Bush asks Muslims to reject extremism

He trades accusations with Iranian president at U.N.

September 20, 2006|By Peter Wallsten and Joel Havemann | Peter Wallsten and Joel Havemann,LOS ANGELES TIMES

UNITED NATIONS -- President Bush called yesterday for Muslims and other residents of the Middle East to reject extremism and empower "voices of moderation," offering the latest defense of his "freedom agenda" that has rankled allies abroad and drawn criticism from Democrats at home.

In a speech at the opening of the annual U.N. General Assembly debate, Bush singled out Iran, Syria and militia groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas as obstacles to reform and supporters of terrorism, vowing again that Iran must not be allowed to pursue nuclear weapons.

Bush addressed a crowd left skeptical by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and Washington's hard line on Iran. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan criticized Bush's controversial policies to fight terrorism and Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said that "billions and billions" of dollars spent in Iraq could have been used to lessen hunger and poverty across the world.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in a speech yesterday evening, lashed out at the U.S and Israel, accusing both nations of using the Security Council as an instrument of oppression.

Ahmadinejad, who was not present for Bush's address, condemned the U.S. for acting as "judge, jury and executioner" on Iran's nuclear program, which he defended as "transparent, peaceful and under the watchful eyes" of U.N. inspectors.

"Some seek to rule the world relying on weapons and threats, while others live in perpetual insecurity and danger," said Ahmadinejad, whose country faces pressure to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

He said the displacement of Palestinians was "a great tragedy with hardly a precedent in history" and accused Israel of cruelly oppressing its neighbors.

Ahmadinejad said the world's weaker countries should have an international forum to correct injustice. But he said that was not possible because the U.N.'s key organizations are controlled by the world's dominant nations.

U.N. organizations can't call the United States or the United Kingdom, permanent members of the Security Council, to account for their actions, he said. "Can a council of which they are a privileged member take them into account?" he asked. "Has this ever happened? In fact, we have repeatedly seen the reverse."

In contrast to Bush's more hawkish appearances here in the past, such as his vow to disarm former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein with or without support from the U.N., yesterday's appearance was designed to accentuate diplomacy.

He pledged to make a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian dispute "one of the great objectives of my presidency," and appealed directly to the people of Iran, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon to reject anti-U.S. "propaganda" that he said is designed to mislead them about his intentions.

"Freedom, by its nature, cannot be imposed, it must be chosen," Bush said. "From Beirut to Baghdad, people are making the choice for freedom. And the nations gathered in this chamber must make a choice, as well: Will we support the moderates and reformers who are working for change across the Middle East, or will we yield the future to the terrorists and extremists?

"America has made its choice," he added. "We will stand with the moderates and reformers."

Bush's 20-minute address came at a time of strain between the U.S. and its allies over several tenets of his foreign policy.

Bush assured Iranians that, "Despite what the regime tells you, we have no objection to Iran's pursuit of a truly peaceful nuclear power program."

Bush also singled out Syria, calling it a "crossroad for terrorism," and said that the Damascus government's alliances with Hamas and Hezbollah were turning Syria into a "tool of Iran."

The president's address was one of his most sweeping foreign policy speeches since he first laid out his freedom agenda during his second inauguration last year. But unlike that inaugural address, when he spoke of spreading democracy, Bush's words and tone yesterday reflected the trouble he has faced enacting his agenda.

Acknowledging that change can be slow, Bush held up the new Hamas government as a test for whether democracy would prevail over extremism. "The leaders of Hamas campaigned on a platform of ending corruption and improving the lives of the Palestinian people, and they prevailed," he said. "The world is waiting to see whether the Hamas government will follow through on its promises, or pursue an extremist agenda."

Annan also focused on the Middle East in his final address to the assembly, and said that solving the long-standing discord between Israelis and Palestinians is the key to stability in the region and to credibility for the U.N. across the region.

"As long as the Security Council is unable to end this conflict, so long will respect for the United Nations continue to decline," he said.

Annan obliquely criticized the Bush administration's controversial policies of secret detention and extraordinary rendition.

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