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Obama Popularity Soaring Across Middle East

Wednesday, 08 Apr 2009 11:07 PM

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CAIRO - The Middle East is finding, to its amazement, that it may actually like America's new leader. Barack Obama has impressed many Arabs and Muslims with promises to open a new page after years of distrust during his first presidential venture to the Islamic world this week.

It's a startling change for a region where they chucked shoes at his predecessor George W. Bush and still want to burn Bush in effigy even after he's out of office.

But Obama's charm has hiked expectations he will change American policies that have angered many Arabs and Muslims, and some remain skeptical. Top on nearly everyone's list: They want Washington to press for the creation of a Palestinian state to resolve the Israeli-Arab conflict — something Obama has promised to do.

"Everyone is optimistic about this man," Nasser Abu Kwaik, a barber in the West Bank town of al-Beireh, said Wednesday. "He is different, and he could be a friend to the Muslim world."

'Like a fresh breeze'

Many in Muslim countries echoed the words of one Indonesian woman, "I believe him."

"For the Islamic world," Obama's comments "are like a fresh breeze," said Ikana Mardiastuti, who works at a Jakarta research institute.

Obama's visit to Turkey this week was full of gestures calculated at showing he is a friend to Muslims, all aired live on Arab satellite TV networks like Al-Jazeera. The top headliner was his sound bite that the U.S will never be "at war with Islam." In a speech to Turkey's parliament, he mentioned the Muslims in his own family, a topic he avoided back home in his presidential campaign.

A town-hall meeting in Istanbul on Tuesday was also a strong symbol, with Obama answering questions from university students. To some it sent a message that this president talks to Muslims, dramatically different from the perception many had of Bush as domineering, warlike and imposing U.S. policy.

Even an offhand comment that he had to wrap up the town-hall before the afternoon call to Islamic prayers showed an easy familiarity with the rhythms of Muslims' lives.

"He's a modest person with a humanitarian view on world issues, particularly those relating to the Arab and Islamic worlds," said Jamal Dahan, a 50-year-old resident of the Lebanese capital Beirut. "Bush, on the other hand, was an arrogant man who only knew military power."

'Positive opportunity'

Even hard-liners took notice.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said his country welcomes talks with the United States if Obama proves "honest" in extending the U.S. hand to Iran, one of his strongest signals yet of openness to Obama's calls for dialogue.

A cleric at the prominent Shiite seminary in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf — where disdain for Bush's policies is high — was enthusiastic. "The Islamic world should avail itself of this positive opportunity," said Sheik Nimaa Al-Abadi. "The opening chapter of Obama in the Islamic world might be a real turning point."

In Saudi Arabia, a cleric on a government committee for rehabilitating militants away from extremism said Obama's outreach diminishes the appeal of terror groups.

Obama "will make it more difficult to recruit young Muslim men to carry out terrorist acts. They (militants) no longer have the argument to do so," said the sheik, Mohammed al-Nujaimi.

But many say they want real action.

Their skepticism was a reminder that while the "clash of civilizations" may exacerbate tensions, the heart of Arab and Muslim anger at the West is over policies, particularly the 2003 invasion of Iraq and what is seen as U.S. favoritism toward Israel.

In his parliament speech, Obama promised the U.S. would work for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But Arabs are watching whether Obama will press the hard-line government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who so far has not expressed his support for a two-state solution.

"I will believe him only when I see his troops leave Iraq and when I see him telling the Israelis that it's time for you to leave the Palestinian territories," said Tariq Hussein, 25, a shoe salesman in the West Bank town of Ramallah. "Other than that it's all a political maneuver."

In Pakistan, doubts appeared even deeper. Civilian deaths in airstrikes by U.S. pilotless planes targeting militants have angered some in the country, along with Obama's plans to send more American troops to neighboring Afghanistan.

"Who would trust what the Americans say? Their only target is the Muslim countries," said Mohammad Ayub, owner of a cotton-processing factory in the city of Karachi. "Obama's claim that (the Americans) are the friends of the Muslims seems to be a part of their conspiracy."

Opening doors

Still, the Turkey trip suggested that style and tone at least open doors.

"He understands the issues better, he has more familiarity with Islamic culture and society." said Sheema Abdul-Aziz, a 31-year-old environmental conservationist in Malaysia. She said Obama seems "sincere."

In part, Obama's warm welcome reflected the almost rabid bitterness toward Bush, who on his final visit to Baghdad was pelted with shoes by an angry journalist. The journalist became a hero across the Mideast. Iraqi Shiite radicals plan to burn an effigy of Bush at an anti-American rally Thursday in Baghdad.

While Bush often emphasized outreach to Muslims and Arabs and he was the first U.S. president to openly endorse the idea of a Palestinian state, nothing could dent the image of an arrogant, bellicose United States created by Guantanamo Bay, prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and the bloodshed that reigned in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion.

Still, even those calling Obama sincere are skeptical he can resolve the Mideast's many problems.

"It's nice to see and hear," said Riad Kahwaji, director of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. "But this region is a mess, and there are a lot of hardline adversaries still out there."

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