BY KENT KLEIN OF VOA NEWS – U.S. President Barack Obama says his administration was correct in contacting a Christian minister in Florida to persuade him to call off his plan to burn the Quran. The president held a news conference Friday, also discussing terrorism, Mideast peace prospects and the U.S. economy.
President Obama defended the decision to have Defense Secretary Robert Gates contact the Reverend Terry Jones, saying Muslim anger over the minister’s plan to burn the Islamic holy book has put American service members in jeopardy. “We are seeing today riots in Kabul, riots in Afghanistan, that threaten our young men and women in uniform. And so we have got an obligation to send a very clear message that this kind of behavior or threats of action put our young men and women in harm’s way,” he said.
The leader of the small independent church said Thursday he would cancel his protest, because of an agreement by an imam in New York to move a proposed Islamic center and mosque away from the area of the September 11, 2001 attacks. The imam has said there is no such agreement.
At Friday’s news conference, Mr. Obama repeated his view that construction of the New York mosque should be allowed, because freedom of religion is a basic right in the United States. “If you could build a church on a site, you could build a synagogue on a site, if you could build a Hindu temple on a site, then you should be able to build a mosque on the site,” he said.
One day before the ninth anniversary of the attacks on New York and Washington, Mr. Obama was asked whether he is still focused on capturing al-Qaida leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. “Capturing or killing bin Laden and Zawahiri would be extremely important to our national security. It does not solve all our problems, but it remains a high priority of this administration,” he said.
The president responded to questions from 13 reporters during the 80-minute session, his first full news conference since May.
Mr. Obama was asked whether plans are still moving forward to close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He said he regrets missing his January, 2010 deadline for doing so, but remains committed to closing the facility. “One where we have fallen short is closing Guantanamo. I wanted to close it sooner, but we have missed that deadline. It is not for lack of trying. It is because the politics of it are difficult,” he said.
On reports of persistent corruption in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama said progress has been made, but he has repeatedly emphasized to Afghan President Hamid Karzai the need to clean up his government. “The only way that you are going to have a stable government over the long term is if the Afghan people feel that you are looking out for them, and that means that the tradition of corruption in the government is reduced. And we are going to keep on putting pressure on them on that front,” he said.
The president also said he has urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to extend a partial moratorium on building Jewish settlements in the West Bank, to help advance Mideast peace talks.
He said both Mr. Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were serious and cordial as the talks recently reopened, but he said they will have to overcome many challenges. “We can facilitate, we can encourage, we can tell them that we will stand behind them in their efforts and are willing to contribute as part of the broader international community in making this work, but ultimately the parties have to make these decisions for themselves,” he said.
Much of the news conference focused on the struggling U.S. economy and the Democratic Party’s slumping poll numbers. Mr. Obama announced no new plans Friday. But he expressed optimism that voters in the November midterm elections will prefer his economic policies to those of the previous Republican administration.