U.S. AMBASSADOR HOPEFUL ABOUT IMPROVED RELATIONS WITH NEW MALAYSIAN PRIME MINISTER

HONOLULU (Nov. 20) -- The U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia said she hopes the comments by the country's new prime minister condemning attacks against Jewish synagogues in Turkey mean he will take a more constructive international role than his predecessor did.

U.S. Ambassador Marie Huhtala called Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's condemnation of the car bombings in Turkey "very significant," especially in light of recent anti-Jewish comments made by his predecessor, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Mahathir made his remarks at a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which he chaired until he retired from office three weeks ago.

Mahathir said at the OIC meeting that Jews rule the world by proxy, drawing applause from OIC members but protest from around the world. "This left the U.S.-Malaysian relationship very much on edge," Huhtala said. "He tossed a live grenade into the tent as he left camp."

Abdullah, now OIC chair, can take "a more constructive role" in helping bring peace and stability in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Huhtala said at a Thursday lunch in Honolulu co-sponsored by the East-West Center.

Huhtala noted that Mahathir has led Malaysia's impressive economic growth -- it is the 11th largest U.S. trading partner -- and has been a strong partner in international counterterrorism efforts. But in recent months, Mahathir has strained his relations with the United States. He has repeatedly said U.S. policy in the Middle East is the root of terrorism, that the war on terrorism is a war against Islam, and that victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were "mere collateral damage," she said.

"It's very unhelpful for the leader of a state to say that over and over," Huhtala said. "We want the hot rhetoric to disappear." She said she hopes Abdullah will "step back...and allow initiatives to go forward."

Huhtala noted that Abdullah's condemnation of the attacks in Turkey that killed 23 people and injured 300 were made while Mahathir was out of the country. She said it is too early to tell how much influence Mahathir will hold in the country's new leadership or how Abdullah will proceed on bilateral relations with the United States. "If it includes a new revitalized relationship with the U.S., we will be more than ready to respond."

Despite strained relations, Huhtala said the two countries are still moving ahead on important initiatives such as a trade and investment agreement, cooperative military training and counterterrorism initiatives.

The East-West Wire is a news service provided by the East-West Center in Honolulu. Any or all of this report may be used with attribution to the East-West Center or to the person quoted.

For more information, contact Susan Kreifels at 808-944-7176 or EastWestWire@EastWestCenter.org

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