- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 16, 2006

Public opinion polls conducted in two of the more populous Muslim countries showed that humanitarian aid from a U.S. Navy hospital ship had healed more than health problems. When people were made aware of the mission, it left a positive perception of the United States. These findings will encourage more such missions, officials said.

The polls, by the Washington group Terror Free Tomorrow, showed that 87 percent of Indonesians and 53 percent of Bangladeshis who had heard of the hospital ship USNS Mercy’s mission to provide medical aid had a better opinion of the United States. The results were announced yesterday at the National Press Club.

Kenneth Ballen, president of Terror Free Tomorrow, which promotes fighting terrorism by winning popular support, said there was a need to hear the voice of the people.

“We hear the voice of radicals and extremists because they are the loudest. … We need to get in there and see what people really think,” he said.

The polls surveyed 1,209 persons in Indonesia and 1,010 in Bangladesh, both with a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points. People from a variety of economic and social dispositions were surveyed in various parts of the countries, Mr. Ballen said. The Indonesian poll was conducted by the agency Lembaga Survei Indonesia.

Humanitarian efforts “undermine ideological support for terror,” said Karen Hughes, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy.

“There is a misunderstanding about America,” she said. “People don’t realize that the United States is the No. 1 donor of medicine and food to the Palestinian people.”

The USNS Mercy finished a five-month mission in September to Indonesia, Bangladesh, Philippines and East Timor. Navy personnel and volunteers from Project Hope, a health care aid organization, were among the medical providers that cared for 61,000 patients, performed 1,000 surgeries and gave 10,500 immunizations.

Some of the crew and volunteers visited the same areas they served after the December 2004 tsunami and the March 2005 earthquakes in Southeast Asia.

The polls also showed that American aid after the natural disasters led to a more favorable opinion of the United States. Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chief of naval operations, said he was committed to continuing missions with civilian volunteer organizations.

The Navy employs two hospital ships, the USNS Mercy and Comfort. The USNS Mercy has 1,000 beds, 85 intensive care units and 12 operating rooms.

Adm. Mullen said he would explore ways to deploy one ship in the Pacific and one in the Atlantic. “Latin America and Africa are in the next round.”

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