THE US government last month threatened Malaysia with diplomatic and economic reprisals for seemingly "fanning anti-American sentiment" with its staunch opposition to the war in Iraq, senior Malaysian government officials said.
But Washington decided against such action after Malaysia's Acting Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi assured a US diplomat that the Southeast Asian nation was not a foe of the United States, one official said on condition of anonymity.
The official said the US State Department last month warned Malaysia's ambassador in Washington that it might pull its ambassador out of Kuala Lumpur, urge American businesses to leave Malaysia and discourage further investments in the Muslim-majority country of 24 million people.
Abdullah, who is Malaysia's acting leader while Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is on a two-month vacation, subsequently met with the US Ambassador to Malaysia, Marie Huhtala, and assured her that "Malaysia's anti-war stance should not be seen as being anti-US" "The tense situation has somewhat abated," the official said.
"Abdullah made it clear that the Malaysian government's disagreement with the US administration is confined to the war in Iraq and should not be taken out of context."
Another official said Washington had accepted the explanation and "it appears that they (the US government) are not going to pursue the matter".
Frank Whitaker, a spokesman for the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, confirmed that Abdullah met Huhtala on March 22, but denied there had been any threats against Malaysia.
"The meeting emphasised that the United States and Malaysia have a strong relationship and that relationship remains a high priority for both governments," Whitaker said.
"It is ridiculous to suggest that the US had threatened any retaliation against Malaysia."
But other diplomatic sources said the US government had been upset with Mahathir's unstinting criticism of US policy toward Iraq, less than a year after the Malaysian leader met with US President George W Bush at the White House and was hailed as an ally in the global fight against terrorism.
Mahathir, who has led Malaysia since 1981, said last month that Washington had acted like a "coward" and "bully" in invading Iraq. He also said the United States and its allies were targeting Islamic countries and that Iran, Sudan and Libya could be next.
In late February, Mahathir said in a speech to leaders of mostly developing countries at the 116-nation Non-Aligned Movement summit in Kuala Lumpur that the US drive against terrorism and Iraq had become a campaign to dominate non-white nations.
The US State Department summoned Malaysia's envoy in Washington several times after the summit, apparently concerned over Malaysia's increasing international influence. Malaysia is chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement and takes over the helm of the 57-member Organisation of the Islamic Conference in October.
"The US stand is basically that Malaysia is fanning anti-American sentiment in the region and that we are to stop it," a Malaysian official said.
"The US had misunderstood Mahathir's statements as being anti-American but the government has cleared up this misunderstanding."
However, he said Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar has voiced concern to US diplomats that "the (Iraq) war is a setback for the fight against extremism and terrorism".
Malaysia - considered a progressive, moderate Islamic country - remained committed to the campaign against terrorism, and economic ties with the United States were as "strong as ever", the official said.
But "Malaysia cannot back down or tone down where Iraq is concerned", he said.
"It is a question of credibility," the official said. "We must be seen providing credible leadership in the Non-Aligned Movement and the OIC. We hope the US will respect our right to dissent."
The Associated Press