- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 4, 2009

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia | A day ahead of his highly anticipated speech on U.S.-Muslim relations, President Obama arrived in Saudi Arabia to face a fresh attack from al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden over his high-stakes bid to counter violent anti-U.S. attitudes among Islamic extremists.

Just as Mr. Obama embarked on a day of talks here with Saudi King Abdullah, bin Laden issued a new audiotape accusing Mr. Obama of “planting the seeds of hatred and vengeance” in the Muslim world and warning that the American people will soon face the consequences.

Blaming Mr. Obama in particular for Pakistan’s recent offensive against Taliban and Islamist forces, bin Laden said, “Let the American people prepare to continue to reap what has been planted by the heads of the White House in the coming years and decades.”

Mr. Obama did not directly address the bin Laden attack in his brief public remarks to reporters, and White House officials said the terrorist leader was attempting to distract attention from Mr. Obama’s speech Thursday at Egypt’s Cairo University.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in Riyadh that the bin Laden tape was consistent with the “threatening” messages issued by al Qaeda in the past and that the terrorist is attempting to “upstage” and “try to be a part of” Mr. Obama’s day.

Mr. Obama faced skepticism from another source in the region, as the Iranian newspaper Iran said the president must change course on U.S. policies involving Israel and Iraq.

“Barack Obama cannot make Muslims trust him without solving the Israel-Palestine conflict,” the newspaper wrote, saying Mr. Obama has little to show for his peace efforts in his four months in office.

Obama advisers said the lunchtime speech (6 a.m. EDT) being broadcast throughout the Arab world would stress the “mutual respect” theme Mr. Obama first mentioned in his inaugural address. The president was still working on his speech Wednesday night.

Aides said the president will mention the Muslim-Americans killed during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, as well as contributions American Muslims have made to society to attempt to bridge any perceived differences.

Mr. Obama will ask the world’s Muslims to learn more about the United States, while acknowledging that Americans must learn more about Islam.

Mr. Obama also for the first time is expected to discuss in detail his own Muslim roots - a sensitive topic during the presidential campaign when some attempted to paint him as a non-Christian. Mr. Obama’s Kenyan father was a Muslim, and Mr. Obama spent time as a boy in Indonesia, the world’s largest Islamic nation.

“I would argue that a man named Barack Hussein Obama will definitely look at the world in a fundamentally different way than George W. Bush looks at the world,” Hesham Melhem, Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya, said at a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace event Monday.

“This is a man who understands that the world is beyond Europe and beyond the West,” he said. “This is a man who lived in Indonesia. This is a man who had roots in Kenya and therefore his outlook on the world will be different or at least I’m hoping that it will be different.”

A March Ipsos poll of 7,000 residents in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan found Mr. Obama’s popularity as an individual far outpaces the view of the U.S. on the whole. The ratings for the U.S. dropped during President Bush’s tenure, mainly because of the invasion of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan.

Only 33 percent of poll respondents had a favorable view of the United States, while 43 percent had an unfavorable view and the others were neutral or didn’t have an opinion. In contrast, Mr. Obama’s popularity ranged from 35 percent in Egypt to 58 percent in Jordan.

Pollsters have found that when Mr. Obama speaks, it usually helps his cause. U.S. popularity increased in Turkey following his April visit.

Richard C. Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, rejected bin Laden’s charges about recent military moves in the region and the suffering it has caused for local residents.

“The idea that anyone is responsible for the refugee crisis other than al Qaeda and the Taliban and the other people who have caused such tragedy in Pakistan is ludicrous,” Mr. Holbrooke told reporters at a news conference in Islamabad.

In Egypt, meanwhile, the universities helping plan the Obama speech said they have invited members of the Muslim Brotherhood to attend. The Islamist group is officially banned as a political party but serves as the largest and most controversial opposition force to longtime ruler President Hosni Mubarak.

Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough said Mr. Obama “wants to have an opportunity to speak to the full range of political representation in Egypt and really across the Muslim world.”

Much of Mr. Obama’s one-day visit to Saudi Arabia was conducted behind closed doors. In the meeting with Abdullah at the monarch’s royal retreat, Mr. Obama did outline some of his goals for the trip.

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

He caused some anger Monday by telling the French television network Canal Plus, “If you actually took the number of Muslim Americans, we’d be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world.”

He did not cite a statistic, but the highest estimate of the number of Muslims in America is about 8 million, out of a population of more than 304 million. That’s about 2.5 percent - nowhere near the top percentage for countries around the world.

Mr. Obama made the claim just after stating that the United States and the West must “educate ourselves more effectively on Islam.”

The new bin Laden audiotape was broadcast on the Arabic-language Al Jazeera network, frequently used by the global terror network to spread its message. Ayman al-Zawahri, bin Laden’s top deputy, issued his own statement Tuesday slamming Mr. Obama’s efforts to reach out to the Islamic world.

In his latest attack, bin Laden focused Wednesday on Mr. Obama’s actions in Pakistan. With U.S. backing, the Pakistan government has launched an aggressive drive against the Taliban and other violent Islamist movements in the country’s Swat Valley.

Many intelligence analysts think bin Laden and his top deputies are hiding in the lawless tribal regions on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.

“Obama and his administration have sowed new seeds for increasing hatred and taking revenge on America,” bin Laden said, according to the Al Jazeera translation, saying Mr. Obama was continuing Mr. Bush’s policies.

“Obama has followed the footsteps of his predecessor in further antagonizing Muslims, multiplying the combatant enemies, and setting the stage for long-term wars,” the tape said.

Before the new bin Laden tape came to light, it was all smiles at the start of the president’s trip.

The Saudi honor guard and about 150 other military members lined up to officially welcome the new U.S. president after Air Force One landed. The traditional 21-gun salute given to heads of state was fired from a distance.

Mr. Obama, who was criticized for appearing to bow slightly before the king in April during the Group of 20 Summit in London, greeted Abdullah this time with a light embrace and cheek-to-cheek touch on both sides.

The “Star-Spangled Banner” and the “Royal Salute” - the Saudi national anthem - played as local broadcasts covering every moment of the short visit showed U.S. and Saudi flags waving in the breeze. Flags also lined the main highway from the airport.

First Mr. Obama and Abdullah sipped coffee, the traditional Saudi hospitality beverage, in a royal reception room before heading to meetings and lunches at King’s Farm, a retreat similar to Camp David in the United States.

During their meeting at the ranch, the king placed around the president’s neck the King Abdul Aziz Collar, a gold medallion considered to be the nation’s highest honor. Mr. Obama wore it for several photos but then removed it for what he said was “safekeeping.”

Mr. Obama closed his remarks with “shukran,” the Arabic word for “thank you.”

Aides said their meetings focused on Middle East peace, Afghanistan, Pakistan, energy, Iran and “other matters” affecting the region.

c Jon Ward and Barbara Slavin contributed to this report.

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