By NEDRA PICKLER
President Bush tried to quell anti-Americanism in the Middle East on Tuesday by assuring Muslims that he is not waging war against Islam, regardless of what "propaganda and conspiracy theories" they hear.
Bush also pressed Iran to return at once to international talks on its nuclear program and threatened consequences if the Iranians do not.
But his speech to the United Nations General Assembly was less confrontational and aimed at building bridges with people in the Middle East angry with the United States.
"My country desires peace," Bush told world leaders in the cavernous main hall at the U.N. "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."
Bush’s speech was the last in a series on the war on terror, timed to surround last week’s fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and to set the tone for the final weeks of the U.S. midterm elections.
Bush’s challenge is to build support among skeptical foreign leaders to confront multiple problems in the region: the Iranian nuclear issue, a stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, armed Hezbollah militants in Lebanon and unabated violence in Iraq.
Bush planned to meet later Tuesday with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
Addressing Iraqis specifically, Bush said, "We will not abandon you in your struggle to build a free nation."
He then appealed to other foreigners:
• He told Afghans that the United States would help defend democratic gains and fight extremists who want to bring down their democratic government.
• He told the Lebanese that the world will help them rebuild the country after it was battered in this summer’s fighting between Israel and Hezbollah.
• He told Syrians that their leaders have allowed the country to become a "crossroad for terrorism" and their government must end support for terror so they can live in peace.
Speaking to Iranians, Bush said their country’s future has been clouded because "your rulers have chosen to deny you liberty and to use your nation’s resources to fund terrorism and fuel extremism and pursue nuclear weapons."
Bush declared that Iran "must abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions." Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was scheduled to speak to the body later Tuesday, but he was not at the country’s table in the hall when Bush spoke.
On the crisis in Sudan’s violence-wracked region of Darfur, Bush delivered strong warnings to both the United Nations and the Sudanese government, saying that both must act now to avert a further humanitarian crisis.
Bush said that if the Sudanese government does not withdraw its rejection of a U.N. peacekeeping force for Darfur, the world body should act over the government’s objections. The U.N. Security Council last month passed a resolution that would give the U.N. control over the peacekeeping mission in Darfur, now run mostly ineffectively by the African Union. But Sudan has refused to give its consent.
"The regime in Khartoum is stopping the deployment of this force," Bush said. "If the Sudanese government does not approve this peacekeeping force quickly, the United Nations must act."
With more than 200,000 people killed in three years of fighting in Darfur and the violence threatening to increase again, Bush said the "credibility of the United Nations is at stake."
Iran’s defiant pursuit of a nuclear program was at the top of the agenda when Bush met earlier with French President Jacques Chirac at the Waldorf Astoria hotel where the U.S. delegation was staying. The French leader is balking at the U.S. drive to sanction Iran for defying Security Council demands that it freeze uranium enrichment.
Chirac proposed on Monday that the international community compromise by suspending the threat of sanctions if Tehran agrees to halt its uranium enrichment program and return to negotiations. The U.S. and other countries fear Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons, while Tehran insists its uranium enrichment program is to make fuel for nuclear power plants.
Bush said after his meeting with the French leader that Iran must first suspend uranium enrichment "in which case the U.S. will come to the table."
"Should they continue to stall," Bush said of Iranian leaders, "we will then discuss the consequences of their stalling." The president said those consequences would include the possibility of sanctions.
"Time is of the essence," the president said. "Now is the time for the Iranians to come to the table."
Both Bush and Chirac stressed they were working together, and the French president said twice that they see "eye to eye."
While at the United Nations, Bush also attended a luncheon with many of the other visiting leaders and honored Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who was overseeing his last General Assembly meeting before his term expires. Although the two have had their share of disagreements, Bush toasted everything from Annan’s compassion in response to natural disasters to his desire for peace to his hard work and his love for his wife.
"We need to raise our glasses to 10 years of extraordinary service and be thankful that a man such as Kofi Annan was willing to stand up and serve the cause of justice and peace," Bush said.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press