TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iranian President Mohammad Khatami warned on Thursday of ``evil hands'' trying to use the deadly attacks on the United States to create a clash of civilizations, the official IRNA news agency reported.
Iranian attitudes to a U.S.-led international coalition against terrorism have hardened since a speech on Wednesday by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who ruled out helping Washington in any attack on neighboring Muslim Afghanistan.
``Evil hands and others who do not like to see improvement through new thoughts in the world are trying to take advantage of the sensitive situation and cause confrontation between Islam and other beliefs,'' IRNA quoted Khatami as telling visiting Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani.
He did not mention Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi who unleashed a firestorm of protest by saying on Wednesday that Western civilization was superior to that of Islam.
The reformist Khatami quickly condemned the devastating attacks on New York and Washington two weeks ago, prompting many in Iran and the West to believe the crisis might lead to closer ties. Khamenei's speech appeared to close that door.
Iran has consistently expressed concern that the latest crisis would turn into a clash of civilizations, but these worries have been brought to the fore since Khamenei chaired an emergency Supreme National Security Council on Tuesday.
Khamenei reacted angrily to a statement by Secretary of State Colin Powell in which he accused Iran of supporting ''terrorism'' through its backing of Lebanon's Hizbollah and Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The supreme leader, who has the final word on Iranian policy, replied: ``America has its hands deep in blood for all the crimes committed by the Zionist regime.''
Khatami in turn rejected any link between the attacks in United States and the Middle East crisis.
``Islamic countries should defend the rights of Palestinians and not to let the recent inhuman acts in United States become an excuse for violence and intolerance,'' he said.
In unusually strong language for the mild-mannered president, Khatami on Wednesday reinforced Iran's neutrality and criticized President Bush for saying countries either sided with the United States or with terrorism.
``I hope the president has made a mistake, because such a mentality belongs to the past century. There are countries which have suffered from both U.S. policies and terrorism,'' he said.
``Sometimes a powerful people becomes arrogant to the extent that they think they are absolutely right and those with objections are wrong. Such a way of thinking is not right at all,'' Khatami said.
The president repeated a call for an urgent meeting of foreign ministers of the 55-member Organization of the Islamic Conference currently chaired by Qatar.
The Qatari foreign minister said his country welcomed the proposal.