Underlining his pre-election message of reconciliation, US President Barack Husain Obama chose an Arabic satellite TV network for his first formal television interview, saying, "My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy."
Obama told the Saudi-owned, Dubai-based Al-Arabiya news channel that the US had made mistakes in the past, but "that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there's no reason why we can't restore that."
Obama called for a new partnership with the Muslim world "based on mutual respect and mutual interest". He talked about growing up in Indonesia, the Muslim world's most populous nation, and noted that he has Muslim relatives.
"We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect," Obama told Hisham Melhem, Al-Arabiya's Washington bureau chief, adding that "I think the most important thing is for the United States to get engaged right away''. At the same time, the president vowed to continue hunting down terrorist organisations that kill innocent civilians.
Obama also said that recent statements and messages issued by the al-Qaida terror network suggest they do not know how to deal with his new approach. "They seem nervous," he told the interviewer. "What that tells me is that their ideas are bankrupt."
In his latest message on 14 January, al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden had said that Obama had been left with the "heavy inheritance" of Bush's wars, while his trusted number two, Ayman al-Zawahri, had used a demeaning racial term for a black American who does the bidding of whites to describe Obama..
The president reiterated the US commitment to Israel as an ally and to its right to defend itself, but said that both Israel and the Palestinians have hard choices to make. "I do believe that the moment is ripe for both sides to realise that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people," he said, calling for a Palestinian state that is compatible with internal freedom of movement and trade with neighbouring countries.
The president's interview came even as his new envoy to the Middle East, former senator George J Mitchell, was expected to arrive in Egypt for a visit that will also take him to Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Obama said he felt it was important to "get engaged right away" in the Middle East, and had directed Mitchell to talk to "all the major parties involved." His administration would craft an approach after that, he said in the interview. "What I told him (Mitchell) is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating," he said.
During his presidency, previous President George W Bush gave several interviews to Al-Arabiya. The channel has also scored interviews with top US officials in the past, including Bush's secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. The channel is seen by some in Washington as more balanced in its coverage than its Qatar-funded rival Al-Jazeera, which the previous White House administration complained had an anti-American bias.
The Palestine imbroglio
The Obama administration also has taken an early interest in the Middle East imbroglio between Israel and the Palestinians, with Mitchell as his point man for the region. Mitchell is scheduled to arrive to shore up the fragile cease-fire between Israel and Gaza's Hamas leadership.
"Ultimately, we cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what's best for them. They're going to have to make some decisions," Obama said. "But I do believe that the moment is ripe for both sides to realise that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people; and that instead it's time to return to the negotiating table."
Obama's interview was seen widely in Pakistan, and has received a generally positive response from analysts there. Islamabad-based author and journalist Imtiaz Gul told CNN, "It's a good sign of an attempt to reconcile with the Muslim world to say America wants to reach out to them and not to consider them as an enemy."
But another analyst, Zaid Hamid, said that Obama has yet to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. ''The real test would be Gaza and what the new US administration does there,'' he added.