus on human rights. Burma protesters shared a stage with Iranian-American protesters, lifting one sign in each hand: "Free Burma" and "Democracy for Iran." Kevin Banderi, a protester from Los Angeles, said Iranians are "like fire under the ash. We don't see it, but it's hot."


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