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New Nuclear Claim By Iran

Iran has achieved a landmark with 3,000 centrifuges fully working in its controversial uranium enrichment program, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Wednesday.

Ahmadinejad has in the past claimed Iran succeeded in installing the 3,000 centrifuges at its uranium enrichment facility at Natanz. Wednesday's claim was his first official statement that the plant is now fully operating the 3,000 centrifuges.

"We have now reached 3,000 machines," Ahmadinejad told thousands of Iranians in Birjand in eastern Iran, in a show of defiance of international demands to halt the program believed to be masking the country's nuclear arms efforts.

Centrifuges are used in enriching uranium, a process that can produce either fuel for a nuclear reactor or material for a warhead.

The U.S. and allies accuse Iran of using a civilian power program as cover to develop nuclear weapons. Iran denies the charge and insists it needs the technology to generate power.

Iran is on the agenda Wednesday for French President Nicolas Sarkozy and President Bush, as Sarkozy visits Washington and addresses Congress.

Ahmadinejad meanwhile is getting publicity from an unusual source: GOP presidential candidate John McCain.

On the campaign trail in Iowa, the senator from Arizona has been toting around giant photos of Ahmadinejad, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as reminders to voters that the U.S. must push for energy independence.

During a campaign stop on Monday in Iowa Falls, after visiting a biodiesel plant in Ames, McCain propped up the photos on an easel as he spoke to a crowd gathered at a restaurant.

"Here we have two charming individuals, I'm sure you're seen their pictures before," he said of a photo featuring the Venezuelan and Iranian leaders embracing. Then turning to the one of Putin, he said: "And we have another one over here, who as you know, is the president of Russia. He is now more the dictator of Russia than he is the president."

McCain says the photos of the three leaders - who control a large portion of the world's oil supply - are meant to underscore the fragility of U.S. independence on foreign oil and how important it is for the U.S. to achieve energy independence.

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