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(photo credit: AP [file])
In a rare interview with an Arabic satellite news station, US President George W. Bush addressed the Arab world Friday to bolster America's image and express his optimism for the chances of Middle East peace.
In the course of the interview on Al-Arabiya, his first in two years, Bush took pains to refute the widespread image of him in the Arab world as a warmonger and stressed the desire of the US to help the people of the Middle East.
"I'm very optimistic we can achieve a two-state solution," he said, as Israelis and Palestinians are preparing for US-sponsored peace talks set for November. "It's an opportunity for there to be a serious, substantive discussions about the way forward, and a two-state solution."
Arab leaders, however, have expressed doubt over the seriousness of the conference and expressed fear that it will be little more than an empty photo opportunity.
Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he expected at least 36 states to attend, including 12 Arab states, three Muslim nations, the permanent members of the UN Security Council and the G-8.
"We hope that the number will increase to 40 states," Abbas was quoted as telling Palestinian dignitaries from Jerusalem on Friday evening, during a meal breaking the dawn-to-dusk fast of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
In a friendly exchange with Arabiya host Eli Nakouzi, Bush acknowledged the negative perceptions of him and the United States in the region, but ascribed it to enemy propaganda.
"I understand the images of my country have been distorted. And I understand people say things about me personally that simply aren't true," he said in remarks dubbed in Arabic.
"I appreciate the chance to come and talk to you directly and to talk to your viewers directly about what's in my heart and about the fact that my country is a country of peace."
Bush also dismissed as gossip talk that the United States had plans to attack Iran in a few months and said he'd pledged to the American people to find a diplomatic solution to the situation and push for peace in the region.
"The United States is firm in its desire to help the average citizen in the Middle East live in peace. It just so happens a peaceful Middle East will make America more secure," he said.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is to visit Israel and Arab states next week in a push to put the pieces in place for the conference, expected to be held in Annapolis, Md., in late-November.
But Egypt and other Arab states have yet to say whether they will attend the conference and Arab governments have expressed reservations about the usefulness meeting if it does not address the core issues in the Israeli-Palestinian and broader Arab-Israeli conflicts.