President Bush tried to quell anti-Americanism in the Middle East on Tuesday by assuring Muslims he is not waging war against Islam, regardless of what “propaganda and conspiracy theories” they hear.
He also pressed Iran to return at once to international talks on its nuclear program and threatened consequences if the Iranians do not.
But his speech to the United Nations General Assembly was less confrontational than his remarks on the sidelines regarding Iran. He aimed instead at building bridges with people in the Middle East who are angry with the United States.
“My country desires peace,” Bush told world leaders in the U.N.’s cavernous main hall. “Extremists in your midst spread propaganda claiming that the West is engaged in a war against Islam. This propaganda is false and its purpose is to confuse you and justify acts of terror. We respect Islam.”
Bush’s speech was the last in a series on the war on terrorism, timed to surround last week’s fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and to set the tone for the final weeks of the U.S. midterm election campaign.
Meets with Talabani
His challenge is to build support among skeptical foreign leaders to confront multiple problems in the region: the Iranian nuclear issue, a stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, armed Hezbollah militants in Lebanon and unabated violence in Iraq.
Bush met later with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to discuss strategies for supporting the Iraqi government and reducing violence. “I’m optimistic this government will succeed,” Bush said.
Talabani addressed Bush as “the hero of the liberation of Iraq” and told him he could count on Iraqis to fight the terrorists.
Addressing Iraqis specifically, Bush said, “We will not abandon you in your struggle to build a free nation.”
No reaction from Iran yet
Bush said Iran “must abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions.” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was scheduled to speak to the body later Tuesday, but he was not at the country’s table in the hall when Bush spoke.
Speaking to Iranians, Bush said their country’s future has been clouded because “your rulers have chosen to deny you liberty and to use your nation’s resources to fund terrorism and fuel extremism and pursue nuclear weapons.”
On the crisis in Sudan’s violence-wracked region of Darfur, Bush delivered strong warnings to both the United Nations and the Sudanese government, saying that both must act now to avert further humanitarian crisis.
Bush said that if the Sudanese government does not withdraw its rejection of a U.N. peacekeeping force for Darfur, the world body should act over the government’s objections.
The U.N. Security Council last month passed a resolution that would give the U.N. control over the peacekeeping mission in Darfur, now run mostly ineffectively by the African Union. But Sudan has refused to give its consent.
“The regime in Khartoum is stopping the deployment of this force,” Bush said. “If the Sudanese government does not approve this peacekeeping force quickly, the United Nations must act.”
With more than 200,000 people already killed in three years of fighting in Darfur and the violence threatening to increase again, Bush said the “credibility of the United Nations is at stake.”
Iran’s defiant pursuit of a nuclear program was at the top of the agenda when Bush met earlier with French President Jacques Chirac at the Waldorf Astoria hotel where the U.S. delegation was staying. The French leader is balking at the U.S. drive to sanction Iran for defying Security Council demands that it freeze uranium enrichment.
“Should they continue to stall,” Bush said of Iranian leaders, “we will then discuss the consequences of their stalling.” The president, speaking after his meeting with Chirac, said those consequences would include the possibility of sanctions.
Chirac proposed on Monday that the international community compromise by suspending the threat of sanctions if Tehran agrees to halt its uranium enrichment program and return to negotiations. The U.S. and other countries fear Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons, while Tehran insists its uranium enrichment program is to make fuel for nuclear power plants.
Bush said that Iran must first suspend uranium enrichment “in which case the U.S. will come to the table.”
But he also stressed that he and Chirac “share the same objective and we’re going to continue to strategize together.”
“Time is of the essence,” the president said. “Now is the time for the Iranians to come to the table.”
Both Bush and Chirac stressed they are working together, and the French president said twice that they see “eye to eye.”
Chirac also said the European Union would not negotiate with Iran until it suspends uranium enrichment. “We cannot have negotiations if we do not have on one hand prior suspension,” Chirac said.
Bush’s challenge is to build international support to confront multiple problems in the region: the Iran issue, a stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, armed Hezbollah militants in Lebanon and unabated violence in Iraq.
Part of Sept. 11 anniversary series
Bush’s speech was the last in a series on the war on terrorism, timed to surround last week’s fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and to set the tone for the final weeks of the U.S. midterm elections.
Bush was speaking in the same room where four years and one week ago he made another plea for action in the Middle East. On that day, Bush said Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of deadly chemical and biological agents that the United Nations must confront.
He was wrong, but still forged ahead with war against Iraq without the support of many other nations. And he is still trying to rebuild credibility with the body, experts say.
“The sense outside of the U.S. is that the United States is responsible for many of the failures in Iraq, first by going in mostly alone and then by incompetent administration,” said Jon Alterman, a Mideast expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“The problem with the way he’s talked about democracy in the Middle East is not that people see it as undesirable,” Alterman said, “it’s that people see it as naive. He needs to persuade cynical people that not only is he sincere, but it’s achievable, and here’s what they need to do to make it so.”