Thursday, June 4, 2009

Barack Obama's speech in Cairo + VIDEO

Calling across a chasm that has opened wide in the years following the Sept. 11 attacks, President Obama will speak Thursday in Cairo about his approach to U.S. relations with the Muslim world.

It's a major address that Obama has been promising since the 2008 election campaign, when he vowed to help ease America's often-strained dealings with the globe's 1.5 billion followers of Islam.

Obama sees the speech as "a chance to hit the reset button" on U.S.-Arab relations, opening "an honest, real dialogue," according to NPR's Don Gonyea, who is in Cairo for the speech.

"You know, there are misapprehensions about the West, on the part of the Muslim world. And obviously, there are some big misapprehensions about the Muslim world when it comes to those of us in the West," Obama told the BBC before his two-day trip to the Middle East began.

Inflaming tensions are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the detention of terror suspects at Guantanamo and unflinching U.S. support of Israel.

Obama brings perceived advantages to the conversation. He's the son of a Kenyan Muslim and lived part of his childhood in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country.

But the day before the speech, pan-Arab Al-Jazeera Television broadcast a new audio tape from Osama bin Laden, who warned that Obama had stoked hatred toward the U.S. by ordering Pakistan to crack down on militants in Swat Valley and block Islamic law there.

And Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei approached the speech with skepticism.

"The nations of this part of the world ... deeply hate America," the Reuters news service quoted him as saying in a televised speech. "Even if they give sweet and beautiful (speeches) to the Muslim nation ... that will not create change. Action is needed."

Ahead of Obama's speech — set to be delivered shortly after 1 p.m. local time at Cairo University — the American leader met privately with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The talks were said to focus on Iran's nuclear goals and the potential for a peaceful solution to the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

"America is committed to working in partnership with countries of the region so that all people can meet their aspirations," Obama said.

Obama has been criticized for setting the address in Egypt, where Mubarak has jailed dissidents and clung to power for nearly three decades.

White House aides say Obama chose Egypt because it is an important strategic partner — and promise that Obama will not shrink from addressing U.S. concerns about human rights in the region.

For his part, Mubarak said: "We opened all topics with no reservations."

Obama visited Saudi Arabia Wednesday, seeking the advice of King Abdullah, monarch of the nation that contains Islam's two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina.

"I thought it was very important to come to the place where Islam began and to seek his majesty's counsel and to discuss with him many of the issues that we confront here in the Middle East," Obama said.

During a visit to the monarch's desert horse farm, where he spent the night, Obama called Abdullah wise and gracious, adding: "I am confident that working together that the United States and Saudi Arabia can make progress on a whole host of issues of mutual interest."

Abdullah expressed "best wishes to the friendly American people who are represented by a distinguished man who deserves to be in this position."

The president also spoke with Abdullah about Arab-Israeli peace efforts and the nuclear Iran's nuclear ambitions. Surging oil prices were also on the agenda.

And Obama was looking for help from Saudi Arabia on what to do with some 100 Yemeni detainees locked up in the Guantanamo Bay prison. The Obama administration has been negotiating with Saudi Arabia and Yemen for months to send them to Saudi facilities.

The Cairo speech follows other outreach efforts to the Muslim world, including visits to Turkey and Iraq in April, a student town hall in Istanbul and a video greeting from Obama marking the Persian New Year.

Just days before making this Middle East trip, Obama told NPR that he will continue to push for a Palestinian state and for a freeze on Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

The president also suggested that the United States' special relationship with Israel requires some tough love. "Part of being a good friend is being honest," Obama said. "And I think there have been times where we are not as honest as we should be about the fact that the current direction, the current trajectory, in the region is profoundly negative, not only for Israeli interests but also U.S. interests. And that's part of a new dialogue that I'd like to see encouraged in the region."

But aides say the president does not expect quick results, even though the speech will be distributed as widely as possible and will be posted on the White House Web site with links to fully translated transcripts in 13 languages.

From Associated Press and NPR reports.

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