Obama to Embrace Muslim World in Cairo Speech

CAIRO -- President Barack Obama discussed the quest for Middle East peace and Iran's disputed nuclear ambitions with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Thursday in this ancient seat of Islamic learning and culture before delivering the most anticipated -- and perhaps controversial -- speech of his brief term in office.

Aides said Obama's address to the Muslim world -- and a vast, electronically linked-in global audience -- would blend hopeful words about mutual understanding with carefully chosen language on Iraq, Afghanistan and the Israeli-Palestinian standoff, plus blunt talk about the need for Muslims to embrace democracy, women's rights and economic opportunity.

But first, Obama and Mubarak met privately on a range of topics. Chief among them: Iran's suspected efforts to build a nuclear bomb and the long-running conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

In brief remarks, Obama said they spoke about "how we could move forward in a constructive way to bring about peace and prosperity to all people in the region." He said he emphasized that "America is committed to working in partnership with countries of the region so that all people can meet their aspirations."

Mubarak added: "We opened all topics with no reservations."

After spending the night at Saudi King Abdullah's horse farm in the desert outside Riyadh, Obama arrived at Egypt's imposing, ornate Qubba Palace on a lush property in the middle of Cairo with nearly two dozen horses leading his motorcade down the wide, palm-lined palace drive.

The U.S. president jogged up the steps to greet his Egyptian counterpart with a handshake and the region's traditional double-cheek kiss. As the two leaders stood on a balcony, a military band in blue dress uniforms played both countries' national anthems.

Later, Obama was delivering his long-promised speech to an audience at Cairo University.

Obama said he was "very much looking forward" to that part of his trip, but that he wanted to meet with Mubarak first because he is someone "who obviously has decades of experience" on a range of issues.

His brief stay in the city also was to include a visit to the Sultan Hassan mosque, a 600-year-old center of Islamic worship and study, and a tour of the Great Pyramids of Giza on the capital's outskirts. Aides said the schedule also would afford Obama time to talk to Egyptian journalists and young people.

By the time Obama had arrived, some of Cairo's main thoroughfares, normally packed with cars in the morning rush, were near empty. Many residents chose to stay home rather than try to navigate the sprawling city of 18 million with the heavy traffic restrictions.

The independent newspaper Al-Dustour ran a front-page banner headline that read: "Today Obama visits Egypt after evacuating it of Egyptians." Another paper's headline said: "Cairo closed."

Some major streets around areas Obama was visiting were closed to traffic and lined with police in white uniforms and central security forces. Sidewalks and bridges around the airport road and the presidential palace were freshly painted and cleaned. Near the Sultan Hassan mosque, Egyptian authorities moved an entire bus station to keep crowds far away. Traffic police spread flyers to let drivers know which roads were closed.

Even though he's been promising this speech since the election campaign, in recent days Obama has sought to downplay it.

"One speech is not going to solve all the problems in the Middle East," he told a French interviewer. "Expectations should be somewhat modest."

Yet there was little doubt Muslims were listening closely. From the souk stalls of Baghdad to the Internet cafes in Jakarta, Indonesia, where Obama spent part of his youth, Muslims sought to parse the words of the first American president, whose father was one of their own.

And lest any miss Obama's outreach, the tech-savvy White House planned a communications onslaught: a live Webcast of the speech on the White House site; remarks translated into 13 languages; a special State Department site where users could sign up to get -- and answer -- speech highlights; and plans to push excerpts out to social networking giants MySpace, Twitter and Facebook.

One likely listener replied early: Osama bin Laden, who in a new audio tape accused Obama of sowing "new seeds to increase hatred and revenge" by encouraging Pakistan's military offensive in the Swat Valley. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs dismissed the tape as a bid "to shift attention away from the president's historic efforts."

Denis McDonough, a deputy national security adviser, said Obama's address would contain "a good deal of truth-telling about our range of issues and concerns, as well as our common and mutual interests across the board."

One thing Muslims were likely to listen closely for was Obama's discussion of a hoped-for Palestinian state. He's long backed one, and has been urging Israel to freeze West Bank settlements as a prelude. "He will discuss in some detail his view of the (Arab-Israeli) conflict and what needs to be done to resolve it," National Security Council speechwriter Ben Rhodes said.

Though the speech was co-sponsored by al-Azhar University, which has taught science and Quranic scripture here for nearly a millennium, the actual venue was the more modern and secular Cairo University. The lectern was set up in the domed main auditorium on a stage dominated by a picture of Mubarak.

Human rights advocates found that symbolism troubling: an American president watched over by an aging autocrat who's ruled Egypt since 1981.

"Egypt's democrats cannot help being concerned," wrote Dina Guirguis, executive director of Voices for a Democratic Egypt.

The university's alumni are among the Arab world's most famous -- and notorious. They include the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Nobel Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfuz. Saddam Hussein studied law in the '60s but did not graduate. And Al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahri earned a medical degree.

Ahead of the speech, al-Zawahri posted his own Internet video warning that Obama's words cannot drown out the "bloody messages" sent by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.