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Obama urges Florida pastor to drop plan to burn Koran on 9/11 anniversary

President Obama on Thursday joined the growing chorus of top U.S. officials calling on a Florida pastor to abandon his plans to stage a Koran burning on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"This is a recruitment bonanza for Al Qaeda," Obama said in an interview broadcast on ABC's "Good Morning America."

"You could have serious violence in places like Pakistan or Afghanistan. This could increase the recruitment of individuals who would be willing to blow themselves up in American cities or European cities," said Obama, who called the protest a stunt.

Obama added his voice to other officials including Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan; Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, all of whom have derided the proposed burning organized by Pastor Terry Jones,  of the Dove World Outreach Center, a church with about 50 members in Gainesville, Fla.

In numerous appearances, Jones has said he is praying on whether to go through with the protest, which has already sparked counter-demonstrations in the Muslim world, including Afghanistan and Indonesia.

"I hope he listens to those better angels and understands that this is a destructive act that he's engaging in," Obama said on ABC.

The administration stepped up its campaign to prevent the burning, but it was unclear what could be done.

"There are discussions inside the government about the possibility of doing that. I don't know that a final decision has been reached on doing that," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters Thursday. Gibbs called the burning a hateful act but shied away from calling it a hate crime, which carries legal connotations.

Meanwhile, the State Department warned overseas travelers to be careful. "The potential for further protests and demonstrations, some of which may turn violent, remains high," it said.

The dispute comes at a difficult time for the Obama administration, significantly down in polls that predict sizable GOP wins in the midterm elections. The dispute also comes at an especially sensitive time for Obama, who has repeatedly tried to repair U.S. relations with the Muslim world.

In June 2009, Obama traveled to Cairo, where he quoted the Koran and called for a "new beginning between the United States and Muslims" and an end to the "cycle of suspicion and discord" that included the 9/11 attacks and two wars in Muslim countries.

Since then, Obama has been winding down the war in Iraq, while stepping up the conflict in Afghanistan, where the government is battling an Islamic fundamentalist movement, the Taliban.

The Obama administration has also just launched its major push for Mideast peace talks, always a difficult issue and further complicated by the sharp antipathy of Hamas, seen in the West as another Islamic terror group. Hamas controls Palestinian Gaza and is not part of the current round of talks between Palestinian and Israeli leaders.

Domestically, the dispute comes during a fight over a proposed mosque and community center near Manhattan's former World Trade Center, destroyed by two airliners seized by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001. Islamic terrorists that day also attacked the Pentagon, and a fourth plane went down in Pennsylvania.

Obama will mark the ninth anniversary of the attacks on Saturday at a ceremony at the Pentagon, while First Lady Michelle Obama will appear with former First Lady Laura Bush in Pennsylvania. Vice President Joe Biden will again go to ground zero in New York.

There was no explanation of how the top administration officials divided the appearances, but the Manhattan dispute could have played a role. Obama, along with top New York officials, have strongly backed the construction of the mosque and community center despite polls showing that as many as seven out of 10 people oppose the project being built near the scene of the attack. If Obama had gone to New York, there was some concern about anti-administration demonstrations.

But there is some electoral fallout as well. For weeks, Republicans, both in new York and nationally, have attacked the proposed mosque. Once the construction was approved, Obama cited the need to protect freedom of religion in his defense.

Obama has paid a political price as well. Throughout the presidential campaign, elements of the right falsely accused Obama of being a secret Muslim. The number of Americans who think Christian Obama is really a Muslim has grown to around one in five, according to a recent poll. That is up from 11% in March 2009.

Michael.muskal@latimes.com

Twitter.com/LATimesmuskal

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