United Nations President Bush sought to blunt anti-Americanism across the Middle East on Tuesday, asserting that extremists are trying to justify their violence by falsely claiming the U.S. is waging war on Islam. He singled out Iran and Syria as sponsors of terrorism.
Bush, in an address to world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly, tried to advance his campaign for democracy in the Middle East against a backdrop of turmoil in Iraq, Afghanistan and other nations that have embraced the very changes he seeks for the region.
Solidly aligned with Israel, the United States is viewed with anger and suspicion by Muslims across the Middle East.
Addressing that hostility, Bush said, "My country desires peace. Extremists in your midst spread propaganda claiming that the West is engaged in a war against Islam. This propaganda is false and its purpose is to confuse you and justify acts of terror. We respect Islam."
Hours after Bush spoke, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told the General Assembly that the U.S. and Britain were abusing the U.N. Security Council to achieve their own ends. He described Iran's disputed nuclear activities as "transparent, peaceful and under the watchful eye" of U.N. inspectors.
Ahmadinejad was also critical of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, declaring that "the occupiers are incapable of establishing security in Iraq" and that every day hundreds of people are killed "in cold blood."
Bush's address earlier in the day was the latest in a series of speeches on the war on terror, linked to last week's fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and aimed at setting the tone for the final weeks of U.S. elections that will determine control of Congress.
Bush said past stability in the Middle East has been achieved at the expense of freedom, and he disputed critics who claim his push for democracy has destabilized the region.
"The reality is that the stability we thought we saw in the Middle East was a mirage," Bush told the more than 80 prime ministers and presidents assembled in the cavernous hall of the U.N. headquarters.
"For decades, millions of men and women in the region have been trapped in oppression and hopelessness. And these conditions left a generation disillusioned and made this region a breeding ground for extremism."
Bush made spreading democracy across the Middle East a cornerstone of his foreign policy after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. "When people have a voice in their future, they are less likely to blow themselves up in suicide attacks," he said Tuesday.
He recited a list of nations where he said the seeds of democracy are taking root:
l The United Arab Emirates recently announced that half the seats in its Federal National Council will be chosen through elections.
l For the first time, women have been allowed to vote and run for office in Kuwait.
l Citizens have voted in municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, in parliamentary elections in Jordan and Bahrain, and in multiparty presidential elections in Yemen and Egypt.
Bush praised Lebanon for driving out Syria - a nation the president said is a "crossroad for terrorism." Lebanon's fragile, democratic government, however, has proved too weak, so far, to check the Islamic militant group Hezbollah, which attacked neighboring Israel with rockets earlier this summer.