Nobel prize boosts Mideast hope

CAIRO: Some Middle East leaders expressed hope on Friday that Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize would push him to fulfill promises made in a landmark speech to the world's Muslims, but others criticised the award as premature.

In a defining moment of his presidency, the US president promised in a June speech at Cairo University a "new beginning" for Islam and America, laying out a blueprint for Middle East policy and vowing to end mistrust and forge a state for Palestinians.

Arab League chief Amr Mussa said he was "very happy" Obama had won the award, which comes less than a year after he took office and with the jury hailing his "extraordinary" diplomatic efforts on the international stage.

"This is an expression that the world is convinced of what (Obama) talked about in his speeches," Mussa told AFP.

"We hope this prize will help intensify efforts to reach peace in the Middle East and contain negative efforts opposed to peace," he said.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas expressed his wish that "Obama will achieve his quest for peace throughout the Middle East by establishing an independent Palestinian state in the 1967 borders with its capital in east Jerusalem," top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP.

But Islamist movement Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since routing forces loyal to Abbas in 2007, said the award was premature.

"He did not do anything for the Palestinians except make promises," said Hamas spokesman Samir Abu Zuhri. "At the same time, he is giving his absolute support for the (Israeli) occupation."

In Israel, President Shimon Peres said Obama had restored hope to the world.

"You provided the whole of humanity with fresh hope, with intellectual determination," he said.

Kuwait's emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, congratulated the president for "his extraordinary efforts in the service of international diplomacy and of cooperation among peoples."

Iran said the prize should prompt Obama to start working towards ending injustice in the world, an aide to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told AFP.

"We hope that this gives him the incentive to walk in the path of bringing justice to the world order," said Ali Akbar Javanfekr.

"We are not upset and we hope that by receiving this prize he will start taking practical steps to remove injustice in the world."

The Nobel jury attached "special importance to Obama's vision and work for a world without nuclear weapons" and said he had created "a new climate in international politics.

"Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future," the jury said in making its announcement.

Emad Gad, a researcher at the Cairo-based Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said Obama "created a climate of calm and used a language of reconciliation."

He added that the prize will be a "tough challenge" for the president.

Obama said he was "humbled" by the distinction but criticism quickly emerged over how the award could be given so early on in his presidential career.

"It's ridiculous. Obama is still on notice. It's like a payoff before the delivery," said Walid Kazziha, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.

"He made a very good speech (in Cairo) but we haven't seen any concrete results," Kazziha told AFP.

He said that while Obama had "no doubt relaxed the tension, he has not eliminated the cause of the tension."

Obama's Cairo speech, peppered with references to and quotes from the Koran, was aimed at healing a deep rift with the Islammic world.

"I have come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world," Obama said, targeting the globe's 1.5 billion Muslims via television, the Internet and on social networking sites.

"This cycle of suspicion and discord must end," said Obama, vowing to fight "negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear."