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Asian Muslims not celebrating

Indonesian Muslim protesters burn an effigy of President Bush.
Indonesian Muslim protesters burn an effigy of President Bush.

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JAKARTA, Indonesia (Reuters) -- Muslims across Southeast Asia refused on Thursday to buy into the joy in Iraq over Saddam Hussein's ousting, saying the United States had set an ominous precedent that would linger long after the guns fell silent.

In mainly Muslim Indonesia and Malaysia, opinion was that distrust of U.S. intentions toward Muslims in general would take a long time to heal even though there is little love for the Iraqi leader in this mainly moderate part of the Islamic world.

Some said a long-term consequence was on moderates, and how they viewed the United States, with many seeing imperialism instead of a country promoting democracy and human rights.

Debate on progressive Islam was also now out of fashion.

"This joy is not without reserve. The forces there are like new colonisers," said Syafii Maarif, head of the 30-million strong Muhammadiyah, Indonesia's second biggest Muslim group.

"At the bottom of many hearts, the hatred of America will linger, the hate is very, very deep.

"I don't support Saddam but the destruction of Iraq is the destruction of good conscience and the most noble of human values," he said, adding Bush was the modern version of Gengis Khan, the notorious Mongol conqueror.

Saddam's harsh 24-year reign over Iraq collapsed overnight as U.S. troops tightened their grip on the heart of Baghdad. Pictures of jubilant Iraqis dancing on top of fallen statues of their deposed ruler dominated the front pages in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country.

But some have taken a line like that of Republika, a Muslim newspaper, whose front-page banner headline read: "Colonising soldiers hold Baghdad." It had a picture of a U.S. soldier draping the Stars and Stripes over the head of a Saddam statue.

Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, a prominent Indonesian Muslim intellectual, said the war had badly hurt efforts to promote liberal discourse on Islam, such as debate about inter-religious marriages, and would continue to do so in Indonesia.

Many people had labelled such debate pro-American, he said.

"In Indonesia after the Bali bombings, Muslims realised this is a big problem, this terrorism and radicalism. People were rethinking everything," Abshar-Abdalla said.

"The feeling now is why should we examine ourselves and our religion when the United States is doing this."

Malaysia reserved

Indonesia has blamed Islamic militants for last year's Bali bomb attacks, which killed 202 people, mainly foreigners.

There have been some major protests in Indonesia over the war although no violence. Diplomats put the peaceful expression down to a concerted move by moderates and the government to seize the initiative on the issue, sidelining the militant voices.

Annuar Musa, a leader of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's ruling party, said the downfall of Saddam showed the world was controlled by Washington and that the United Nations was less relevant.

"This sends a very bad signal to Muslim countries, that those who are against the Israelis could face economic or military pressure from the U.S.," Annuar said.

"We won't see Muslims in Malaysia jumping for joy."

'It's great, mate'

Among Thai Muslims, who make up about 10 percent of the country's population, reaction was much the same.

"Muslims have to wage a war against America until they change their policy not to invade other countries," said Kariya Kijjarak, deputy secretary-general of the Central Islamic Committee of Thailand. "We cannot stop after the war is over."

"The U.S. claims that it's liberation. But other Muslim countries are ruled by monarchs -- it is not democracy. What if the U.S. claims later that they are liberating these countries?"

Despite vocal criticism of the war, Indonesia has said it did not expect the invasion to affect relations with Washington.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Marty Natalegawa said Indonesia's position had always been that the war was an act of aggression. He urged that the United Nations assume a central role now.

Reaction was markedly different among Australian Iraqis who were glued to their televisions overnight watching the downfall of Saddam's regime. For many, their joy was tempered by fear for the safety of family still there.

"It's great, mate," said Salah Toma when asked how he felt as he watched a Saddam statue torn down and smashed up in Baghdad.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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