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Mahathir sarcasm greets US sweetener

Kuala Lumpur, Oct. 29 (Reuters): Two days off retirement and stung by Western condemnation of his remarks about Jewish power, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad reacted with typical sarcasm today to US moves to cool off the controversy.

“Thank you very much. We run this country in our own interest, in our own way and others cannot influence or threaten us,” the 78-year-old Muslim premier said.

After the final cabinet meeting of his 22-year rule, Mahathir responded with typical vim to news that the White House opposes moves in the US Senate to withhold $1.2 million of military training aid to mark its displeasure over remarks he made about Jews at an summit of Islamic leaders earlier this month.

The feisty former medical doctor, whose potshots at the West and Israel and prescriptions for poorer countries have made him popular in the Islamic and developing worlds, said the cabinet he leaves behind backs his right to say what he did.

“This morning the cabinet decided this is the stand of the government,” Mahathir said.

In a speech mainly directed at telling Muslims to join the modern world and stop fighting a losing battle in Palestine, Mahathir dropped in comments that Jews ruled the world by proxy, jabbing Western sensitivities about anti-semitism.

Western governments led by the US will be glad to move on to a new chapter in relations with their often prickly majority-Muslim ally in the war on terror in southeast Asia.

But most pundits expect Mahathir’s influence to linger on after he passes the reins to his far more diplomatic deputy, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Backing controversial comments from his ex-boss could cause Abdullah problems. “It will be a huge test for Abdullah, how he handles this while under enormous pressure not to change policy,” said Carl Thayer, an analyst, said.

at the Australian Defence College in Canberra.

Abdullah will maintain support for the Palestinian cause, as it plays well with the Muslim Malays who make up just over half of Malaysia's 24 million people.

”We can't do anything about Palestine, only cheer from the sidelines Ä but our team always loses,” remarked an ex-politician from Mahathir's ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

In his controversial speech, Mahathir barely drew any distinction between Jews, Israelis or Zionists.

”This stereotyping is wrong,” said Chandra Muzzaffar, a former opposition leader, who runs the JUST World think tank.

”He should have drawn the distinction with Zionists and other groups. It is now going to be difficult for Abdullah to make those distinctions. He will have to wait for a while,” he said.

The Bush administration appears ready to cut Abdullah some slack.

”We believe the incoming Malaysian administration should be judged on its own actions and its own views,” U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said on Tuesday, revealing White House opposition to the Senate's move.

The Bush administration's stance reflects realisation that pushing Malaysia too hard, when it is entering a post-Mahathir era full of uncertainty, is the wrong thing to do.

The transition of power was agreed 16 months ago when a tearful Mahathir was stopped from completing a shock resignation speech. The handover will be smooth, but the future may be rocky.

Abdullah needs a convincing win at the polls expected early next year to stamp his authority ahead of potentially tricky internal UMNO elections in mid-2004.

Any instability is more likely to be generated by infighting within UMNO, which has led every multi-ethnic coalition since independence from Britain in 1957.

Political pundits believe a challenge from an Islamist opposition led by conservative preachers peaked after the strong gains they made in the last elections in 1999.

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