NEW YORK – President Bush sought to blunt anti-Americanism across the Middle East Tuesday, asserting that extremists are trying to justify their violence by falsely claiming the U.S. is waging war on Islam. He singled out Iran and Syria as sponsors of terrorism.
Bush, in an address to world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly, tried to advance his campaign for democracy in the Middle East against a backdrop of turmoil in Iraq, Afghanistan and other nations that have embraced the very changes he seeks for the region.
Solidly aligned with Israel, the United States is viewed with anger and suspicion by Muslims across the Middle East.
Addressing that hostility, Bush said, "My country desires peace. Extremists in your midst spread propaganda claiming that the West is engaged in a war against Islam. This propaganda is false and its purpose is to confuse you and justify acts of terror. We respect Islam."
Bush's address was the latest in a series of speeches on the war on terror, linked to last week's fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and aimed at setting the tone for the final weeks of U.S. elections that will determine control of Congress.
Bush said past stability in the Middle East has been achieved at the expense of freedom, and he disputed critics who claim his push for democracy has destabilized the region.
"The reality is that the stability we thought we saw in the Middle East was a mirage," Bush told the more than 80 prime ministers and presidents assembled in the cavernous hall of the U.N. headquarters.
"For decades, millions of men and women in the region have been trapped in oppression and hopelessness. And these conditions left a generation disillusioned and made this region a breeding ground for extremism."
While praising Bush's freedom refrain, Madeleine Albright, secretary of state under President Clinton, said in an interview that the U.S.-led war in Iraq, not democratic reform, has destabilized the Middle East.
Albright said the Bush administration has not carried out its democratic initiative with uniformity. It denounces autocratic nations that are unfriendly toward the United States, then casts a blind eye to autocratic nations that are allies, she said. She mentioned Kazakhstan, whose leader will be honored at the White House Sept. 29, and Egypt.
On the sidelines of the meeting, Bush firmly denounced Iran for defying U.N. Security Council demands to freeze its uranium enrichment work and engage in talks to resolve the standoff over its nuclear weapons ambitions.
"Should they continue to stall, we will then discuss the consequences of their stalling," Bush said in an apparent reference to possible U.N. sanctions.
In his speech, Bush spoke directly to the people of Iran, not the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who did not attend the address. Bush said America respects Islam, the Iranian nation's rich history and culture and that he looks to a day when the two peoples "can be good friends and close partners in the cause of peace." That's very different from 2002 when Bush said Iran was part of an "axis of evil."
Bush made spreading democracy across the Middle East a cornerstone of his foreign policy after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. "When people have a voice in their future, they are less likely to blow themselves up in suicide attacks," he said Tuesday.
He recited a list of nations where he said the seeds of democracy are taking root:
— The United Arab Emirates recently announced that half the seats in its Federal National Council will be chosen through elections.
— For the first time, women have been allowed to vote and run for office in Kuwait.
— Citizens have voted in municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, in parliamentary elections in Jordan and Bahrain, and in multiparty presidential elections in Yemen and Egypt.
Bush praised Lebanon for driving out Syria — a nation the president said is a "crossroad for terrorism." Lebanon's fragile, democratic government, however, has proved too weak, so far, to check the Islamic militant group Hezbollah, which attacked neighboring Israel with rockets.
He championed the toppling of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and the new democratic government in Baghdad. Yet democracy there is being threatened by bloody sectarian violence in the four-year-old war that is becoming increasingly unpopular at the U.S. as well as abroad. About a dozen demonstrators outside the United Nations chanted "Bush is a criminal. No war on Iraq," but inside the world leaders gave Bush a polite reception.
Bush also trumpeted democratic change in Afghanistan. But five years after the U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban from political power, the militant Islamic group is proving a resilient enemy for NATO forces in the south, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai has little control outside Kabul.
In some cases, democratic change in the Middle East has not seemed to be in the U.S. interest.
In free elections in March, the Palestinian people voted the Islamic militant group Hamas into power. The United States lists Hamas as a terrorist group, and has been working to support Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate Palestinian president who meets with Bush on Wednesday.