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Obama speaks of peace to Muslim world

CAIRO - President Barack Obama called for a "new beginningbetween the United States and Muslims" Thursday and said together,they could confront violent extremism across the globe and advancethe timeless search for peace in the Middle East.

"This cycle of suspicion and discord must end," Obama said ina widely anticipated speech in one of the world's largest Muslimcountries, an address designed to reframe relations after theterrorists attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

- Photos: President Barack Obama in the Middle East

- Click here to read the text of President Obama's speech

In a gesture, Obama conceded at the beginning of his remarksthat tension "has been fed by colonialism that denied rights andopportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in whichMuslim-majority countries were often treated as proxies withoutregard to their own aspirations."

"And I consider it part of my responsibility as president ofthe United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islamwherever they appear," he said.

At the same time, he said the same principle must apply inreverse. "Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, Americais not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire."

Obama spoke at Cairo University after meeting with EgyptianPresident Hosni Mubarak on the second stop of a four-nation trip tothe Middle East and Europe.

The speech was the centerpiece of his journey, and while itstone was striking, the president also covered the Middle East peaceprocess, Iran, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the violencestruggle waged by al-Qaida.

Obama arrived in the Middle East on Wednesday, greeted by a newand threatening message from al-Qaida's leader, Osama bin Laden. Inan audio recording, the terrorist leader said the presidentinflamed the Muslim world by ordering Pakistan to crack down onmilitants in Swat Valley and block Islamic law there.

But the president said the actions of violent extremist Muslimsare "irreconcilable with the rights of human beings," and quotedthe Quran to make his point.

"Islam is not part of the problem in combatting violentextremism -- it is an important part of promoting peace," he said.

The White House said Obama's speech contained no new policyproposals on the Middle East, and he issued an evenhanded call toIsrael and Palestinians alike to live up to their internationalobligations.

"Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements,and recognize Israel's right to exist," he said of theorganization the United States deems as terrorists.

"The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern,with institutions that serve the needs of its people," Obama said.

"At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just asIsrael's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine.The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continuedIsraeli settlements" on the West Bank and outskirts of Jerusalem,he said. "It is time for these settlements to stop."

As for Jerusalem itself, he said it should be a "secure andlasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims ..."

Obama also said the Arab nations should no longer use theconflict with Israel to distract its own people from otherproblems.

He treaded lightly on one issue that President George W. Bushhad made a centerpiece of his second term -- the spread ofdemocracy.

Obama said he has a commitment to governments "that reflect thewill of the people." And yet, he said, "No system of governmentcan or should be imposed upon one nation by any other."

At times, there was an echo of Obama's campaign mantra of changein his remarks, and he said many are afraid it cannot occur.

"There is so much fear, so much mistrust. But if we choose tobe bound by the past, we will never move forward," he said.

The president's brief stay in Cairo included a visit to theSultan Hassan mosque, a 600-year-old center of Islamic worship andstudy. A tour of the Great Pyramids of Giza was also on hisitinerary.

The build-up to the speech was enormous, stoked by the WhiteHouse although Obama seemed at pains to minimize hopes forimmediate consequences.

"One speech is not going to solve all the problems in theMiddle East," he told a French interviewer. "Expectations shouldbe somewhat modest."

Eager to spread the president's message as widely as possible,the tech-savvy White House orchestrated a live Webcast of thespeech on the White House site; remarks translated into 13languages; a special State Department site where users could signup for speech highlights; and distribution of excerpts to socialnetworking giants MySpace, Twitter and Facebook.

Though the speech was co-sponsored by al-Azhar University, whichhas taught science and Quranic scripture here for nearly amillennium, the actual venue was the more modern and secular CairoUniversity. The lectern was set up in the domed main auditorium ona stage dominated by a picture of Mubarak.

Human rights advocates found that symbolism troubling: anAmerican president watched over by an aging autocrat who's ruledEgypt since 1981.

"Egypt's democrats cannot help being concerned," wrote DinaGuirguis, executive director of Voices for a Democratic Egypt.

The university's alumni are among the Arab world's most famous --and notorious. They include the late Palestinian leader YasserArafat and Nobel Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfuz. Saddam Husseinstudied law in the '60s but did not graduate. And al-Qaidasecond-in-command Ayman al-Zawahri earned a medical degree.

- Photos: President Barack Obama in the Middle East

- Click here to read the text of President Obama's speech

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