Bush takes anti-terror message to Indonesia

He calls Indonesia a vital partner’ in the war on terror, meets religious leaders and announces $275m in education aid.

United States President George W. Bush yesterday underscored his determination to fight global terrorism and win over the Muslim ground by making a swift but symbolic visit to Indonesia.

Standing side by side with Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri on the island of Bali – the site of last year’s deadly terrorist strikes – he declared that Indonesia was ‘a vital partner and a friend of America’ in the war on terror.

‘We stand together against terrorism,’ he said at the end of a four-hour visit marked by massive security.

‘President Megawati has confronted these evils directly. She is one of the first leaders who stood with me after Sept 11.

‘Under her leadership, Indonesia is hunting and finding dangerous killers. America appreciates Indonesia’s strong cooperation in the war on terror.’

Terrorism topped the agenda during Mr Bush’s meeting with Ms Megawati, held inside an air-conditioned thatched-roof villa in an ocean-front resort.

A gunboat patrolled just offshore as the US leader reaffirmed his commitment to win the war on terror and paid tribute to the 202 victims of the Bali bomb blasts.

But he was also keen to defend his foreign policy in the face of criticism from the Muslim world that it was slanted towards Israel and against Islam.

He reiterated his support for a Palestinian state and said the US did not see Islam as its enemy.

‘Terrorists who claim Islam as their inspiration defile one of the world’s great faiths,’ he said. ‘Murder has no place in any religious tradition. It must find no home in Indonesia.’

Anti-American sentiment has grown in Indonesia in the past year, with recent polls showing increasing anger over the US-led war in Iraq and Washington’s policy in the Middle East.

Against this backdrop of hostility, Ms Megawati was cautious in her comments at the joint press conference.

‘We do not always share a common perspective,’ she said even as she pledged cooperation in the pursuit of global peace.

Mr Bush’s brief stopover in Bali on the way to Australia was also aimed at winning over the moderate Muslim ground, which Washington sees as a bulwark against Islamic extremism.

He announced a six-year US$157 million (S$275 million) programme for Indonesia to help improve education and counter the anti-American message in religious boarding schools across the country.

During his visit, he also held talks with five religious leaders, including leaders of the country’s two largest Islamic organisations – Nadhlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah.

He praised both groups for ‘sustaining Indonesia’s tradition of tolerance and moderation’.

But those who attended the meeting told him bluntly that his global war on terror had alienated Muslims.

Said Mr Shafii Maarif, the Muhammadiyah chairman: ‘We told him it was wrong for him to use words such as crusade … he admitted to us he had made a mistake by mentioning it after the Sept 11 attacks.’

Differences such as that over the Palestinian issue remained unresolved at the end of the 55-minute meeting, but Mr Shafii said: ‘If Bush shows this willingness to listen, Indonesia’s perception of the US will change over time.’

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