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Asia's Muslim Countries Wrestle With Looming Iraq War - 2003-03-12

Diplomatic arm-twisting on the issue of war in Iraq is taking place not only at the United Nations and among the 15 members of the U.N. Security Council. Diplomatic maneuvering is also going on among Southeast Asia's predominantly Muslim countries.

Malaysia, a mostly moderate Muslim country, has been outspoken in its opposition to a U.S.-led military strike against Iraq.

Malaysia's prime minister is the current chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement, and six of the non-permanent security council members are non-aligned states. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad wrote to the security council members, urging them not to support the American position on the use of force against Iraq.

Southeast Asia specialist Thomas Reckford says Mr. Mahathir's statements reflect the view held by many Malaysians, that the Malaysian leader "has specifically denounced the U.S.-threatened war against Iraq and indeed called it part of a campaign to dominate non-white nations. Mahathir is always very blunt in these things."

Malaysia's opposition on Iraq comes despite close cooperation with Washington in tracking down and capturing people suspected of links to the al-Qaida terrorist network.

Mr. Reckford, who is president of the World Affairs Council of Washington and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, notes Prime Minister Mahathir was welcomed at the White House and praised by the FBI and the CIA for Malaysia's anti-terrorism efforts.

But Mr. Reckford says for Malyasia, and also Indonesia, the issue of a possible war in Iraq is different. "Within the governments, these days there is a good deal of cooperation on anti-terrorism," he said. "But neither the governments nor the public see a connection between work against terrorism and work against Iraq. They are simply not convinced that Iraq really has any tie to al-Qaida or bin Laden."

Mr. Reckford says public opinion polls in Indonesia show 90 percent of the population opposes American military action against Iraq.

International studies professor Zackaria bin Ahmad, who is originally from Malaysia, teaches at Ohio University. He notes that Malaysia sided with the United States during the Gulf war in 1991 because of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

But now, Professor Zackaria says, Malaysia does not see Iraq as the kind of aggressive security threat that warrants an American attack.

"I think if the case had been made to Malaysia in the security council and perhaps through diplomatic overtures from the United States to Malaysia, which would suggest that there was a credible link between terrorism and what's going on in Iraq, probably Malaysia would have taken quite a different position," he said.

Professor Zackaria says nearly everyone he spoke to during a recent visit to Malaysia opposes a war in Iraq. He says they fear that it would not promote stability in the Middle East but would have the opposite effect.

"If there is a war in Iraq," said Mr. Zackaria, "whether that would lead to more cases of terrorism, certainly I think that is the expectation."

Professor Zackaria and Mr. Reckford agree a war would also cause further unrest in Muslim areas of Southeast Asia. Mr. Reckford predicts that Indonesians will protest against the United States and Australia, and he says Malaysian protests may also target Britain, because Malaysia used to be a British colony.

Australia, a strong supporter of the U.S. plan to use force to disarm Iraq, has discussed the issue in meetings this week in Indonesia, which is the world's most populous Muslim country. Reports from Jakarta say the two neighbors agree Iraq must comply with U.N. resolutions to disarm, but Indonesia is adamantly opposed to an attack.