Saturday, May 9, 2009

Obama to make key Muslim address from Egypt

WASHINGTON (AFP) – President Barack Obama will make his long-awaited address to Muslims in Egypt on June 4, accelerating his bid to mend the US image in the Islamic world from an epicenter of Arab civilization.
The speech, fulfilling an Obama campaign promise, will focus on how Americans and Muslims abroad can secure the "safety and security" of their children in a more hopeful future, Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
The trip, certain to unfold amid a massive security operation, will come as Obama tries to ignite stalled Middle East peace efforts, and will represent his most significant attempt yet to engage the Muslim world.
Arabs and Muslim believers across the world have been alienated by the war in Iraq, abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib jail outside Baghdad and the Guantanamo Bay "war on terror" camp which Obama has ordered closed.
Gibbs said that the exact venue for the speech had yet to be decided, but most speculation will center on Cairo, the capital of Egypt, the most populous nation in the Arab world.
"On June 4, the president will give a speech in Egypt. The speech will be about America's relations with the Muslim world," Gibbs said.
He added that there were no plans for Obama to make any further stops in the Middle East during the visit, which will precede a trip to France and Germany focusing on World War II commemorations.
The president promised during his 2008 election campaign to make a speech at a major Islamic forum within the first 100 days of his administration which ended last week, but the timetable slipped for logistical reasons.
He did however make a speech in the Turkish parliament last month, during his first presidential visit to a Muslim-majority nation, declaring the United States was not at war with Islam, and noting his own partly Muslim heritage.
As Obama tries to kick start Middle East peacemaking, the visit will follow trips to Washington by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas.
Obama is also trying to coax sworn US foe Iran to the negotiating table in a bid to halt the Islamic state's nuclear program.
Gibbs defended Obama from claims that by choosing Egypt, where the State Department says there are "significant restrictions on the political process and freedom of expression" the US president was watering down US support for democracy promotion abroad.
"It is a country that in many ways represents the heart of the Arab world," Gibbs said. "I think it will be a terrific opportunity for the president to address and discuss our relationship with the Muslim world."
Obama last month reached out to Muslims from the well of the Turkish parliament.
"You cannot put out fire with flames," Obama said, arguing that brute force alone could not thwart extremism as he sent a flurry of coded messages throughout the Middle East.
Obama, who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, and is the son of a Kenyan father of Muslim heritage, drew on his own biography as he sought to forge new trust with the Islamic world.
The president said US ties with Islam could not be simply defined by opposition to terrorism, decades into a US struggle with extremism that was sharpened by the September 11 attacks in 2001.
"The United States has been enriched by Muslim Americans. Many other Americans have Muslims in their family, or have lived in a Muslim-majority country -- I know, because I am one of them."
Within days of taking office in January, Obama launched his effort to engage the Muslim world by granting an interview with the Al-Arabiya television network.
"Obama has created a combination of curiosity and excitement throughout the Middle East," said Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here. "He embodies change in a region where many people are terribly thirsty for political change."
The White House also said Friday that Obama will visit the German city of Dresden and the former Nazi death camp at Buchenwald in June 5, before traveling onto D-Day commemorations in France.
Obama's great-uncle, Charlie Payne, took part in the liberation of part of the Buchenwald camp in 1945 with the US Army, but Gibbs said it was unclear whether he would travel with the president.
Payne was a private in the 89th Infantry Division during World War II when he took part in the liberation of Ohrdruf, a forced-labor camp that was part of Buchenwald.

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