- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 16, 2002

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said yesterday he would not oppose a U.S. effort to oust Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein if Iraqi civilians were not harmed.
"If you can overthrow Saddam, by all means do it. Just don't make the Iraqi people pay for it," said Mr. Mahathir in an interview at his country's new Washington embassy, wrapping up a four-day working visit to Washington that included a warm Oval Office session with President Bush.
Mr. Mahathir, 76, made clear that he harbors deep doubts about the current international pressure campaign against Iraq, saying U.S.-backed sanctions were harming the health of Iraqi children and seniors. He also said the Bush administration's war on global terrorism could never be won unless it addressed "root causes" of frustration in the Muslim world, in particular the grievances of the Palestinians.
The prime minister said Malaysia is not advocating any action against Iraq but was simply warning Washington of the consequences of any potential move.
"You may dislike Saddam Hussein and try to get rid of him. We just say it should not come at the expense of the people there," he said.
Separately, British Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday told a television interviewer that he would "endorse the policy of doing everything we can to get rid of Saddam Hussein, if at all possible."
Mr. Blair, who faces deep divisions in his government over the prospect of a U.S.-led military action against Saddam, stopped just short of saying that he would support an invasion.
"I certainly believe that getting rid of Saddam would be highly desirable," he told a BBC News interviewer. "It's always been the American policy to get rid of Saddam Hussein, but that isn't to say they're about to launch military action."
U.S. relations with Malaysia, a Muslim-majority nation, have been transformed in the eight months since the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Malaysia has been battling armed Islamic fundamentalist groups at home, and Mr. Mahathir was quick to link his government's fight with the U.S. anti-terror effort.
Since September 11, Malaysian officials have arrested dozens of Islamic militants with suspected ties to domestic terror groups or to the al Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden. The country has also tightened border controls and this week made formal an anti-terrorist coalition with Indonesia and the Philippines in a region U.S. analysts fear could become a haven for al Qaeda operatives.
Malaysia also has shared key intelligence on al Qaeda operations with U.S. officials since September 11. During Mr. Mahathir's Washington visit, the two countries signed an anti-terrorism accord calling for deeper sharing of financial information and beefing up border controls.
Mr. Mahathir, who has clashed in the past with Washington over human rights and economic policy, said yesterday that the warm reception he received this week was vindication of the tough line he has taken on security and social stability.
"Suddenly, the U.S. government seems to understand the problems we faced in Malaysia," the prime minister said. "It is not as easy as saying merely we should not abuse certain provisions of the law. We had to do things that were for the good of the country but may not sound right, that may be termed 'abuses of power.'"
Leading human rights groups pushed the Bush administration to raise the cause of opposition figures in Malaysia now in jail under the government's Internal Security Act. Mr. Mahathir's domestic critics have charged that he has used the anti-terrorism drive to discredit his political opponents, notably the opposition Islamic Party of Malaysia.
U.S.-Malaysian relations may have reached a nadir during a public dispute between Mr. Mahathir and Vice President Al Gore in 1998 over the conviction of Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, once seen as Mr. Mahathir's political heir, on charges of corruption and sodomy.
But in the first Oval Office visit by Mr. Mahathir in eight years, the subject of human rights did not come up.
Mr. Bush said before the meeting, "My most important job and I remind the American people of this is to secure our homeland. This is a very important visit from that respect."
U.S. officials insist that they still view the jailing of Mr. Anwar as unfair but said there was no discussion of canceling the Mahathir visit because of human rights differences. As he has in the past, Mr. Mahathir denied in the interview yesterday that the legal action against Mr. Anwar was politically motivated.
Although Mr. Mahathir was one of few Muslim leaders to criticize the use of suicide bombers in the Palestinians' fight with Israel, he made clear that sentiment across the Arab and Muslim world had been inflamed by recent Middle East tensions with Israel.
The "single greatest cause of frustration and bitterness" feeding terrorism worldwide is "the situation in Palestine," said Mr. Mahathir.
He rejected the idea that there was a looming "clash of civilizations" between the Islamic world and the West, saying Muslim sympathy for Palestinians was more political than cultural, a dispute over land rather than a fight over values.
"In Malaysia, we feel this is a simple problem of a people the Palestinians who have been deprived of their rights," he said.
Mr. Blair, in his BBC interview, said he might reconsider his views on Iraq if Saddam allowed U.N. weapons inspectors back into the country without conditions.
"If he lets the weapons inspectors back in unconditionally, anywhere, any time, any place, then of course it makes a difference," Mr. Blair said. "But there is absolutely no sign that he's prepared to do so."

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