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Obama Walks Muslim Minefield

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Plunging into his maiden mission to the Middle East, President Barack Obama was greeted in this desert kingdom Wednesday by a Royal Honor Guard with 21-gun salute — and the release of a threatening audio tape by Osama bin Laden. 

Aides say Obama's big message will be that he wants to build a bridge to the Arab and Muslim worlds so the U.S. can move forward in its relationships. But at the same time, he will raise tough issues like democracy, human rights and the challenges of negotiating Middle East peace.

After landing in Saudi Arabia beside a red carpet in 106-degree heat, the president and his top aides shook hands with King Abdullah. Then the presidential party rode dual escalators up to a marbled Royal Reception Room for the opening talks of the trip.

“I thought it was very important to come to the place where Islam began and to seek His Majesty's counsel and to discuss with him many of the issues that we confront here in the Middle East,” Obama said after arriving at the king's royal farm.

Trying to spoil the party, Bin Laden, himself a Saudi native, charged in a biting message played on the Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera: “Obama and his administration have planted seeds for hatred and revenge against America.”

The four-country, six-day trip is a huge test of one of the most compelling of the Obama campaign promises: that he could change the nation’s image abroad after the roiling Bush years.

The president has done that in Europe, which was easy. But doing so in the Muslim world is much more of a challenge, in part because he’s the guest of governments that are hated by huge swaths of their populations.

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Obama’s Middle East stops are in two of the most world’s most oppressive countries – Egypt and Saudi Arabia. And he’ll have trouble satisfying all his audiences back home, since his foreign policy reflects the realism of President George H.W. Bush more than the idealism of his son, President George W. Bush.

In Obama’s inaugural address, he declared: “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”

The centerpiece of his trip is Thursday in Egypt, when the president will draw on his own Muslim heritage as he delivers a major speech reaching out to the Islamic world. The White House has a sophisticated strategy for amplifying the address getting address by distributing clips through online social-networking sites.

Back home, conservatives are waiting to see if he’ll be tough enough on the host government by calling for more respect for human rights and democracy. In Egypt, political opponents can be banned, beaten or jailed.

Liz Cheney, a former State Department official who oversaw Bush administration Mideast policy, said Obama “has the opportunity to give people of the region hope, especially the young people.”

 

“But this will mean supporting their aspirations for freedom,” Cheney said. “And strong support for women's rights is a moral imperative for any American president speaking in the Middle East.”

Obama will also have to thread the needle of drawing on his experience growing up in Indonesia as the son of a Muslim father, and yet not revive wild tales about his heritage that flourished on the Web during the presidential campaign.

Here’s the president’s trip, day by day:

— Wednesday : The president arrived in Riyadh, then motorcaded to the massive “farm” of King Abdullah, where Obama was to have lunch and two meetings, the second in the king’s Villa. The president is to spend the night at the farm.

— Thursday: Air Force One flies from Riyadh to Cairo, where the president lands and heads right to Quba Palace for a meeting with President Hosni Muarak in the Main Salon. Then, Obama will take a tour of Sultan Hassan Mosque, which was built in 1256 and is one of the largest mosques in the Islamic world. After his big speech, he’ll visit the Great Pyramids of Giza.

— Friday: Then he travels to Germany, where Obama signs the Golden Books at the Dresden Palace and meets with Chancellor Angela Merkel. Dresden Castle dates to a Romanesque keep built around 1200, and German leaders have lived there going back to 1547. He’ll also visit Buchenwald concentration camp.

— Saturday: Obama will speak to the U.S. embassy staff and their families at the Ambassador’s Residence, then will go to Caen, France, for a meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy. Then he travels to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, where he makes remarks. The cemetery, built on the site of an Army graveyard that was the first American cemetery on American soil in World War II, contains the graves of 9,387 U.S. military dead. Most lost their lives in the D-Day landings and the operations that followed. Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will also be there. Then the presidential party spends the night in Paris.

— Sunday: Air Force One flies back to Washington.

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