BY Michael Saul
DAILY NEWS POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT President Obama sought to forge a new beginning between the U.S. and the Muslim world, declaring during a major speech in Cairo Thursday that the "cycle of suspicion and discord must end."
"So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation," Obama said during a 54-minute address at the University of Cairo that will be heavily scrutinized around the globe.
"I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world," he said, "one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition."
He also affirmed his call for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. There can be no peace until Palestinians renounce violence against Israel, he said, but Obama also bluntly criticized Israeli plans to expand settlements in occupied territory.
The president touched on a slew of hot-botton issues, including violent Islamic extremism, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the potential for Iran to become a nuclear power and women's rights in the Mideast.
Obama, whose paternal ancestors include generations of Muslims, invoked the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and reasserted America's commitment to combat violent extremists who threaten innocent people.
But Obama also acknowledged that the fear and anger provoked by 9/11 caused the America to violate its ideals, particularly in Iraq. The new President told the globe his administration is changing course.
The speech - met by the crowd of mostly students with frequent applause and a standing ovation when the president concluded - was at its center a clarion call for peace.
"The people of the world can live together in peace -- we know that is God's vision," Obama said. "Now, that must be our work here on Earth."
Obama cited his biography to give him credibility, mentioning his Muslim roots and his time in Indonesia as a child. "Much has been made of the fact that an African-American with the name Barack Hussein Obama could be elected President," he said in attempt to draw a connection to the audience.
The President began the address with a typical Arab greeting. "Assalaamu alaykum," said Obama, which roughly translates to "peace be upon you."
Citing the teachings of the Holy Koran to the cheers of the audience, the president quoted the line, "Be conscious of God and speak always the truth." Telling the truth, Obama said, was his mission.
Obama reiterated what he promised in Turkey earlier this year that America "will never be at war with Islam" but he said his administration remains committed to pursuing violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan who are determined to kill Americans.
But when the speech turned to Iraq, Obama made clear on foreign soil that he, like many Americans, disagreed with the previous administration's policies. He called Iraq a "war of choice."
"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, adding he intends to withdraw all American troops by 2012.
Without issuing any explicit apology, the President said 9/11 "led us to act contrary to our traditions and our ideals."
"We are taking concrete actions to change course," he said. "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."
Before the trip began, Obama told the BBC it was not his intention to issue an apology. "No," he said. "I think what we want to do is open a dialogue.'
On the Israel-Palestine conflict, Obama said, "The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states." America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements, he said, and America will not accept Palestinian violence.