KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - President Bush has invited Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad for a rare visit to Washington from May 12-14, a diplomatic source told Reuters on Wednesday.
It will be Mahathir's first visit to the White House since 1994, when he met Bush's predecessor Bill Clinton.
"He's been invited on May 12 to 14," the source said.
The visit would be a major step forward in bilateral ties and reflects Washington's regard for Mahathir as a moderate Muslim leader.
Relations between the two countries had soured in the past over the 1998 imprisonment of Mahathir's former deputy Anwar Ibrahim, whom Washington still regards as a political prisoner.
They improved when Mahathir enlisted early on for the "war on terror" after the September 11 attacks on the United States and took a tough line on terrorism.
Malaysia's action against militancy saw its police force arrest 50 suspected Muslim militants in the last 11 months. They are being held under the country's security laws which allow for detention without trial.
Washington had criticized Malaysia's use of the law to cow Mahathir's opposition in the past, but since September 11 that criticism has virtually disappeared.
Mahathir has offered Malaysia as a nation that has embraced modernity and said the country succeeded in becoming a modern state because of Islam and not despite it.
The outspoken prime minister, sensitive to the sentiment in his mostly Muslim country, has spoken up against the U.S.-led bombing of Afghanistan and remained a consistent critic of Washington's support for Israel.
This week, his blunt opinions stirred controversy at an Organization of the Islamic Conference foreign ministers meeting.
Mahathir said all deliberate attacks against civilians, including those by Palestinian suicide bombers could be termed terrorism.
But he stressed the Israeli government was terrorist and its policies were the root of the problem, and Bush can expect Mahathir to tell him to change U.S. policy toward the Middle East, diplomats said.
"I do think he is trying to position himself with the West as a moderate voice," said one Western diplomat.
Malaysia's relations with the United States had hit a rocky patch when Mahathir took offence to Gore giving public support to his jailed rival Anwar Ibrahim at a dinner hosted by the Malaysian leader for Asia-Pacific leaders attending a regional conference in Kuala Lumpur.
Mahathir had just sacked Anwar after the deputy prime minister launched a challenge to his rule at the height of the Asian crisis.
Anwar, whom the United States still regards as a political prisoner, is serving a 15-year jail term for sodomy and abuse of power convictions, but his star has waned in the West due to his alliance with a Islamic fundamentalist party.