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Barack who? Arabs weigh in.

Senator Obama is an unknown quantity as he tours the Middle East.

(Page 3 of 3)



The biggest touchstone for Middle Easterners – Israeli or Arab – is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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Last month, he got a warm reception by a large Jewish audience at an event sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Obama pledged strong support for Israel, even promising Jerusalem "will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided."

Amid an angry Palestinian reaction, he backpedaled the next day. But it is still remembered in the Middle East. Riyadh resident Ahmed Al Omran, who blogs at Saudi Jeans, labeled the speech "disastrous for the Arabs ... I think he went a little too far."

In the Gaza Strip, shopkeepers Kamal Shati says Obama has too much to prove. "I believe Obama will be worse than George Bush because he wants to show the Israelis that he's even better than Bush as a friend, and they will work for their interests on our shoulders," he complains.

But others are more willing to be optimistic. "I think it's time for a change," says Hazem Abu Shanab, the top Fatah leader in Gaza. "[The Republicans] have created new regimes in the region that use force instead of encouraging democracy."

One Gazan has gone so far as to volunteer on behalf of Obama. Ibrahim Abu Jayyab, a media studies major, tracks election developments closely and uses a free Internet program to phone voters in the US. "I phoned hundreds of random numbers and called on people to vote for Obama, because he is the man of the future," he says.

Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut, says that Obama evokes a "Kennedy nostalgia" among older Arabs who remember the period before 1967, when the US was "beloved" for opposing the colonial policies of European nations.

Obama may also be attractive to many Arabs, Salem notes, because of his ethnic background. "Because he is black and has experienced discrimination, he can feel the suffering of black people ... and the suffering of people outside his country," says Delshad Ali, an Iraqi Army officer.

The persistent false rumors that Obama is Muslim appear to create as much confusion in Beirut as in the US. "He has to be good for Arabs because he is a Muslim," says grocer Ahmad Abu Talib.

"He's not a Muslim, he's a Christian," says a customer.

"He can't be a Christian," Mr. Abu Talib retorts. "His middle name is Hussein."

Tom A. Peter in Baghdad, Ilene R. Prusher in Jerusalem, Safwat al-Kahlout in Gaza, Nicholas Blanford in Beirut, and Liam Stack in Cairo contributed.

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