Muslims credit Obama for new tone
BEIRUT (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama won praise from many Muslim leaders Thursday for a speech crafted to repair America's tainted image in the Islamic world, but more sceptical reactions showed he still has a mountain to climb.
His call for a "new beginning" with the Muslim world based on mutual interest and respect struck a chord with many who heard the speech the U.S. leader delivered at Cairo University.
But some said they had heard nothing new regarding specific policies, especially on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that symbolises injustice for many Muslims around the world.
"America for the first time is adopting a very wise strategy in acknowledging the other and that was clear in every word chosen by President Obama," said Randa Achmawi, diplomatic editor for Egypt's Al-Ahram Hebdo.
Saudi political analyst Khalid al-Dakhil said Obama's message was one of "reconciliation and new beginnings" that would be well received in the Arab world. "Whether it will be successful in bridging the gap, that will take time."
Islamic radicals reacted in hostile fashion.
"The Islamic world does not need moral or political sermons," said Hassan Fadlallah, a lawmaker from Lebanon's Iranian-backed Shi'ite Hezbollah group.
"It needs a fundamental change in American policy beginning with a halt to complete support for Israeli aggression against the region, especially against Lebanese and Palestinians, an American withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, and a stop to its interference in the affairs of Islamic countries.
In Tehran, Mohammad Marandi, head of North American Studies at Tehran University, acknowledged that Obama's tone on Iran was "significantly more positive" than under former U.S. President George W. Bush, but said talking was not enough.
"He can make a few more speeches but people are starting to ask: what are you going to change?"
Obama's call for a halt to Israeli settlement building won a cautious welcome from Palestinians, with a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas describing it as a "good start" towards a new U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Although Obama also told Palestinians to renounce violence and urged the Islamist militant Hamas group to recognise Israel, some Israelis accused him of placating Arab nations.
"He is a great threat to Israel's security because he doesn't understand the meaning of Israel to Jews," said Miriam Gal-el, a Jewish settler in Ofra in the occupied West Bank.
Many Palestinians wondered whether Obama would really be able to bring peace in the six-decade-old conflict.
"It was as long and educational as a Friday prayer sermon," said Gaza student Ali Jad, 23. "He sounded serious about ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but will that materialise?"
Issandr el-Amrani, an Egyptian analyst, said Obama's speech had not overwhelmed him. "The strongest point was probably that the situation of the Palestinians is intolerable...
"I think it will achieve its goal of generating goodwill," he said, adding that many Egyptians remained sceptical with "a nugget of optimism" about U.S. policy under Obama.
In Baghdad, the Iraqi government spokesman welcomed Obama's frequent citation of Koranic sayings and his reiterated promise to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq by 2012.
"The government of Iraq is comfortable with the clarity of the president in respecting commitments to Iraq and the timetable for withdrawal stipulated in the security pact," said spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh.
Hazim al-Nuaimi, an analyst at Baghdad University, said Obama's speech contained "nothing new" for Iraqis, suggesting that the U.S. leader, who opposed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, was trying to "remove himself from all that happened in Iraq."
In Somalia, where al Shabaab rebels, accused of links to al Qaeda, are fighting President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed's government, a moderate Islamist group applauded Obama's words.
"Obama's speech is good and Islam means peace. Obama, let's follow the verses you quoted from the Koran," Sheikh Abdulahi Sheikh Abu Yusuf, spokesman of Ahlu Sunna, told Reuters.
Al Shabaab decried the U.S. president's outreach to Muslims.
"Obama's speech is useless unless he stops his political interference with Somalia and the Muslim world," said Sheikh Mohamed Ibrahim Bilal, a senior al Shabaab official.
"If he means what he says, let him withdraw his troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Stop supporting AMISOM (the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia) and the Somalia government."
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