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Obama to Deliver Major Speech on Changes in Mideast, N. Africa

President Barack Obama (file photo)
President Barack Obama (file photo)

President Barack Obama delivers a major address Thursday about historic changes in the Middle East and North Africa, and their impact on U.S. policy toward the region. The address comes as the U.S. stepped up pressure on Syria's government in response to its crackdown on protesters, and urged faster movement toward political transition in Yemen.

[Speech begins at 15:40 UTC and can be seen and heard here on]

The speech will be broad in scope, as Mr. Obama focuses on the peaceful democratic movements for change that have swept the region, discusses implications for U.S. policy, and offers what administration officials call some concrete policy proposals.

He will give his assessment of the impact of popular uprisings that have led to political changes in Egypt and Tunisia, and which continue in places like Syria, Libya and Yemen.

Senior administration officials say Mr. Obama will speak of a moment of opportunity, after a decade of great tensions and divisions, in which people of the region and U.S. policy can begin to turn the page toward a more positive and hopeful future.

The stalemated Israel-Palestinian peace process will be an important element. However, Mr. Obama is expected to frame it as part of a wider picture and say that leaders on both sides of that conflict should seize an opportunity for peace.

Speaking to reporters this week, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said that where Mideast peace efforts are concerned, Mr. Obama will not say that this is a "now or never" moment, but will make the case that change generally must be embraced by all in the region.

"While change can be unsettling, it can even be scary because we don't always know where it is headed, it is something in this case to be embraced, because the opportunity is there to help shape a better future for the region and for the world," Carney said.

President Obama's address, to be delivered at the State Department, comes as the U.S. and other countries step up pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in response to his government's bloody crackdown against protesters.

Mr. Obama has signed an executive order freezing assets of Mr. Assad and six other Syrian officials in American financial institutions. Similar sanctions were imposed on Libyan leader Colonel Moammar Gadhafi as a means of pressuring him to give up power.

Not known is whether President Obama will specifically call on the Syrian leader to step down. But on the eve of the speech, the White House pointed reporters to remarks by a senior administration official discussing new sanctions targeting Mr. Assad. "President Assad has a clear choice: it's either lead this transition to democracy, or to leave," the official said.

On the eve of the address, the U.S stepped up pressure on Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was urged by Mr. Obama's counter terrorism advisor, John Brennan to move forward immediately with political transition.

Senior administration officials also outlined another key aspect of President Obama's speech, involving a series of initiatives focused initially on Egypt and Tunisia, to support economic modernization, reform, and stability.

President Obama is expected to outline a combination of debt relief and investment steps. Officials say these would amount initially to about $1 billion with an additional $1 billion in loan guarentees, along with additional financing from multilateral development banks.

As he speaks about the potential of the Middle East and North Africa, President Obama is also expected to draw a contrast between the violent ideology of al-Qaida, and democratic aspirations of peaceful protesters.

Speaking about the U.S. killing of Osama bin-Laden recently, Mr. Obama's national security advisor Tom Donilon said al-Qaida's faces a real challenge from the popular uprising known as the Arab Spring.

"The Arab Spring presents al-Qaida with a potent ideological challenge. For its entire existence, al-Qaida's message has been that violence is the only path forward. It has never had an affirmative program, which speaks to the aspirations of people in the Middle East, and it could not have been further removed from or relevant to those who came to Tahrir Square this past January," Donilon said.

The day after President Obama's address, he welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back to the White House to discuss ways to end the deadlock in Palestinian-Israel peace efforts.

Israel and Palestinians continue to accuse each other of responsibility for stalemate, caused among other things by Israel's settlement policy in the occupied West Bank, and exacerbated by the recent political unity pact between the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas.
White House officials have sought to downplay descriptions of Mr. Obama's address as being merely an update of his 2009 speech in Cairo delivered about six months into his presidency in which Mr. Obama called for a "new beginning" between the United States and Muslims around the world.

White House officials say Thursday's address, amid the Arab Spring, will be Mr. Obama's effort to explain to the region and the world what U.S. values and principles are and how these will be applied in supporting the democratic aspirations of the people in the region.