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Ayatollah sees Obama sincere in Muslim message

MYT 12:03:29 AM

BEIRUT (Reuters) - One of Shi'ite Islam's highest religious authorities praised on Wednesday the "sincerity" of U.S. President Barack Obama's message to the Muslim world and predicted a positive outcome for his approach to Iran.

Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah speaks during an interview with Reuters at his office in Beirut's suburbs April 8, 2009. (REUTERS/Cynthia Karam)

Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah said Obama appeared to be a man of "human values" but would be judged on his actions. The ayatollah urged Obama to rethink policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Trying to repair America's damaged image abroad, Obama said on a visit to predominantly Muslim Turkey this week that the United States was not at war with Islam.

"This man does not lack sincerity in what he is saying about Islam," Fadlallah told Reuters in an interview at his Beirut office. Former U.S. President George W. Bush had used similar language but his "mentality was not open" to Islam, he added.

"But the question that presents itself is whether President Obama can realise any of these slogans when faced by the institutions that govern America and over which the president does not have complete control," Fadlallah said.

Obama's first overseas tour, which included his visit to Turkey, "was not void of positive aspects", Fadlallah said. "But we have learnt not to pass judgment on the basis of words."

Fadlallah was a staunch critic of the Middle East policies of the Bush administration, which led the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and backed Israel during a war with Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon in 2006.

Like other U.S. presidents, Bush was also faulted by many in the Middle East for pro-Israeli policies in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Fadlallah, whose family comes from predominantly Shi'ite south Lebanon, criticised Obama's statement that Israelis and Palestinians must make compromises for peace. "We know that the Palestinians offered every concession at the time when Israel did not offer any," he said.

The cleric said he had written to Obama urging him "to be the president who looks to the world with his eyes open...".

The Obama administration has adopted a new approach to the Shi'ite Islamist government in Iran, pledging to engage a country which Bush included in what he called the axis of evil. Western states suspect Iran of seeking to develop atomic weapons, but Iran denies the charge.

"There is new language between Iran and America," Fadlallah said. "America has acknowledged in the last period that Iran represents a great state in the region ... and the invasion of Iran is not possible via an American-Iranian war," he said.

By inviting Iran to a U.N. conference on the conflict in Afghanistan last month, the United States had shown its need for Tehran's help, he added.

Asked about the prospects of a breakthrough in U.S.-Iranian relations, Fadlallah said: "I believe the matter will end with positive results."

The growth of Iranian influence has alarmed conservative Arab states close to the United States, but Fadlallah said Arab concerns about Iran would ebb if U.S. ties improve with Tehran.

"If a positive dialogue takes place between Iran and America, this (Arab) view will disappear," he said.

(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam)

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