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Asia: U.S. Tsunami-Aid Effort Seen As Partly Aimed At Winning Muslim Friends

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The United States has taken on a high-profile role in delivering relief to the Indian Ocean countries devastated by the tsunami disaster, particularly the worst hit area -- Indonesia's Aceh province on the island of Sumatra. While the United States has a long tradition of generously responding to people in need, Washington also appears to view the tragedy as a chance to improve its image among Muslims -- an image that has been tarnished by the Iraq conflict and the war on terror.

Prague, 5 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has been touring the areas hardest-hit by South Asia's devastating earthquake and tsunami.

And along the way, the international media have broadly covered his trip. Powell has been shown in devastated areas, affirming the United States' commitment to help survivors get back on their feet.

Yesterday, Powell visited the disaster's worst hit area, the Indonesian province of Aceh -- where some 80,000 people have died as a result of the disaster.

"I cannot begin to imagine the horror that went through families and all of the people who heard this noise coming and then had their lives snuffed out by this wave," Powell said.

So far, the Bush administration has pledged at least $350 million to the tsunami relief efforts.

Speaking beside Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda, Powell said Washington hopes that through its efforts the world will see the United States' commitment to helping people in need -- people who are poor and jobless, who desire but can't get an education, and want a country based on rule of law.

And at a time when the United States' image among Muslims is in tatters amid the Iraq conflict and war on terrorism, Powell acknowledged that Washington also hopes to benefit from its own good deeds.

"We're responding because of the human dimensions of this catastrophe. It turns out that the majority of those nations were Muslim nations," Powell said. "We will be doing it [delivering aid] regardless of religion, but I think it does give the Muslim world and the rest of the world an opportunity to see American generosity."
Powell said the U.S. relief effort could help dry up "pools of dissatisfaction which might give rise to terrorist activity."

When the tsunami tragedy broke upon an astounded world on 26 December, the United States was criticized as slow to act.

Its initial contribution of $15 million was considered too small, and the United Nations' top relief official, Jan Egeland, criticized the wealthy world for being "stingy" -- a charge Powell and others rejected.

But a few days later, Washington appeared to realize the magnitude of the tragedy as well as the unique opportunity it had to improve its image.

Powell has also said that the U.S. relief effort could help dry up "pools of dissatisfaction which might give rise to terrorist activity."

President George W. Bush has sent Powell and Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the president's brother, as his personal envoys to the region. The administration also sent a flotilla of warships, led by the aircraft carrier "Abraham Lincoln," to get vital aid to starving Indonesians in Aceh province.

The tens of helicopters on the U.S. ships are particularly valuable. They can carry aid and land in areas where the infrastructure, including roads, has been destroyed.

After flying over Aceh, Powell said he better understood the dimensions of the disaster.

"I've never seen anything like it in my experience and I have a much better understanding now of what it will take to complete the recovery effort and to help these people rebuild their homes and their lives and their businesses," Powell said.

By yesterday, a week after his critical remarks, the UN's relief coordinator said the effort to help the victims was making "extraordinary progress." And Egeland had a much more upbeat opinion on the role of the developed world, including the United States.

"I respectfully disagree with those who said that our [UN] member states reacted too late. I think they were first class. I've never, ever had this kind of a response [aid offers]," Egeland said. "From the United States to the Europeans to the countries in the region, we had an immediate promise and pledge of full support for all that we did."

Along with other foreign officials, Powell is set to attend an international emergency conference on post-tsunami relief efforts in the Indonesian capital Jakarta today.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has said the conference should aim to produce definite plans for a coordinated relief and rebuilding effort across the region.