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Middle East

Obama renews call for ouster of Assad

Obama says the U.S. will do what it must to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear arms.

UNITED NATIONS: President Barack Obama appealed to world leaders Tuesday to reject attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions in the Muslim world sparked by an anti-Islam video.

The U.S. president also made fresh calls for the ouster of Syria’s president, without saying how to make it happen.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile, warned the 193-nation U.N. General Assembly that the door to Israeli-Palestinian peace may be closing “for good” as President Mahmoud Abbas prepares to make a second attempt to raise the Palestinians’ U.N. status from “observer entity” to “observer state.”

Abbas failed to win full membership at last year’s General Assembly in the face of fierce U.S. opposition.

Obama also told the General Assembly that the United States “will do what we must” to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

The U.S. president reiterated his preference for a diplomatic solution, but told Iran that “time is not unlimited.”

Obama’s speech followed two weeks in which the United States suffered attacks on its diplomatic missions in Muslim nations in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. It was his final U.N. appearance before the Nov. 6 U.S. presidential election.

Beginning and ending his speech by evoking Christopher Stevens, the ambassador to Libya who died with three other Americans in a Sept. 11 assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Obama made a plea for nations to unite against such attacks.

“It is the obligation of all leaders in all countries to speak out forcefully against violence and extremism,” Obama said. “There is no speech that justifies mindless violence.”

The violence in Libya, as well as attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions in Egypt, Tunisia, Indonesia and other Muslim nations, was sparked by a video made in California that insults the Prophet Mohammad.

Obama, while repeating his condemnations of the video as “crude and disgusting” and stressing the U.S. government had nothing to do with its production, defended freedom of speech.

“As president of our country, and commander-in-chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so,” Obama said, drawing applause and laughter.

“It is time to marginalize those who, even when not directly resorting to violence, use hatred of America or the West or Israel as the central organizing principle of politics, for that only gives cover, and sometimes makes an excuse for, those who do resort to violence,” he added. Obama is likely to have disappointed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his comments on Iran because he did not lay down any “red lines” that the Israeli leader has demanded to trigger military action if Iran crosses them.

Iran says its nuclear program is solely for peaceful uses, such as generating electricity or producing medical isotopes.

“Let me be clear: America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy and we believe that there is still time and space to do so. But that time is not unlimited,” Obama said. “The United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

A year after the Palestinians mounted an ultimately failed effort for U.N. membership, Obama passed quickly over the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“The road is hard, but the destination is clear: A secure Jewish state of Israel and an independent, prosperous Palestine,” Obama said. “America will walk alongside all who are prepared to make that journey.”

Ban offered a pessimistic assessment, suggesting that time had nearly run out for such a negotiated solution. “The two-state solution is the only sustainable option. Yet the door may be closing, for good,” Ban said. “The continued growth of Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory seriously undermines efforts towards peace. We must break this dangerous impasse.”

In an apparent reference to recent comments by Israeli, Iranian and U.S. officials, Ban also told the 193-nation assembly at the opening of its annual gathering of world leaders he rejected threats of military action by one state against another.

While he did not specify which countries he was talking about, after criticizing Israeli settlement building, Ban told the assembly: “I also reject both the language of delegitimization and threats of potential military action by one state against another. Any such attacks would be devastating.”

On the question of Syria’s 18-month conflict, Ban said the world must “stop the violence and flows of arms to both sides, and set in motion a Syrian-led transition as soon as possible.”

“The international community should not look the other way as violence spirals out of control,” he said. “Brutal human rights abuses continue to be committed, mainly by the government, but also by opposition.”

While some nations, notably in the Arab World, have called for more robust international action on Syria, the U.N. Security Council has been deadlocked, and Russia and China have vetoed three resolutions condemning Damascus. Qatar said it was time for action outside the United Nations.

U.S. officials have privately made clear that they have no will for a military intervention without U.N. sanction in another Muslim country just as they have wound down the U.S. war in Iraq and are largely pulling out of Afghanistan by 2014.

Obama provided no clear direction forward.

“As we meet here, we again declare that the regime of Bashar Assad must come to an end so that the suffering of the Syrian people can stop and a new dawn can begin,” he said, calling for harmony among Sunnis, Alawites, Christians and Kurds in Syria.

“That is the outcome that we will work for, with sanctions and consequences for those who persecute, and assistance and support for those who work for this common good,” he said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 26, 2012, on page 1.

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