Islamist urges al Qaeda to open up to Obama's offer

CAIRO, June 6 (Reuters) - A leader of an Islamist group that waged an insurgency in Egypt in the 1990s called on Saturday for al Qaeda and the Taliban to consider an opening offered by the U.S. president and call a halt to attacks on U.S. civilians.

Essam Derbala, a member of the leadership council of Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiya, or Islamic Group, made the appeal after President Barack Obama said in Cairo on Thursday he wanted a “new beginning” in ties between Washington and the Muslim world.

Islamist thinkers and groups in Egypt have long inspired Islamic movements around the world.

Washington’s reputation plunged in the Muslim world under the Middle East polices of Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, that were seen by many as targeting Muslims.

“I call on the Taliban of Afghanistan and Pakistan and al Qaeda to look at this solution and put the American side to a real test of the extent of its sincerity in achieving peace with the Muslim world,” Derbala told Reuters.

“I consider this a chance to reveal the truth about Barack Obama before the people,” he said, adding these organisations should open up to talks with the United States and declare they have “no need to kill American civilians”.

Al Qaeda’s second-in-command is Ayman al-Zawahri, an Egyptian who urged his compatriots to reject “criminal” Obama shortly before the president delivered his Cairo speech.

Many Muslims who listened to Obama’s address welcomed the change in tone from Washington but said they wanted to see more specifics about how he would heal long-running sores that include the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, a group that renounced violence decades ago, said the speech was mainly for public relations.

Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiya waged an insurrection in the 1990s that was crushed by the security forces and its members were thrown in prison, from where leadership figures such as Derbala renounced violence. Derbala was freed with many others in 2006.

The pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat reported in January, days after Obama was sworn into office, that Derbala called on al Qaeda to agree a four-month truce with the United States. (Reporting by Mohamed Abdellah; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Janet Lawrence)