Mon, Nov 20, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Indonesia anti-Bush protests intensify

UNWELCOME Protests in preparation for today's Bush visit to the world's most populous Muslim nation went up a notch over the weekend, as security tightened up

AP , JAKARTA

Indonesian Muslims attending a protest against the visit of US President George W. Bush stand in front of an anti-Bush poster yesterday in Jakarta, Indonesia.

PHOTO: AP

Thousands wound through the streets of Jakarta and gathered at a grand mosque yesterday to protest US President George W. Bush's visit to the world's most populous Muslim nation, some chanting "War criminal" and "You are a terrorist!"

Bush's arrival today comes amid mounting anger over US policy in the Middle East and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan -- seen by many in Indonesia as attacks on their faith.

Talks with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a close ally in Washington's "war on terror," are expected to touch on those issues and on ways the US can help with poverty alleviation, education, health and investment.

Security will be tight amid warnings that the threat of an attack by al-Qaeda-linked militants has "escalated sharply" in recent days, though it was not clear if a plot had been uncovered.

"The threat is higher," was all Major General Adang Firman, Jakarta's police chief, would tell reporters.

Indonesia is the fourth most populous nation and has more Muslims than any other in the world, with some 190 million believers.

Bush, who has been politically weakened at home after his party's stinging election defeat, is eager to strengthen bilateral relations.

During his last state visit in 2003, talks focussed largely on terrorism.

This time he is expected to solicit the government's advice about the Middle East crisis and the North Korean and Iranian nuclear disputes, something Jakarta is eager to offer after years on the diplomatic sidelines.

"Bush recognizes he has to change ... that in order to succeed he must cooperate with friends and allies abroad," said Jusuf Wanandi of the Jakarta-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"He sees now that unilateralism won't work," he added.

Islamic hardliners, students, housewives and taxi drivers have staged small but rowdy rallies every day this month and will be harder to convince.

Demonstrations climaxed yesterday, with nearly 13,000 turning out in the capital and vowing even bigger protests for Bush's 10-hour visit.

Nearly 10,000 Muslims dressed in white snarled traffic, some carrying banners that said "Punish Bush the war criminal" and "Bush: Wanted dead or alive for crimes against humanity."

One man dragged an effigy of the US president on the road behind him.

Others gathered at the al-Azhar mosque, Jakarta's second-largest, to hear speeches by Islamic leaders denouncing Bush and US foreign policy.

"Why is the US backing Israel, which has bombed Palestinian and Lebanon," Tiffatul Sembiring, president of the Justice and Prosperity Party, asked the crowd of 3,000 who spilled from the mosque into the courtyard

"Bush is a terrorist," he said to cheers. "He's killed people in Afghanistan and Iraq."

Yudhoyono, meanwhile, wants the US' help fighting poverty and a spiraling bird flu outbreak that has killed 56 people -- a third of the world's total.

He is also eager to see US investors return to his country, which remains desperately poor eight years after the ouster of former strongman Suharto.

But in seeking to win continued support, Indonesia's first directly elected leader has to find a way to avoid further angering Muslim parties and his political rivals who already accuse him of being subservient to the West.

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