Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has said President George W. Bush came close to apologizing to him for the strong language that the US administration had used to criticize his claims that Jews rule the world.
Bush, however, has told reporters he made it personally clear to Mahathir that his remarks were "reprehensible" as well as "divisive and unnecessary."
"He did not rebuke me," Mahathir said in an interview during a visit to Indonesia and published yesterday in Malaysia's New Straits Times newspaper. "He came very nearly to apologizing to me for the strong words used."
In a speech to a summit of Islamic leaders last week, Mahathir said: "Jews rule the world. They get others to fight and die for them."
The comments attracted criticism from around the world.
Bush and Mahathir had a brief exchange about the Malaysian leader's words a few days later on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Thailand.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice described the remarks as "hateful." US Secretary of State Colin Powell also discussed the remarks with Malaysia's foreign minister.
A White House spokesman said Bush had pulled Mahathir aside at the APEC meeting to say the remarks were "wrong and divisive."
On his way to Australia for a visit, Bush expanded on his conversation with Mahathir, telling reporters that he told the Malaysian: "I'm here to inform you that you're going to see that I thought your comments were reprehensible."
"I said they're divisive and unnecessary. I didn't yell at him. I just told him," Bush said, adding, "He knew how I felt, there's no question about that."
In the New Straits Times interview, Mahathir said Bush had read the speech containing his comments about Jews "and he understood."
"I did say something about the Jews," Mahathir was quoted as saying. "But I also said a lot of things about the Muslims. So it is a balanced kind of speech. Powell was not upset over my speech."
During his Indonesia visit, Mahathir also renewed his fiery criticism of market speculators he has previously blamed for the late-1990s Asian financial crisis, calling them "economic terrorists."
Mahathir, who is on the verge of retirement after serving longer than any elected leader in Asia, yesterday gave some advice to the world's newest country, saying democracy and a free media are good, but both have their limitations. He is one of only a few leaders to visit East Timor since it became independent in May last year.
Speaking to East Timorese lawmakers in the country's parliament building, Mahathir warned of the potential pitfalls of a free media and a robust civil society.
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