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Obama to face Syria scrutiny in Jordan

Barack Obama greets members of the Ankor Children's Choir at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum on March 22, 2013
Barack Obama greets members of the Ankor Children's Choir at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. A day after challenging Israelis to embrace peace with Palestinians, the US President will face scrutiny over his strategy on Syria during an overnight stay in J

A day after challenging Israelis to embrace peace with Palestinians, US President Barack Obama will on Friday face scrutiny over his strategy on Syria during an overnight stay in Jordan.

Following a three-day trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, his first as president, Obama was to fly to Amman for talks and a private dinner with King Abdullah II, after wrapping up his trip to the Holy Land with a visit to Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity.

But an unexpected sandstorm with galeforce winds, put a last-minute kink in his plans, forcing the president to travel by motorcade to the not-so-little town which is regarded by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, Israel police said.

And with zero visibility and raging winds also buffeting Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, it was not immediately clear whether his departure for Jordan, scheduled for 1315 GMT, would be delayed.

Obama in the Middle East
Graphic showing the itinerary of US President Barack Obama's visit to the Middle East, with Israel as first stop Wednesday.

While the thrust of his Israel trip was reassurance that the United States would mount an "eternal" defence of the Jewish state in the face of the Iranian nuclear threat, Obama will turn to the agony of Syria's civil war in Jordan.

Jordan is sheltering nearly 436,000 Syrian refugees, a figure expected to rise to 700,000 by the end of this year, as people fleeing vicious sectarian fighting between Bashar al-Assad's forces and rebel groups spill over its borders.

Obama has resisted pouring US arms or ammunition into the conflict, which the UN estimates has taken at least 70,000 lives, but has offered logistical support to rebels and hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid.

He will also support political reform efforts inside Jordan, which has been an oasis of relative calm in a region swept by turmoil following the Arab Spring.

A senior US official said Obama wanted to coordinate with the king on security challenges and on helping Jordan alleviate the refugee crisis.

"We're providing a lot of assistance to support Jordan and international organisations that are supporting the refugee population inside of Jordan," he said.

Palestinian troops guard  the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem ahead of Barack Obama's visit on March 22, 2013
Palestinian troops guard the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem ahead of Barack Obama's visit.

"We're also working very closely with the Jordanian government as part of the coalition of countries that is supporting the Syrian opposition to pressure the regime, to build up the opposition, and try to bring about a new Syria."

In Jerusalem, Obama said the United States was investigating claims that chemical weapons had been used in Syria, warning it would be a "gamechanger" and that Assad's regime would he held accountable.

Obama on Friday visited the grave of Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, then paid his respects at the grave of murdered Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin.

On a hot and windy morning, he walked slowly up to the grave flanked by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres and placed a stone on it from the grounds of Washington's Martin Luther King memorial.

He also toured the nearby Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, saying it showed "the barbarism that unfolds when we begin to see our fellow human beings as somehow less than us.

A Jordanian burns the US flag during a protest against the visit of US President Barack Obama in Amman on 21 March, 2013
A Jordanian man burns the American flag during a protest against the visit of US President Barack Obama to Jordan, in front of the American embassy in Amman on 21 March, 2013.

"Here on your ancient land let it be said for all the world to hear: The state of Israel does not exist because of the Holocaust, but in the survival of a strong Jewish state of Israel, the Holocaust will never happen again."

After a brief meeting with Netanyahu at the King David Hotel, Obama had been due to fly by helicopter to Bethlehem, but the sudden storm forced a change of plans.

"The American president's convoy of cars just left for Bethlehem," police spokeswoman Luba Samri told AFP, saying the storm precluded flying and that Obama may drive directly from Bethlehem to the airport.

In a powerful direct appeal to young Israelis on Thursday, Obama insisted that the chances for a two-state peace with the Palestinians was still alive and that it was their only hope of true security.

"You can be the generation that permanently secures the Zionist dream," he said in a soaring speech, urging his audience to "look at the world through (Palestinian) eyes" and warning the two-state answer was the only way to ensure Israel remained a Jewish state in view of the changing demographics.

His oration won praise from Peres who said he was "moved" by the appeal, and also by president Mahmud Abbas who said "the option of two states on the 1967 borders" was the only way to achieve security for both peoples, a senior official said.

Earlier, Obama's edgy news conference with Abbas in Ramallah reflected Palestinian disappointment with his failure to live up to first-term vows to help them secure their own state.

The frosty atmosphere lacked the bonhomie of his bonding session with Netanyahu on Wednesday, as the two sought to prove their prickly relationship was a thing of the past.

Although Obama singled out Jewish settlements as a major impediment to reviving peace talks, he did not call for a new construction ban.

But Abbas told Obama that a freeze was a must if peace talks were to resume, his political adviser Nimr Hammad said.

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