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Obama starts Mideast tour in Saudi Arabia, ‘where Islam began’

Just as President Obama arrived in the Middle East on Wednesday to deliver his long-planned appeal for mutual understanding, the Arab world heard from a competing voice: Osama bin Laden, accusing the American president via audiotape of sowing hatred.

The attempt by Al Qaeda’s leader to undercut Obama’s speech to Muslims today served as a reminder of the hurdles still confronting the United States in the region and of the size of the task facing the president as he works to “reset” U.S. ties with Muslim countries.

But the bid for attention also suggested that leaders of the terrorist organization, who have grappled with recent criticism from former followers and from Muslims disaffected by their tactics, may fear an erosion of support for their positions as Obama’s popularity grows in Arab countries.

Separate audiotapes of words purportedly spoken by Bin Laden and his chief deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, were aired by the Arabic-language Al Jazeera satellite television channel as Obama was arriving in Saudi Arabia a day before his scheduled speech in Cairo.

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The White House saw the tapes as a likely attempt by Al Qaeda’s leaders to undercut Obama’s mission and to disrupt the message of conciliation and trust he wants to convey.

“I don’t think it’s surprising that Al Qaeda would want to shift attention away from the president’s historic efforts . . . to reach out and have an open dialogue with the Muslim world,” said Robert Gibbs, Obama’s press secretary, as the president was meeting privately with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

U.S. officials said they could not verify the tapes’ authenticity. They said that they were “assuming” the speakers actually were Bin Laden and Zawahiri, and that the militant leaders had intended their statements to coincide with Obama’s arrival.

“I don’t think the timing is a coincidence,” said Philip J. Crowley, a State Department spokesman.

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Bin Laden, part of a Saudi family that built royal palaces and gained enormous wealth in construction, became involved in the militant movement during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. After returning to Saudi Arabia, he was confined to house arrest, and left the country in the early 1990s, his Saudi citizenship publicly revoked in 1994.

Bin Laden last surfaced via audiotape in March and, before that, in January.

In the new audiotape, the words attributed to Bin Laden likened Obama to President George W. Bush. The statement said Obama ordered Pakistan to block Islamic law and crack down on militants in the Swat Valley. U.S. pressure led to a campaign of “killing, fighting, bombing and destruction,” he said, forcing a million Muslims to flee.

“This simply means that Obama and his administration have planted new seeds of hatred and vengeance toward America,” the purported Bin Laden said, according to a translation.

“In this manner,” the speaker said, “Obama appears to have followed the same path taken by his predecessor, in creating more enmity toward Muslims, and adding on to the fighting enemies, thus paving the way for new long wars.”

The tape’s broadcast followed comments attributed to Al Qaeda’s second-in-command, Zawahiri, urging Egyptians to shun Obama and contending that the “torturers of Egypt” and “slaves of America” had invited the American leader to speak in Cairo.

The administration has attempted to draw a contrast between an Al Qaeda in hiding and an American leader taking a high-profile stance with his appeal to the Muslim world.

“You have the leader of the free world speaking from one of the great cities in the world, and you have Bin Laden speaking from an undisclosed location,” said Crowley, the State Department spokesman. “That speaks volumes in terms of the contrast.”

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The messages are signs that Al Qaeda’s leaders fear the effect that a new American president popular in the region can have in a battle for public support, said Tom Sanderson, deputy director of the Transnational Threats Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank.

“He’s whipping [them], in terms of U.S. public diplomacy,” Sanderson said. “Obama is laying a groundwork for relations with Muslim countries. We’re making genuine steps, literally taking steps, walking into these countries.”

If authentic, it is Bin Laden’s first public statement in three months. He has kept such a low profile that Pakistani officials have speculated that he was dead.

Al Qaeda has been struggling against accusations that its leaders were insensitive to the suffering their violence had caused and that their approach created chaotic and ungoverned zones of violence.

According to a U.S. intelligence report last fall, Al Qaeda and similar extremist groups face declining support across the Middle East, in part because moderate Muslims do not share their vision. However, the report by the National Intelligence Council says that as they lose influence, extremists are likely to resort to more deadly tactics.

A Gallup Poll on Wednesday shows that approval of American leadership among Egyptians is at 25%, an increase but still a sign that there are considerable obstacles, even among U.S. friends in the Middle East.

Obama has been planning an elaborate outreach to Muslims since his presidential campaign. As it got underway Wednesday, he began with a stop in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, to seek the counsel of an old friend of the U.S.

King Abdullah greeted Obama with open arms and a 21-rocket salute at the royal airport before hosting the president and his party for dinner and a night’s stay at his sprawling ranch retreat.

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Amid an afternoon of cardamom coffee and conversation, Abdullah took a break to tell reporters of the “historic and strategic ties” between the two countries. Obama talked about how that might serve their mutual interests in the region.

“I thought it was very important to come to the place where Islam began,” Obama told reporters, “and to seek his majesty’s counsel, and to discuss with him many of the issues that we confront here in the Middle East.”

At the king’s ranch, Obama and Abdullah huddled, with only a few top advisors, for more than two hours. Aides said they discussed a number of topics, including oil prices and Middle East peace negotiations.

Saudi Arabia is a key part of Obama’s plan for Mideast peace. The White House has been pressuring Israel to give ground on the volatile issue of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory, planning to use that to coax concessions from moderate Arab states.

Abdullah played a role in brokering agreements for a Palestinian national unity government, and his call for interfaith talks resulted in a United Nations conference on dialogue in 2008.

Even as Obama seeks to mend the U.S. image abroad, research suggests that part of the battle rests with the audience back home. Eight in 10 Americans believe that people in Muslim countries simply don’t like the U.S., according to the new Gallup Poll data.

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cparsons@tribune.com

mdsilva@tribune.com


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