By Michael Richardson
Malaysia's wily and long-serving Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is using the issue of terrorism to improve his political credentials at home and abroad.
But like Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who also condemned the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, Dr Mahathir is worried that the U.S.-led bombing of Afghanistan -- especially if continued into the coming Muslim holy month of Ramadan -- will cause a large number of civilian casualities and create a backlash in the Islamic world, even among moderate Muslims.
The Malaysian government is now calling for an immediate halt to the bombing to prevent what the Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar warns would be a dangerous situation that could destabilize Islamic states supporting the campaign to eradicate terrorism and thus split the fragile international coalition led by the U.S. and Britain.
Malaysia wants the United Nations to become involved in Afghanistan to broker an end to the foreign intervention and fighting, and help lay the basis for a peaceful political settlement, while moves to bring Osama bin Laden and other members of his terrorist network to justice, probably before a UN-sanctioned international court, continue.
Only a few months ago, Dr. Mahathir was regarded even by some senior members of his own party as a liability because of his unpopularity among majority ethnic Malay Muslims who were angry at the jailing on sex and corruption charges of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in 1998.
The rapid slowdown in the previously fast-growing Malaysian economy and rising unemployment added to Dr Mahathir's troubles.
But since the September 11 attacks on the US, he has turned the issue of terrorism to his own advantage and against the main Malay Muslim opposition group, the Islamic Party of Malaysia, which is known by its Malay acronym as PAS.
Before the attacks, Dr Mahathir had alleged that PAS sympathized with the Taliban in Afghanistan and had connections with a small but violent Islamic group, the Malaysian Mujahideen.
Many Malays were skeptical but when PAS called for a jihad, or holy war, against the U.S. in Afghanistan and held demonstrations in front of the U.S. embassy in Kuala Lumpur -- at which its supporters shouted "Long Live the Taliban" and "Death to America" -- Dr. Mahathir was seen in a different light.
PAS has lost ground, while support for Dr Mahathir's multi-ethnic coalition government has increased among both Malays and non-Muslim Chinese and Indians, political analysts now say.
Because he quickly condemned the terrorist attacks on the United States and is seen as a the leader of a moderate, open and economically progressive Muslim nation, Dr Mahathir is being actively courted by the United States as it tries to sustain the international coalition against terrorism.
The US is Malaysia's biggest investor and trading partner. The Bush administration had previously told the Malaysian government that improved bilateral relations depended on better treatment of Mr. Anwar and detained members of the Malaysian opposition.
But after the attacks, U.S. President George W. Bush phoned Dr. Mahathir to ask his advice on fighting terrorism and later had a well-publicized meeting with him on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Shanghai.
As a result, US officials have shown understanding of Dr. Mahathir's position on Afghanistan, saying that they realize Malaysia has internal challenges and tensions it must deal with.