Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez took his verbal battle with the United States to the floor of the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, calling U.S. President George W. Bush "the devil" and denouncing what he said was U.S. imperialism.
The impassioned speech by Chavez, a leftist and one of Mr. Bush's staunchest critics, came a day after the U.S. president and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sparred over Tehran's disputed nuclear program but managed to avoid a personal encounter.
"The devil came here yesterday," Chavez said, referring to Mr. Bush's address on Tuesday and making the sign of the cross. "He came here talking as if he were the owner of the world."
The leftist leader, who has joined Iran and Cuba in opposing U.S. influence, accused Washington of "domination, exploitation and pillage of peoples of the world."
"We appeal to the people of the United States and the world to halt this threat, which is like a sword hanging over our head," he said.
"Venezuela's Hugo Chavez is rapidly becoming the new Fidel Castro, but with petro-dollars, at the U.N.," said CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst Pamela Falk, "and as a candidate for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council in October, his anti-Bush comments are making him increasingly popular with member states in his campaign for that position."
Chavez's diatribe reflected the difficulty Mr. Bush faces in his key mission at the U.N. — convincing a largely skeptical world audience that his administration's fight against terrorism was not one targeting Muslims.
The main U.S. seat in the assembly hall was empty as Chavez spoke. But there was a "junior note taker" there, as is customary "when governments like that speak," the U.S. ambassador to the U.N said.
Ambassador John Bolton told The Associated Press that Chavez had the right to express his opinion, adding it was "too bad the people of Venezuela don't have free speech."
"I'm just not going to comment on this because his remarks just don't warrant a response," Bolton said. "Serious people can listen to what he had to say and if they do they will reject it."
Describing the U.N. as an "important world stage" on which leaders represent their citizens, State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey, said such personal attacks were "disappointing."
"You know, the U.N. is an important world stage, and an important forum, and leaders come there representing their people and their country," Casey said in Washington. "And I'll leave it to the Venezuelan people to determine whether President Chavez represented them and presented them in a way they would have liked to have seen."
Chavez drew tentative giggles at times from the audience, but also some applause when he called Mr. Bush the devil. Before leaving the podium, Chavez, again inciting the "devil" reference to Mr. Bush, said, "it smells of sulfur here, but God is with us!"
Chavez spoke on the second day of the annual ministerial meetings, which were overshadowed by an ambitious agenda of sideline talks.
The Mideast peace process also was in the spotlight, with ministers from the Quartet that drafted the stalled road map — the U.S., the U.N., the European Union and Russia — planning to meet. The Security Council also was scheduled to hold a ministerial meeting Thursday that Arab leaders hope will help revive the Mideast peace process.
On Wednesday, Mr. Bush met with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and described him as "a man of peace" who can help move forward the stalled peace process.
The meeting followed up on his speech a day earlier before the General Assembly in which Mr. Bush tried to advance his campaign for democracy in the Middle East during his address to the General Assembly. Mr. Bush said extremists were trying to justify their violence by falsely claiming the U.S. is waging war on Islam. He singled out Iran and Syria as sponsors of terrorism.
Mr. Bush also pointed to Tehran's rejection of a Security Council demand to stop enriching uranium by Aug. 31 or face the possibility of sanctions. But he addressed his remarks to the Iranian people in a clear insult to the government.
"The greatest obstacle to this future is that your rulers have chosen to deny you liberty and to use your nation's resources to fund terrorism and fuel extremism and pursue nuclear weapons," the U.S. leader said.
"Iran must abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions," he said. "Despite what the regime tells you, we have no objection to Iran's pursuit of a truly peaceful nuclear power program."
He said he hoped to see "the day when you can live in freedom, and America and Iran can be good friends and close partners in the cause of peace."
Ahmadinejad took the podium hours later, denouncing U.S. policies in Iraq and Lebanon and accusing Washington of abusing its power in the Security Council to punish others while protecting its own interests and allies.
The hard-line leader insisted that his nation's nuclear activities are "transparent, peaceful and under the watchful eye" of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog. He also reiterated his nation's commitment to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Earlier this month, Ahmadinejad proposed a debate with Bush at the General Assembly's ministerial meeting after the White House dismissed a previous TV debate proposal as a "diversion" from serious concerns over Iran's nuclear program.
But even though the two leaders spoke from the same podium, they skipped each other's addresses and managed to avoid direct contact during the ministerial meeting.
Also on Wednesday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai warned that terrorism is rebounding in his country and said efforts to build democracy there had suffered setbacks over the past year as violence increased, especially in the volatile south where NATO forces have been battling Taliban militants in some of the fiercest battles since the hard-line government was toppled in 2001.
"We have seen terrorism rebounding as terrorists have infiltrated our borders to step up their murderous campaign against our people," he told the General Assembly.
He said the situation was so bad it had contributed to a rise in polio from four cases in 2005 to 27 this year because health workers were unable to reach the region.
But he said the problem had to be fought beyond Afghanistan's borders as well as within.
"We must look beyond Afghanistan to the sources of terrorism," he said. "We must destroy terrorist sanctuaries beyond Afghanistan."
Karzai did not name any countries in particular. But Afghan officials have repeatedly accused Pakistan of not doing enough to stem the flow of insurgents and weapons across the border — an area where al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding.
Pakistan, which has deployed 80,000 troops along the porous border, rejects the accusation and says it does all it can.
He also expressed concern about "the increased incidents of Islamophobia in the West," saying it does not "bode well for the cause of building understanding and cooperation across civilizations."
The crisis in the ravaged Sudanese region of Darfur also was on the agenda Wednesday, with the African Union's Peace and Security Council meeting to discuss breaking the deadlock over a plan to replace an AU force with U.N. peacekeepers.
The Sudanese president said his country won't allow the United Nations to take control of peacekeepers in Darfur under any circumstance, claiming that rights groups have exaggerated the crisis there in a bid for more cash.
But Omar al-Bashir did say that the African Union, which now runs the peacekeeping mission in Darfur, should be allowed to augment its forces with more logistics, advisers and other support.
"We want the African Union to remain in Darfur until peace is re-established in Sudan," al-Bashir said at a news conference. Those comments suggest that the African Union will not face any resistance in renewing the peacekeeping force's mandate, which expires Sept. 30.