Obama lands in ME to bin Laden threat
US President Barack Obama launched a Middle East mission yesterday to reach out to Muslims but was greeted by threats from Osama bin Laden who accused him of sowing fresh seeds of hatred.
Obama arrived in Riyadh to a red-carpet welcome and a kiss on both cheeks from Saudi King Abdullah, a key regional power broker who also serves as protector of the two holiest sites in Islam.
But minutes after Air Force One touched down, Al-Jazeera television aired a combative new audiotape from the fugitive Al-Qaeda chief.
Joining a battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab world, bin Laden accused Obama of perpetuating former president George W. Bush's policies of "antagonising Muslims."
"Obama and his administration have sowed new seeds of hatred against America," said the Saudi-born bin Laden whose network carried out the September 11 attacks in 2001.
"Let the American people prepare to harvest the crops of what the leaders of the White House plant in the next years and decades."
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that the administration had yet to fully analyse the bin Laden tape, but said Al-Qaeda was bent on an "effort to upstage" Obama's speech.
"I don't think it's surprising that Al-Qaeda would want to shift attention away from the president's historic efforts, and continued efforts to reach out and have an open dialogue with the Muslim world."
Obama and King Abdullah held talks at the monarch's sprawling farm outside Riyadh in the president's first foray into tricky personal diplomacy in the region, after a flurry of talks with Middle East leaders in Washington.
"I thought it was very important to come to the place where Islam began and to seek His Majesty's counsel," Obama said.
The king presented Obama with a gold medallion, known as the King Abdul Aziz Collar, considered the kingdom's highest honour, and called him a "distinguished man who deserves to be in this position."
The talks focused on Middle East peace efforts, energy issues and other regional topics, aides said, adding that Obama and the king broke off into a private session that lasted at least two hours.
On Thursday, Obama will travel to Egypt, another pillar of the Arab world, to deliver a personal appeal for reconciliation to the world's 1.5 billion Muslims, and hold his first talks with President Hosni Mubarak.
King Abdullah has been seeking to relaunch a 2002 Arab-backed Middle East peace initiative, which has been praised by the Obama administration.
But it was unclear whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's tough stand on settlements would dim US hopes of convincing the Arab world to make concessions towards Israel to inject momentum into the process.
The Saudi initiative calls for full normalisation of relations between Arab states and Israel, a full withdrawal by Israel from Arab land, the creation of a Palestinian state and an "equitable" solution for Palestinian refugees.
The US president's trip also coincides with rising concern in the largely Sunni-ruled region over Shiite Iran's nuclear drive.
Obama's speech on Thursday at Cairo University fulfills a campaign promise to address the Muslim world after relations soured over the deeply unpopular Iraq war, the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal in Iraq and the Bush-era stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
In Israel, there was concern the president's outreach to Muslims, which the White House plans to make available on the Internet and on social networking sites, could come at the expense of the US-Israeli alliance.
"The American president has the right to try to reconcile with the Muslim world and compete with Al-Qaeda or Iran for its heart," said Transport Minister Yisrael Katz, a close Netanyahu ally.
"We have to make sure that this will not harm our common interests."
The son of an Kenyan father with Muslim heritage, Obama spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country.
His middle name Hussein, which sometimes was seen as a liability on the campaign trail, doubtless will be viewed more charitably in many venues during his Middle East travels.
But some democracy campaigners in Egypt raised concerns at Obama's choice of venue for his major address, saying it rewarded an authoritarian regime with a poor human rights record.