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Arab world sees positive shift in Obama speech

Arab shopkeepers, students and even radical groups such as Hamas praised President Barack Obama's address Thursday as a positive shift in U.S. attitude and tone.
Image: Indian Muslims watch President Obama's speech in Cairo
Indian Muslim members of Darasgah-E-Akhbar-E-Ale Mohammed, or the school of preaching and sayings of Prophet Mohammed and his progeny, watch from India a live broadcast of Obama's speech at Cairo University.Mahesh Kumar A / AP
/ Source: news services

Muslim shopkeepers, students and even radical groups such as Hamas praised President Barack Obama's address Thursday as a positive shift in U.S. attitude and tone. But Arabs and Muslims of all political stripes said they want him to turn his words into action — particularly in standing up to Israel.

Obama impressed Muslims with his humility and respect and they were thrilled by his citing of Quranic verses. Aiming to repair ties with the Muslim world that had been strained under his predecessor George W. Bush, he opened with the traditional greeting in Arabic "Assalamu Aleikum," which drew applause from his audience at Cairo University.

His address from Cairo touched on many themes Muslims wanted to hear in the highly anticipated speech broadcast live across much of the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world. He insisted Palestinians must have a state and said continued building of Israeli settlements in the West Bank is not legitimate. He assured them the U.S. would pull all it troops out of Iraq by 2012 and promised no permanent U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

"He spoke about the issues I wanted to hear about — the Palestinians, Iraq and Islam. I think he was very good," said Hisham Deeb who spoke with Tom Aspell, an NBC News correspondent, in Cairo.

Deeb and other men gathered inside the Wadi Nile Cafe, as they quietly watched the speech that was translated simultaneously into Arabic. Men nodded their heads of approval when Obama said, “I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect."

When the speech ended there was no applause or overt celebration inside the cafe, yet each man returned to their daily life with his own Obama impression.

"One feels hope in the new American administration," said Mohammed Mahrous, another Wadi customer.

Battle against militants
But at the top of his priorities, Obama put the battle against violent extremism. And he was faulted for not apologizing for U.S. wars in Muslim countries.

Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said there was change in tone. But he complained that Obama did not specifically note the suffering in Gaza following the three-week Israeli incursion earlier this year that killed more than 1,000 Palestinians.

"There is a change between the language of President Obama and previous speeches made by George Bush," he said. "So all we can say is that there is a difference in the statements, and the statements of today did not include a mechanism that can translate his wishes and views into actions," said Barhoum, whose group the U.S. considers a terrorist organization.

A joint statement by eight Syrian-based radical Palestinian factions, including Hamas, was harsher in its assessment.

"Obama's speech is an attempt to mislead people and create more illusions to improve America's aggressive image in the Arab and Islamic world," it said.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate who rivals Hamas for leadership of the Palestinians, welcomed Obama's words.

"The part of Obama's speech regarding the Palestinian issue is an important step under new beginnings," his spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh said. "It shows there is a new and different American policy toward the Palestinian issue."

Before the speech, many Muslims said one of the things they wanted to hear most from Obama was respect for Islam. And many said he delivered that in his speech.

"It was very good of him to address Muslims by quoting from holy Quran, something I did not expect in his speech," said Osama Ahmed Sameh, a 45-year-old Iraqi government employee at the Ministry of Higher Education.

'A partnership'
In Egypt, Shahinda al-Bahgouri, a 20-year-old student at Cairo University, where Obama spoke, was also impressed.

"All we want as Muslims is for there to be a partnership," she said. "And he was seriously humble. humility is important for us."

Arab satellite stations Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera as well as Egyptian TV broadcast the speech live, with a voice-over Arabic translation.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah leaders said they didn't see the speech and could not comment. But the militant group's TV station Al-Manar broadcast it live, with an Arabic voice-over translation. Syrian state TV did not air the speech but the mobile text messaging service of the official Syrian news agency SANA sent four headlines on it as Obama spoke.

In Israel, the speech was broadcast live on all TV and radio stations. TV stations ran subtitles or provided Hebrew voiceovers, while radio stations provided simultaneous translations.

In the non-Arab Muslim world, Afghanistan's state television broadcast the speech live, but without translation so few could understand it.

Iranian television did not air Obama and there were no reports on it. But Iranian radio reported that Obama gave a speech in Egypt — in a single sentence report without giving details. Most Iranians who own satellite dishes could not watch it as their reception was jammed.

In Iran, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a cleric who was vice president under reformist President Mohammad Khatami, called the speech "compensation to hostile environment which was created during President Bush."

"This can be an initial step for removing misconceptions between world of Islam and the West," he said.

NBC News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.