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MID: Obama wraps up landmark Middle East, Europe trip

By Stephen Collinson
07 Jun 2009 9:03 PM

PARIS, June 7 AFP - President Barack Obama on Sunday wrapped up a Middle East and Europe tour steeped in history and intense diplomacy, confident he has cleared the "debris" thwarting US relations with the Muslim world.

Obama, who visited Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Germany and France also believes he has made clear what he expects from all leaders in the strife-torn Middle East as he cranks up a regional peace drive, aides said.

Confidants also said the president was deeply moved by his visit to the former Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald, Germany and his meetings with World War II veterans at D-Day 65th anniversary celebrations.

"This was an extraordinary journey, one in which the president had an opportunity to look back in history, at the people who sacrificed and suffered to create the modern world and to look forward at the responsibilities that we all have in our times to forge a better future," senior political advisor David Axelrod said.

Obama on Sunday visited the Pompidou Centre modern arts museum in Paris with his family, before his planned flight back to Washington and the cauldron of domestic US politics.

The White House said it carefully monitored the response across the Arab world to Obama's landmark speech in Cairo on Thursday in which he vowed to forge a "new beginning" with Islam.

Officials cited an online poll by Maktoob Research for the Broadcasting Board of Governors that showed more than 75 per cent of people who were asked in Muslim nations said they viewed the speech positively.

They are also sifting through data collected from the use of new media methods like Facebook and the social networking site Twitter to spread Obama's message.

The speech had been viewed 550,000 times by late Saturday on the White House YouTube website, and translations of the speech got 10,000 hits for an Arabic version, 25,000 in Punjabi and 45,000 in other languages, officials said.

A further 200 million people in India watched the speech live, while a string of US embassies and diplomatic posts around the world held special events to boost viewership, the White House said.

"We are pretty pleased with what we have seen so far," said Obama's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications Denis McDonough.

Axelrod told reporters that Obama had also got a favorable reaction to his speech at Cairo University from foreign leaders.

"The goal was to clear away the debris that stands in between us and the Muslim world," said Axelrod. "He did it by honestly and directly confonting the issues between us.

"Hundreds of millions of people viewed the speech and the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive."

To critics who argue that Obama gave few details of how he plans to ease bitter rivalries, disputes and discord in the Middle East, aides argue that they never expected one speech, or one visit, would do the trick.

Instead, they portray Obama's efforts as an investment which will pay off down the road.

Obama argued on Friday during a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel that his administration's flurry of contacts in recent weeks with Middle Eastern leaders, culminating in his visit to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, had created the space for the parties to move towards negotiations.

After coming down hard on Israel on settlement expansion in the West Bank, in an unusually public spat with the close US ally, Obama in recent days stepped up pressure on the Palestinians, saying president Mahmud Abbas had moved towards halting incitement against Israel but had not yet done enough.

Obama warned while in Germany that Arab states needed to make gestures towards Israel in order to ease the path to talks and tough compromises.

So far, however, there is no public sign that Arab leaders are ready to move first, and may find their room for maneuver constrained by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's stand on settlements.

The next step, as Obama seeks to leverage the publicity his trip yielded, will come in the persona of Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who returns to the region this week.