DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) - The top Hamas leader on Thursday welcomed
what he said is "new language" by President Barack Obama toward
the Islamic militant group - part of Hamas' cautious outreach to
Washington in recent weeks.
In a televised speech, Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal avoided any
mention of the recent turmoil in Iran, even though the Islamic
militant group is backed by the Tehran regime.
Earlier Thursday, Iran's hardline president, Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, accused Obama of meddling because of growing U.S.
criticism of Iran's clampdown on opposition protesters. Iran's
other militant ally, the Lebanese Hezbollah group, has sided with
Iran's ruling clerics.
Hamas has been trying to reach out to the Obama administration
in hopes of breaking out of its international isolation and prying
open the borders of blockaded Hamas-ruled Gaza.
The U.S. and Europe consider Hamas a terror group and have said
they will only engage if Hamas recognizes Israel and renounces
violence. Hamas has rejected those conditions, saying it cannot
make such concessions up front.
In a speech to the Muslim world earlier this month, Obama
insisted that Hamas meet the conditions, but also suggested the
group could play a political role in the future.
"Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also
have to recognize they have responsibilities," Obama said at the
time. "To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, to
unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence,
recognize past agreements, recognize Israel's right to exist."
Mashaal on Thursday praised what he described as "Obama's new
language towards Hamas."
"It is the first step in the right direction toward a dialogue
without conditions, and we welcome this," he said.
However, he said the U.S. must respect the Palestinians'
democratic choice; Hamas overwhelmingly won Palestinian parliament
elections in 2006.
The Hamas chief-in-exile also said Obama remains too sympathetic
toward Israel, despite the president's pledge to work hard for the
establishment of a Palestinian state.
"Obama spoke widely about the suffering of Jews and their
Holocaust in Europe but ignored the talk about our suffering and
Israel's Holocaust that has been going on for decades against our
people," he said.
Mashaal also railed against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu, who said in a recent speech that Israel would retain
sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, keep building in Jewish
settlements and demand Palestinians recognize Israel's right to
exist as a Jewish state.
"The enemy's leaders call for a so-called Jewish state is a
racist demand that is no different from calls by Italian Fascists
and Hitler's Nazism," Mashaal said.
Mashaal said his group will keep working on a prisoner exchange
with Israel to win the release of hundreds of Palestinians in
return for Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit, who was captured three
years ago near Gaza.
"So far, the Israeli intransigence has stopped all efforts but
we are still ready to reach a prisoner exchange," Mashaal said.
"Netanyahu's only choice to get back Schalit is a serious deal."
Mashaal called on Obama to pull out Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, the
U.S. security coordinator in the region, who is supervising the
training of Palestinian forces in the West Bank.
Hamas overran Gaza two years ago, leaving Western-backed
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas only in control of the West
Bank. Abbas has been clamping down on Hamas in the West Bank since
the Gaza takeover, and some 2,100 U.S.-trained Palestinian forces
play a key role in that effort.
Mashaal said Dayton's force "is the main obstacle to the
success of Palestinian reconciliation talks" that are being
sponsored by Egypt.
Mashaal said a Hamas delegation will be flying to Egypt to take
part in Sunday's talks with representatives of Abbas' Fatah