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Obama heralds 'new era' of US diplomatic ties

Says US not to 'hide' price of wars, vows 'justice' to terrorists

President Barack Obama said Wednesday that the United States has opened a new era of diplomatic engagement, vowing to seek peace in the Middle East and to chart a new course in Afghanistan. He vowed to eliminate wasteful spending in Iraq and promised that the U.S. will no longer 'hide' the price of wars in both Iraq and afghanistan.

Obama, delivering his first address to Congress, declared unequivocally that the U.S. will not torture prisoners but also pledged to swiftly punish captured terrorists.

"In words and deeds, we are showing the world that a new era of engagement has begun," Obama told a joint session of Congress little more than a month after he took office.

Mideast peace

"We cannot shun the negotiating table, nor ignore the foes or forces that could do us harm. We are instead called to move forward with the sense of confidence and candor that serious times demand."

Obama, unlike Bush, has said he may be willing to start talks with Iran and promised a sustained effort to secure peace between Israel and its neighbors.

Obama highlighted his appointment of Middle East envoy George Mitchell, saying his administration would "seek progress toward a secure and lasting peace between Israel and her neighbors."

Mitchell, a former senator and architect of the Northern Ireland peace process, just left on a second tour of the Middle East.

His hectic schedule marks a change from the previous administration of president George W. Bush, who did not actively engage in Middle East diplomacy until late in his tenure.

We cannot shun the negotiating table, nor ignore the foes or forces that could do us harm. We are instead called to move forward with the sense of confidence and candor that serious times demand

U.S. President Barack Obama

Iraq and Afganistan

The Obama administration this week is also holding three-way talks with Afghanistan and Pakistan, hoping to chart out a new strategy to fight extremists in the region.

Obama has pledged to send another 17,000 troops to Afghanistan as the United States winds down its controversial troop presence in Iraq.

"I will soon announce a way forward in Iraq that leaves Iraq to its people and responsibly ends this war," Obama said.

"With our friends and allies, we will forge a new and comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan to defeat al-Qaeda and combat extremism," Obama said.

"Because I will not allow terrorists to plot against the American people from safe havens half a world away."

Vowing to restore "honesty and accountability" to government spending, Obama said his budget "for the first time includes the full cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan."

"For seven years, we have been a nation at war. No longer will we hide its price," he said to applause.

For seven years, we have been a nation at war. No longer will we hide its price

U.S. President Barack Obama

War costs

The president was referring to his predecessor's controversial method of accounting for the cost of the two wars through "supplemental" funding requests outside of the main defense budget.

He said his administration would scrap wasteful contract work in Iraq and impose tough scrutiny on mammoth weapons systems that grew out of the Cold War.

"We'll eliminate the no-bid contracts that have wasted billions in Iraq, and reform our defense budget so that we're not paying for Cold War-era weapons systems we don't use."

The 612 billion dollar defense authorization signed by former president George W. Bush in September represented the largest since World War II in real terms and probably the peak of a seven-year buildup dating back to the attacks of Sep. 11, 2001.

The military has struggled to strike a balance between the demands of counter-insurgency warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan and the need to prepare for conventional warfare as a hedge against rising powers like China.

We'll eliminate the no-bid contracts that have wasted billions in Iraq, and reform our defense budget so that we're not paying for Cold War-era weapons systems we don't use

U.S. President Barack Obama

War on terror

Obama, as one of his first acts, ordered shutting down the "war on terror" detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, a lightning rod for criticism both at home and abroad. However, in his speech Obama promised to bring "swift and certain justice" to captured terrorists

"I have ordered the closing of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, and will seek swift and certain justice for captured terrorists -- because living our values doesn't make us weaker, it makes us safer and it makes us stronger," Obama said.

"That is why I can stand here tonight and say without exception or equivocation that the United States of America does not torture," Obama said to rousing applause.

An Ethiopian-born British resident flew back on Monday ater more than four years in detention at the U.S. military base in Cuba, where he said he was "tortured in medieval ways."

The United States has faced sharp criticism from human rights groups for such methods as water-boarding, which simulates drowning, in the interrogation of suspects.

I can stand here tonight and say without exception or equivocation that the United States of America does not torture

U.S. President Barack Obama