WASHINGTON - U.S. President Barack Obama will deliver a speech to the Muslim world in Egypt next month, seeking to repair ties that were severely damaged under his predecessor George W. Bush.
Many Arab and Muslim nations were angered by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, harsh interrogation of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo, abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Bush's initial reluctance to pursue Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Obama promised during his presidential campaign to give a major address to Muslims from a Muslim capital during the first few months of his administration.
The Muslim world will be watching to see his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most Muslims believed Bush's policies toward the region were biased in favor of Israel.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters on Friday that the speech would be delivered in Egypt on June 4 but did not say whether it would be in the Egyptian capital Cairo.
The country has been a key partner for Washington in decades of efforts to secure Middle East peace and is one of the biggest recipients of U.S. military and economic aid.
But the choice of Egypt, which has a poor human rights record, could potentially overshadow the substance of Obama's speech, and Gibbs found himself on the defensive over the issue at a White House news conference.
It is a country that in many ways represents the heart of the Arab world, Gibbs said.
The scope of the speech, the desire for the president to speak (to the Muslim world), is bigger than where the speech was going to be given or who's the leadership of the country where the speech is going to be given, he said.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave a major policy speech in Egypt in 2005 at a time when U.S. popularity was seriously dented by the Iraq war.
Rice's speech was part of the Bush administration's democracy agenda. She urged reforms across the region, specifically targeting her host which drew anger from Cairo.
However, the Obama administration has dropped the previous government's focus on building democracy and Obama's speech was likely to be more conciliatory.
MUBARAK TO VISIT WASHINGTON
The government of President Hosni Mubarak, who is due to visit Washington later this month, has been increasingly bold in targeting its foes in recent years, arresting leftists and Islamists alike. Press freedoms remain limited and protesters have largely been scared off the streets.
The Egyptian government released opposition politician Ayman Nour in February, a move seen as trying to win goodwill from the new Obama administration. Nour spent three years in jail on forgery charges he says were fabricated to punish him for challenging Mubarak. Egypt says its courts are fair.
Human rights group Amnesty International has raised concerns about what it describes as systematic torture, deaths of prisoners in custody, unfair trials and arrests of people for their political and religious beliefs or for their sexual orientation,
Shortly after his inauguration on January 20, Obama chose an Arab station, Al Arabiya, to give his first formal TV interview, widely interpreted as a signal that he wanted to improve relations with the Arab and Muslim world.
To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect, Obama said in his inauguration speech.
He also called for peace and dialogue with Islam in a speech to Turkey's parliament on his first presidential visit to the Muslim world in April.
Gibbs said on Friday that all of this gives the president the opportunity hopefully to extend the hand to those that in many ways are like us but simply have a different religion.
Gibbs said during the overseas trip Obama would also go to the German city of Dresden and the Buchenwald concentration camp complex, which was set up by the Nazis during World War Two. Obama's great uncle was among the soldiers who liberated one of the camps at Buchenwald.
On June 6, Obama will travel to Normandy in France to attend events marking the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings by Allied forces that led to the end of the war.