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Malaysia: Mahathir Mohamad Steps Down as Ruling Party Leader - 2003-06-21

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad bid an emotional farewell to his ruling party Saturday, but not before more of the type of controversial actions for which he has become famous.

Mr. Mahathir told the ruling United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, the time was ripe for him to step down, because the country's past troubles have been resolved.

He urged his party to stop bickering and jostling for positions, and instead to concentrate on unity, so the transition following his retirement would be smooth.

Top party leaders, including the hand-picked successor, Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, paid flowing tribute to Mr. Mahathir, saying he had transformed Malaysia during his 22-year rule.

Mr. Abdullah called the 77-year-old prime minister a "symbol of determination, courage, and dedicated leadership."

Before Mr. Mahathir delivered his speech, officials from his party handed the delegates copies of American industrialist Henry Ford's anti-Semitic book from the 1920s, The International Jew.

Mr. Mahathir has been a fervent supporter of the Palestinian cause. He despises Israeli Prime Minister Arial Sharon, and has been critical of Jews in general.

The prime minister had lambasted the United States and its allies during the assembly opening on Thursday, saying the United States was using the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington as an excuse to attack Muslim nations.

He supports the war on terror, and has cracked down on Muslim militants in his generally moderate Muslim nation, but he was a staunch critic of the war in Iraq.

He plans to hand over the reigns of power to Mr. Abdullah, after he chairs a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Conferences in October.

National elections are expected to be held early next year, but Mr. Abdullah says he will wait until Mr. Mahathir's retirement before selecting the powerful Number Two position of deputy prime minister.