UNITED NATIONS — President Bush on Tuesday called for Muslims and other residents of the Middle East to reject extremism and empower "voices of moderation," offering the latest defense of his "freedom agenda" that has rankled allies abroad and drawn criticism from Democrats at home.
In a speech at the opening of the annual U.N. General Assembly debate, Bush singled out Iran, Syria and militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas as obstacles to reform and supporters of terrorism, stating again that Iran must not be allowed to pursue nuclear weapons.
Bush addressed a crowd left skeptical by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, launched without U.N. endorsement, and Washington's hard line on Iran. Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva told the assembled diplomats that "billions and billions" of dollars spent in Iraq could have been used to lessen hunger and poverty around the world.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan criticized Bush's policies for fighting terrorism, particularly his administration's controversial practices of secret detention and transferring prisoners to other countries for interrogation, which the White House refers to as "extraordinary rendition."
Without naming the United States, Annan condemned the way the fight against terrorism was "used as a pretext to abridge or abrogate fundamental human rights, thereby ceding moral ground to the terrorists and helping them find new recruits."
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in a speech Tuesday evening, fiercely denounced the U.S. and Israel, accusing both nations of using the Security Council as an instrument of "oppression."
Neither Bush nor Ahmadinejad was present for the other's speech. Ahmadinejad condemned the U.S. for acting as "judge, jury and executioner" on Iran's nuclear program, which he defended as "transparent, peaceful and under the watchful eyes" of U.N. inspectors.
The General Assembly debate also touched on another troubled part of the world, the Darfur region of western Sudan.
Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir confounded hopes for a breakthrough on Darfur, repeating his objections to allowing U.N. peacekeepers to protect civilians there.
In a rare international news conference, Bashir accused aid groups of hyping the crisis as a ruse to raise funds, and blamed "Zionist Jewish organizations" for orchestrating recent demonstrations in the United States that called for peacekeepers.
The U.N. and aid groups have estimated that nearly 200,000 people have been killed in Darfur. The Security Council will vote Thursday on whether to expand a U.N. peacekeeping operation to allow it to operate in Darfur.
Bashir rejected the idea, but said that he would accept more African Union forces to join the 7,000 overextended troops in the region.
Bush's speech focused heavily on the Middle East, and in contrast with some of his more hawkish appearances here, such as his promise to "disarm" then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with or without support from the U.N., Tuesday's address accentuated diplomacy.
He pledged to make a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute "one of the great objectives of my presidency," and appealed to the people of Iran, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon to reject anti-U.S. "propaganda" that he said was designed to mislead them about his intentions.
"Freedom, by its nature, cannot be imposed; it must be chosen," Bush said. "From Beirut to Baghdad, people are making the choice for freedom. And the nations gathered in this chamber must make a choice, as well: Will we support the moderates and reformers who are working for change across the Middle East, or will we yield the future to the terrorists and extremists?
"America has made its choice. We will stand with the moderates and reformers."
Bush's 20-minute address came at a time of strain between the United States and its allies over several tenets of his foreign policy.
He told Iranians that, "despite what the regime tells you, we have no objection to Iran's pursuit of a truly peaceful nuclear power program."
Bush also singled out Syria, calling it a "crossroad for terrorism," and said that the Damascus government's alliances with Hamas and Hezbollah were turning it into a "tool of Iran."
The president's address was one of his broadest foreign policy speeches since his second inauguration last year. But unlike that address, when he spoke of spreading democracy, Bush's words and tone Tuesday reflected the trouble he had faced enacting his agenda.
Acknowledging that change can be slow, Bush held up the new Hamas-led government in the Palestinian territories as a test for whether democracy would prevail over extremism.
"The leaders of Hamas campaigned on a platform of ending corruption and improving the lives of the Palestinian people, and they prevailed," he said. "The world is waiting to see whether the Hamas government will follow through on its promises, or pursue an extremist agenda."