Thursday, June 4, 2009

obama's cairo speech - A new effort

Beginning with a visit to the Saudi king Wednesday and continuing with a speech early today in Egypt, President Barack Obama will try to improve relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world and push for progress in settling the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In his highly anticipated speech at Cairo University, Obama will speak about extremism, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and "what he thinks needs to be done on all sides" to reach peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, aides said.

He will also speak about Muslim and American misperceptions and specific policies on both sides that have undermined relations.

En route to Cairo, Obama landed Wednesday afternoon in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, to visit King Abdullah, saying he wanted to "come to the place where Islam began" and to ask for the Saudi king's backing on a range of economic and foreign-policy issues.Shortly after his arrival, the Arabic satellite television network al-Jazeera broadcast a new audiotape that it said was the voice of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

The speaker on the tape sharply criticized U.S. policy in Pakistan and accused Obama of planting seeds for "revenge and hatred" in the Muslim world. The message warned Americans of "consequences" to come.

A U.S. counterterrorism official, who requested anonymity, said the voice on the tape had been authenticated as that of bin Laden. "There has never been a fake bin Laden tape," he said.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, "I don't think it's surprising that al-Qaeda would want to shift attention away from the president's historic efforts and continued efforts to reach out and have an open dialogue with the Muslim world."

Touching down in Riyadh, Obama was received with a ceremonial 21-gun salute, and he greeted Abdullah with an embrace and cheek-to-cheek touch. Later, at Abdullah's ranch, guards on horseback greeted the motorcade, and the king gave Obama a traditional gift of a gold medallion, described as the highest honor of the kingdom.

The king offered his "best wishes to the friendly American people, who are represented by a distinguished man who deserves to be in this position."

Obama responded, "Shukran," which means "thank you" in Arabic.

In their meetings, the leaders discussed Iran's nuclear program, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Obama's impending speech, a White House statement said.During his Mideast tour, Obama is expected to press the Arab nations to offer a gesture to the Israelis to entice them to accelerate the peace process. But Saudi officials and political experts say that the Arab countries believe they have already made their best offer and that it is now up to Israel to make a gesture, perhaps by dismantling settlements in the West Bank or committing to a two-state solution.

"What do you expect the Arabs to give without getting anything in advance, if Israel is still hesitating to accept the idea of two states in itself?" asked Mohammad Abdullah al-Zulfa, a historian and member of the Saudi Shura Council, which serves as an advisory panel in place of a parliament.

In recent years, Abdullah has asserted Saudi diplomacy aggressively in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was the first to propose broad Arab recognition of Israel in return for its withdrawal from all territory occupied in the 1967 Middle East War, and he has sought to broker unity government agreements between rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah. Obama has suggested that Abdullah's peace proposal, adopted by the Arab League in 2002 and now known as the Arab Peace Initiative, might serve as a way to revive talks among Israelis, Palestinians and Arab countries, only two of which now recognize the Jewish state.

Officials in Saudi Arabia and Egypt said that Obama had already made progress on his Middle East agenda, having restored some confidence that the U.S. is interested in and serious about pushing for a Middle East settlement.

Obama's brief Egypt visit was to include a meeting with President Hosni Mubarak, a tour of a famous mosque and a visit to the pyramids.

Before leaving Washington, Obama signaled that while he would mention American concerns about human rights in Egypt, he would not challenge Mubarak too sharply, calling him a "force for stability and good" in the Middle East.

The Cairo speech today is the latest in a series of overtures Obama has made to the Islamic world since taking office. Those include giving his first presidential interview to an Arabic-language satellite station, sending a Persian New Year's greeting to Iran, and proclaiming in Turkey that the "United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam."

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