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Obama speaks before 3,000, addresses a billion

The ground truth from Cairo.

Many U.S. conservatives have criticized Obama’s trip, arguing that it would amount to an apology tour.

The president steered clear of any apologies, though he opened himself to criticism at home, telling the auditorium of Muslims that the war in Iraq was a “war of choice.”

Speaking in a country with a deep colonial history, Obama reminded the Muslim world that the U.S. sought no colonial role in the Middle East. In discussing both Iraq and Afghanistan, he asserted that the U.S. had no interest in keeping a military presence in either country.

On Iraq, he said, “We pursue no bases, and no claim on their territory or resources.”

Obama then made brief mention of his policy on torture and of his intention to shut down the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, drawing loud applause from the crowd.

In advance of his speech, some Egyptians noted that they hoped Obama would address the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Many hoped he would speak specifically to a plan for peace.

As is his style, Obama charted a middle course, noting a history of suffering for both Jews and Palestinians. And reiterating a call he has made several times since taking office, Obama called for a two-state solution to the crisis.

Though taking a tougher tone toward Israel than some of his predecessors, Obama seemed determined to criticize and cajole both sides equally, addressing Israelis and Palestinians alternately.

In addressing Israel, Obama continued to call on the Jewish state to halt the building of settlements in the West Bank.

“The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop,” he said.

For those hoping for specifics, though, Obama may have disappointed. In addressing a handful of crises, Obama offered little by way of a plan for action.

Obama gave his first TV interview as president to an Arab network, has addressed the Turkish Parliament and sent a video message to Iran. Political scholars and working-class Egyptians alike hoped Obama would move beyond gestures in his speech and offer concrete solutions.

In some opposition circles in Cairo, people criticized Obama for choosing Egypt to deliver his speech, arguing that it amounted to an endorsement of Mubarak’s anti-democratic regime.

In his speech, Obama chose not to criticize Mubarak directly, instead speaking in general terms about the need for all people to pursue democratic values.

“I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose,” he said.

“Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.”

In his more than 45-minute long address, Obama also touched on a number of other subjects, including nuclear weapons, women’s rights, religious tolerance and economic opportunity.

The speech served more to extend an open hand than to present a firm plan of action. Reaction to the speech will be varied, no doubt, representing the mosaic of political opinion in Egypt’s population.

The level of interest in this speech, though, has grown to a fever pitch in Cairo in recent days. For security reasons, the city is virtually shut down. Roads are quiet and businesses empty. Egyptians everywhere crowded into cafes and apartments to watch the address. While reaction here will play out over the coming days, interest in his speech will make sure that there will be plenty of it.

Following the address, Obama boarded Marine One for a brief flight to the Pyramids, where he’ll take a tour before departing Cairo this afternoon.