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Obama tells Arabic network U.S. is ‘not your enemy’

Associated Press | 1/28/2009, 7:58 a.m.
President Barack Obama, flanked by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (left) and Environmental Projection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, speaks...
President Barack Obama, flanked by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (left) and Environmental Projection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Jan. 26, 2009, prior to signing an executive order dealing with energy independence and climate change. Obama has made several strong statements in the early days of his administration, such as choosing an Arabic network as the venue for his first formal TV interview as president, part of an effort to repair relations with the Muslim world. AP /Ron Edmonds

“President Obama has made it absolutely clear … that a central priority will be repairing America’s relations with the Muslim world,” he said. “If that’s his objective, I’d say he’s been hitting home run after home run.”

In the interview, Obama called for a new partnership with the Muslim world “based on mutual respect and mutual interest.” He talked about growing up in Indonesia, the Muslim world’s most populous nation, and noted that he has Muslim relatives.

Obama’s Kenyan father was born Muslim, though a self-described atheist, and many of his relatives in Kenya are practicing Muslims. As a child, Obama lived for a number of years in Indonesia while his mother was doing research there.

This appeal does seem to have struck a chord among many Muslims.

“He’s different from the previous presidents perhaps because of his color or his Islamic background. My views of America are different now than they were during the Bush administration,” said Youssef Ali, 45, who works for the Iraqi Electricity Ministry in Baghdad.

Most of Obama’s interview focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is widely perceived in the Middle East as the most pressing issue in a region filled with animosities.

Obama said he felt it was important to “get engaged right away” in the Middle East and had directed Mitchell to talk to “all the major parties involved.” His administration would craft an approach after that, he said.

“What I told him is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating,” Obama told the interviewer.

The president reiterated the U.S. commitment to Israel as an ally and to its right to defend itself. But he suggested that both Israel and the Palestinians have hard choices to make.

“I do believe that the moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people,” he said, calling for a Palestinian state that is contiguous with internal freedom of movement and can trade with neighboring countries.

On Tuesday, Gaza’s fragile truce was threatened when a bomb detonated by Palestinian militants exploded next to an Israeli army patrol along the border with Gaza, killing one soldier and wounding three.

Obama also said that recent statements and messages issued by the al-Qaida terror network suggest they do not know how to deal with his new approach.

“They seem nervous,” he told the interviewer. “What that tells me is that their ideas are bankrupt.”

In his latest message on Jan. 14, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden said Obama had been left with a “heavy inheritance” of Bush’s wars. Shortly after the election, the network’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahri, described Obama with a demeaning racial term for a black American who does the bidding of whites.

The message suggested the terror network was worried Obama could undermine its rallying cry that the U.S. is an enemy oppressor.

“There’s no actions that they’ve taken that say a child in the Muslim world is getting a better education because of them, or has better health care because of them,” said Obama about al-Qaida.

Associated Press Writer Adam Schreck contributed to this report from Dubai.

(Associated Press)