WASHINGTON — US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushed for Arab leaders to embrace a "spirit of reform" that has swept the region and move swiftly to respond to the growing demands of their citizens.
"The long Arab winter has begun to thaw," said Clinton on the opening day of the US-Islamic World Forum being held in Washington, praising Arab youth for rising up against "false narratives" that she said had choked political and economic reform for generations.
"All the signs of progress we have seen in recent months will only be meaningful if more leaders in more places move faster and further to embrace this spirit of reform," she said.
Before an audience that included representatives of more than 30 Muslim nations, the top US diplomat said in the wake of historic unrest in the region that "for the first time in decades there is a real opportunity for change."
Arab youth, she added, will no longer "accept the status quo" and "know a better life is within reach - and they are willing to reach for it."
Officials from Muslim majority nations including Jordan, Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan and Afghanistan are in Washington for the annual meeting, which aims to build greater understanding between the United States and Muslim countries.
In its eighth year, the forum is being held at a time of unprecedented change in the Arab world, with uprisings against autocratic leaders across the Middle East and North Africa, officials said.
"There is no reason why this region cannot be among the most prosperous in the world," Clinton told the forum.
"Despite the best efforts of the censors," she added, Arab youth "are connecting to the wider world in ways their parents and grandparents could never imagine. They see alternatives."
Leaders in the region -- rattled by the dramatic departures of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia after mass protests calling for regime change -- could get ahead of the calls for reform "if they work with their people to answer the region's most pressing challenges," Clinton said.
Among the challenges are how to diversify their economies, open up political systems, clamp down on corruption, and respect human rights of women and minorities, she said.
A poll released by the University of Maryland and the Brookings Institution think tank found that a majority of Americans, 57 percent, are supportive of the uprisings seen across the Arab world, "even if they lead to regimes more apt to oppose US policies," noted the forum organizers.
Earlier Tuesday, opening the forum, Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu called for the United States to be more active in solving conflicts, including the long-running dispute between Israelis and Palestinians.
Calling on Washington to take a "more active role in seeking solutions to conflict-ridden situations in the Muslim world," Ihsanoglu pushed for a revived Middle East peace process to be the cornerstone of US-Muslim world relations.
The peace process "should take prevalence in relations between the United States and Muslim world," Ihsanoglu said, adding that it was "high time" for talks to resume to find a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians.
US Senator John Kerry called at the three-day forum for "anyone here who can intervene and play a role to do so" in reviving the peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis.
Muslim officials insisted, however, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains at the heart of relations between the United States and the Islamic world.
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