President Barack Obama reached out to the Muslim world today, urging a new beginning that rises above historical tensions and is built on commonly held principles that reject violence and promote cooperation and stability.
Obama, speaking June 4 at Cairo University in Egypt, told a predominantly Muslim audience that violent extremists have exploited longstanding tensions and misunderstandings to further divide the United States and Muslims around the world.
"The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians has led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile, not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights," he said. "This has bred more fear and distrust."
Emphasizing that the United States "is not - and never will be - at war with Islam," Obama said it will "relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security."
Obama dismissed any notion that the 9/11 attacks were justified.
"Let us be clear: al-Qaida killed nearly 3,000 people on that day. The victims were innocent men, women and children from America and many other nations who had done nothing to harm anybody," he said. "And yet, al-Qaida chose to ruthlessly murder these people, claimed credit for the attack, and even now states their determination to kill on a massive scale."
With affiliates around the world, Obama said, these extremists are trying to expand their reach. "These are not opinions to be debated," he said. "These are facts to be dealt with."
Obama said his first duty as president is to protect the American people, and said he won't compromise that responsibility as he works to promoting international cooperation in standing up to violent extremists.
The president pointed to the situation in Afghanistan as an example of America's goals and the need for the United States and the Muslim world to work together.
"Over seven years ago, the United States pursued al-Qaida and the Taliban with broad international support," he said. "We did not go by choice, we went because of necessity."
Obama emphasized that the United States has no interest in keeping its troops in Afghanistan or establishing military bases there.
"It is agonizing for America to lose our young men and women. It is costly and politically difficult to continue this conflict," he said. "We would gladly bring every single one of our troops home if we could be confident that there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can. But that is not yet the case."
That's why the United States is a partner in a 46-nation coalition, he said, and why it won't weaken in its commitment despite the costs involved.
Obama pointed to the role Muslims must play in standing up to this violence.
"None of us should tolerate these extremists," who he said have killed people of all faiths, especially Muslims, around the world. "Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism. It is an important part of promoting peace."
Military power alone won't solve the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan, he said. He noted U.S. plans to invest $1.5 billion each year for the next five years in infrastructure and service support in Pakistan, and more than $2.8 billion to help the Afghans develop their economy and deliver services to the people.
Turning his focus to Iraq, Obama acknowledged the strong differences the operation there has provoked in the United States and around the world.
"Although I believe that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible," he said.
In the meantime, America has a responsibility to help Iraq forge a better future, then to leave Iraq to Iraqis, he said.
"I have made it clear to the Iraqi people that we pursue no bases and no claim on their territory or resources," he said. "Iraq's sovereignty is its own."
That's why he ordered U.S. combat brigades to leave Iraq by August 2010, Obama said, and why the United States will honor its security agreements with Iraq's democratically elected government. This requires all combat troops to leave Iraqi cities by June 30 and to leave Iraq altogether by 2012.
"We will help Iraq train its security forces and develop its economy," Obama said. "But we will support a secure and united Iraq as a partner, and never as a patron."
As it stands up to the forces that threaten it, the United States will remain true to its ideals, Obama said.
"Just as America can never tolerate violence by extremists, we must never alter our principles," the president said. Noting that "9/11 was an enormous trauma to our country" that provoked understandable fear and anger, Obama said, "in some cases, it led us to act contrary to our ideals."
"We are taking concrete actions to change course," he told the audience. "I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, and I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year."
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The United States will defend itself, respectful of the sovereignty of nations and the rule of law, Obama said. "And we will do so in partnership with Muslim communities which are also threatened," he said. "The sooner the extremists are isolated and unwelcome in Muslim communities, the sooner we will all be safer."
The president cited other sources of tension in the region: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran's nuclear program, among them. He called for reduced tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, citing steps both must take to promote peace and stability.
Obama reiterated his interest in opening up dialogue with Iran. "There will be many issues to discuss between our two countries, and we are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect," he said.
"But it is clear to all concerned that when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point," he continued. "This is not simply about America's interests. It is about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path."
Ultimately, he said, the United States seeks a world in which no country possesses nuclear weapons.
Obama closed in emphasizing the U.S. commitment to democracy and religious freedom, women's rights and economic development and opportunity, and noting that these ideals transcend any single religious belief. These issues won't be easy to address, he conceded. "But we have a responsibility to join together on behalf of the world that we seek," he said.
That world, the president said, is one where extremists no longer threaten people, where American troops have come home, where Israelis and Palestinians are each secure in a state of their own, where nuclear energy is used for peaceful purposes, where governments service their citizens and the rights of all people are respected.
"Those are mutual interests," he said. "This is the world we seek. But we can only achieve it together."