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White House Dodges Questions on "Ground Zero Mosque"

The site of a proposed mosque near Ground Zero has launched a heated debate about whether the mosque is appropriate. CBS

Though the White House is usually waist-deep in most controversies, it's very decidedly distancing itself from the heated dispute over whether an Islamic cultural center and mosque should be built a couple blocks from Ground Zero.

"This is rightly a matter for New York City and the local community to decide," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said yesterday, making no apologies for not taking a stand on the issue.

Since taking office, President Obama has made a high profile effort to reach out to the Muslim community.

"Islam, as we know, is part of America," he said last September as he hosted an Iftar Dinner, the nightly breaking of the daylong fast observed by Muslims during Ramadan.

On a number of occasions, Mr. Obama has sought to defend American Muslims from the stigma of the terrorists who share their religion.

"We know that the vast majority of Muslims reject al Qaeda," he said last January in a speech on strengthening intelligence and aviation security.

Based on those and similar statements, it would seem likely that Mr. Obama would take the side of the New York City Muslims seeking to build a community center and mosque.

But politically, it's a no-win situation for the president. He neither wants to offend Muslims nor the families of 9/11 victims who view the construction of a mosque so near to Ground Zero as an insult to the memories of their loved ones killed at the hands of adherents to radical Islam.

So spokesman Gibbs was willing to straddle the fence on behalf of Mr. Obama. He said that like his predecessor, the president has made it clear that the US is "not at war with a religion but with an idea that has corrupted a religion."

Nevertheless, Gibbs said the White House is not going to get involved in what it views as an issue to be resolved by "local decision-making."

Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow him on Twitter here:
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