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OBAMA ARRIVES IN THE MIDEAST

THE BALTIMORE SUN

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - -Just as President Barack Obama arrived in the Middle East yesterday to deliver his long-planned appeal for mutual understanding, the Arab world heard unexpectedly from another voice: Osama bin Laden, accusing the American president via audiotape of sowing new seeds of hatred.

The evident attempt by al-Qaida's leader to undercut Obama's speech to Muslims today served as a reminder of the hurdles confronting the United States in the region and of the magnitude of the task facing the president as he works to "reset" U.S. ties with Muslim countries.

But the lunge for attention suggested that terrorist leaders, who have grappled with recent criticism from former followers and from Muslims disaffected by their brutal tactics, might fear an erosion of support for their extreme positions as Obama's popularity grows in Arab countries.

"This guy sends chills up their spine," said Tom Sanderson, deputy director of the Transnational Threats Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. "Obama is laying groundwork for relations with Muslim countries. Here's someone who really pulls the carpet out from under them."

Separate audiotapes of words purportedly spoken by bin Laden and his chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, were aired by the Arab-language satellite television station Al Jazeera as Obama was arriving in Saudi Arabia, a day before his scheduled speech in Cairo.

The White House saw the tapes as a likely attempt by al-Qaida's leaders to undercut Obama's mission and to disrupt the message of conciliation and trust he wants to convey.

"I don't think it's surprising that al-Qaida would want to shift attention away from the president's historic efforts ... to reach out and have an open dialogue with the Muslim world," said Robert Gibbs, Obama's press secretary, as the president was holding private meetings with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

However, U.S. officials said they could not positively verify the tapes' authenticity. They said they were assuming that the speakers actually were bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, and that the militant leaders had intended that their statements coincide with Obama's arrival.

"I don't think the timing is of coincidence," said Philip J. Crowley, a State Department spokesman.

Bin Laden, son of a Saudi family that built royal palaces and gained enormous wealth in construction, became involved in the militant movement during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. After returning to Saudi Arabia, he was confined to house arrest, and left the country in the early 1990s, his Saudi citizenship publicly revoked in 1994.

Bin Laden last surfaced via audiotape in March and, before that, in January.

In the new audiotape, the words attributed to bin Laden likened Obama to former President George W. Bush. The statement said Obama ordered Pakistan to block Islamic law and crack down on militants in the Swat Valley. U.S. pressure led to a campaign of "killing, fighting, bombing and destruction," he said, forcing 1 million Muslims to flee.

"This simply means that Obama and his administration have planted new seeds of hatred and vengeance towards America," bin Laden said, according to a translation. "Obama appears to have followed the same path taken by his predecessor in creating more enmity towards Muslims and adding on to the fighting enemies, thus paving the way for new long wars."

The tape's broadcast followed comments attributed to al-Qaida's second in command, al-Zawahiri, urging Egyptians to shun Obama and contending that the "torturers of Egypt" and "slaves of America" had invited the American leader to speak in Cairo.

The administration has attempted to draw a contrast between an al-Qaida in hiding and an American leader taking a high-profile stance with his appeal to the Muslim world.

"You have the leader of the free world speaking from one of the great cities in the world, and you have bin Laden speaking from an undisclosed location," said Crowley, the State Department spokesman. "That speaks volumes."

King Abdullah greeted Obama with open arms and a 21-rocket salute at the airport, before hosting the president and his party for dinner and a night's stay at his sprawling ranch.

Amid an afternoon of cardamom coffee and conversation, King Abdullah took a break to tell reporters of the "historic and strategic ties" between the two countries and Obama talked about how that might serve their mutual interests in the region.

"I thought it was very important to come to the place where Islam began," Obama told reporters, "and to seek his majesty's counsel and to discuss with him many of the issues that we confront here in the Middle East."

At the king's ranch, Obama and Abdullah huddled personally, with only a few top advisers, for more than two hours. They discussed what aides described in general terms as a full discussion of everything from oil prices to Middle East peace negotiations.

Saudi Arabia is a key part of Obama's plan for Middle East peace. The White House has been pressing Israel to give ground on the issue of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory, planning to use that to coax concessions from moderate Arab states. King Abdullah played a role in brokering agreements for a Palestinian national unity government.

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