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Obama calls Iran `one of the greatest threats' to the U.S.

John McCormick
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

CHICAGO - Seeking to woo Jewish votes and contributions, Sen. Barack Obama told an audience in Chicago Friday that he considers Iran "one of the greatest threats to the United States, Israel and world peace" and pledged he would try to end that nation's uranium enrichment program.

As he criticized the Bush administration's Iraq policies, the Democratic presidential candidate suggested that the danger posed by neighboring Iran has grown in recent years because of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

"One of the most profound consequences of the administration's failed strategy in Iraq has been to strengthen Iran's strategic position, reduce U.S. credibility and influence in the region, and place Israel and other nations friendly to the United States in greater peril," Obama, D-Ill., said before a regional gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a major pro-Israel lobbying group.

In advance of the group's national conference later this month in Washington, where Obama will court donors one-on-one, his campaign had been looking for a friendly audience to make a major policy speech on U.S.-Israel policy.

By speaking to about 800 of the committee's members at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers, Obama was able to reaffirm his support of Israel, as voters consider the early presidential field. Democratic front-runner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., made a similar speech to the group's members in her home state on Feb. 1.

Despite the eagerness of local news crews for him to comment on the topic, Obama made no mention of a revelation reported Friday by the Baltimore Sun that he has white ancestors who owned slaves. A spokesman also said he would not be taking any media questions.

Racial issues will again be at the forefront Sunday, as the senator appears in Alabama to deliver the keynote address at an event that commemorates the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march, an occasion that will also attract Clinton and her husband, the nation's 42nd president. Before his departure, Obama will headline a major labor rally in Chicago Saturday morning.

Like labor, the Jewish community is an essential constituency for any Democrat running for the White House.

John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, said research suggests it is not uncommon for Jews to represent as much as 20 percent of the donors in a presidential primary.

"Jews are strong Democrats as a group and are a very important source of money for presidential candidates," he said. "This is a pretty significant financial constituency."

Green said Jews represent only small part of the total electorate, but can also play a key role in swing states such as Florida. "In a close election, this is a critical bloc," he said.

Although Green said Obama might struggle to differentiate himself from Clinton on social issues, his early opposition to the war in Iraq could help.

"Jews are particularly opposed to President Bush's positions in Iraq," he said. "She has had a little bit of a different policy position on the war in Iraq and that is a place where he could distinguish himself from her."

Rabbi Ira Youdovin, executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, said some Jews were initially supportive of efforts to remove Saddam Hussein when reports of weapons of mass destruction were credible and Israel could be a target. "Today, there is far less approval and a sense that maybe the war wasn't a good idea," he said.

Josh Block, a spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said Jewish voters lean mostly Democratic, but that the group is not monolithic in its support for the party.

"It requires nurturing," he said. "It can't be taken for granted."

In one of many lines that drew applause, Obama called for "fully funding military assistance" for Israel and continued work on missile defense programs. "And when Israel is attacked, we must stand up for Israel's legitimate right to defend itself," he said.

Obama focused much of his speech on Iran, but stressed the need for greater communication among all players in the region. "My plan includes a robust regional diplomatic strategy that includes talking to Syria and Iran - something this administration has finally embraced," he said.

Earlier this week, Obama also met with family members of kidnapped Israeli soldier Ehud Goldwasser in Washington.

Jeff Simon, a financial planner from Northbrook who attended the speech, said the senator hit all the right notes for his audience.

"He touched on all the key issues," he said. "He said the right things."

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