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Tue 19 Feb 2008 01:16 AM

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US-Islamic forum backs Obama

Illinois senator clear favourite at Doha conference, but policy change not likely, delegates warn.

Delegates at a US-Islamic forum voiced support on Monday for US presidential hopeful Barack Obama, although some warned against expecting any radical policy change irrespective of who captures the White House.

Obama, who is vying to become the first black president of the US, won overwhelming support in a mock election by more than 200 American and Muslim delegates at the US-Islamic World Forum in the Qatari capital.

His Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and Republican candidates won only a handful of votes.

Around 280 public figures and academics from 32 countries, including Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the US ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, attended the fifth edition of the forum due to end in the gas-rich Gulf state later Monday.

Many Muslim delegates said they hoped to see Obama win the Democratic nomination and go on to be elected next November to succeed US President George W. Bush.

"I would like to see Obama become president of America because he champions 'change and hope', which we Muslims need as much as the Americans do," Islamic television preacher Amr Khaled told AFP.

Khaled told the forum that he speaks "on behalf of millions of Muslim youth who seek work, respect and freedom," and urged the next US administration to "solve the political problems in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, and not to mix between Muslims and extremists".

The result echoes a recent ArabianBusiness.com survey which found more than half of respondents preferred the Illinois senator over Clinton.

Just over 50% of those surveyed said Obama would be the best president for the Middle East, stating he was "something new, and offers a clean break from the past".

The whole Middle East has one eye firmly fixed on the US presidential race, the result of which will have huge implications for the region.

The Bush administration is generally unpopular in the region and wider Islamic world due to the US-led invasion of Iraq, the "war on terror" which is often associated with anti-Islamic sentiment, and Washington's perceived bias for Israel.

Obama, 46, has consistently campaigned as the "anti-war" candidate and has promised to bring US troops in Iraq home as soon as possible.

But Dhiya Rashwan, an Egyptian expert on terrorist groups, warned that US policy under the next president would be "a continuation of current policies, though in a less extreme way than the conservative Republican administration".

The Bush administration has "planted landmines everywhere" for its successor, making it impossible for the next president to suddenly reverse course, Rashwan said.

One example is the arms deals concluded by the Bush administration "to counter Iran and terrorism ... The arms industry will not give up these deals under any circumstances," he said.

The Bush administration has also "imposed phobia" on the Americans, something US politicians will find difficult to change, Rashwan added.

"If the Democrats win, they will be very sensitive to the American image... The American image has to improve because it can't get worse," said Mehran Kamrava, a political science professor at the Qatar branch of Georgetown University.

"But I don't think they (future administration) will work hard for a rapprochement with the Islamic world because Muslims are not a strong voice," he added.

The three-day forum, which aims to bridge the US-Muslim divide caused by the September 11, 2001 attacks, debated the Islamic world's expectations of the next US administration and how the presidential election will affect US policy toward Muslim countries.

The annual gathering is organised by the Qatari foreign ministry and the Brookings Institution's Saban Centre for Middle East Policy.

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