updated 1/5/2005 5:16:43 PM ET 2005-01-05T22:16:43

U.S. tsunami relief aid is being welcomed in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country and a nation that has been critical of the U.S.-led war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan.

As Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Sumatra island Wednesday, survivors, aid workers and others expressed gratitude for U.S. aid. Some said it fostered a feeling of brotherhood and that, like any helping hand, it could bring the two nations closer. Others felt it could help America’s tattered image in the Muslim world.

“America is the police of the world. But at the same time, they are helping us. And we are grateful,” said Mohamed Bachid Madjid, peering from a bridge into the rubble-cluttered Aceh River. “It’s not true that Muslims hate America.”

But even when America is doing something for Muslims, it comes in for criticism in the Middle East, where resentment and suspicion color thinking about the United States.

Inevitable comparison with Iraq
On the streets of Tehran, the Iranian capital, Dariush Darabian, a technician, accused Americans of “talking more than they actually do.” Jordanian columnist Aida al-Najjar wrote in the independent newspaper Ad-Dustour that the United States was exploiting “the suffering of people” to try to improve its image.

In the pages of the pro-government Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, columnist Salah Montasser scoffed that America’s initial allocation of $15 million “is less than what America spends every minute in its war in Iraq.”

Influential satellite stations like Al-Jazeera have reported on the tsunami and America’s and the world’s response, but the main focus of coverage remains on Iraq and other regional issues.

The U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq infuriated many Indonesians, prompting protests throughout the country.

Polls showed that anti-U.S. sentiment was stronger in Indonesia than in any other Southeast Asian nation. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center last year found that 83 percent of Indonesians had unfavorable opinions of the United States and that a majority preferred Osama bin Laden and Yasser Arafat to President Bush. Many have accused the United States of being anti-Muslim.

Hoping in part to prove such views unfounded, Bush ordered one of the largest military relief operations in U.S. history to help speed aid distribution to Indonesia and other tsunami-battered nations after the Dec. 26 disaster. The government also increased its aid package to $350 million.

Speaking Tuesday in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, Powell said the U.S. relief operation could lessen anti-U.S. sentiment in the Muslim world and aid the fight against terrorism.

“I hope that as a result of our efforts, as a result of our helicopter pilots being seen by the citizens of Indonesia helping them, that value system of ours will be reinforced,” he said.

‘Even the devil himself’
Some, however, voiced a lukewarm welcome for the Americans.

“I would take aid from the United States or even the devil himself if it would mean getting those people on [Sumatra’s] western coast some medicine and food,” said Anton Hermawan, a doctor from the Indonesian Red Crescent, the Islamic world’s equivalent of the Red Cross. He had bags under his eyes after a long journey by boat to treat the wounded in the shattered coastal city of Meulaboh.

Hilmy Bakar, a spokesman of the Islamic Defender Front, which is conducting its own aid mission, said he was keeping a close eye on the Americans.

“It’s OK that aid from the United States is here,” he said. “If they open bars, sell alcohol or open prostitution centers, then we will fight them.”

After flying into Banda Aceh’s airport, Powell traveled by helicopter over Sumatra’s ravaged coastline. There were no U.S. flags to welcome him, and the majority of more than a dozen survivors interviewed were unaware that America’s top diplomat was in their city.

One of them, Sabirin, 34, a tailor, said he had no interest in politics. Most of what he was interested in was gone, including his home, his shop and nine relatives. Riding a rusted bicycle through the deserted wasteland that until 10 days ago was this city’s main marketplace, he said Powell was as welcome as anyone who wanted to help.

“The United States is a superpower, a rich country that can help people who suffer,” Sabirin said. “I believe they are acting out of concern.”

Nearby, in a government conference hall that has become a refugee camp, a mother of five said she had trouble finding words to express her thanks for the help that had poured into Indonesia.

“When someone helps you, it creates a feeling of brotherhood,” said the woman, Cut Mariana, 40, who had time to pack a small suitcase of valuables after her house started shaking and muddy water surged through her home.

Now, she and her family are camped out on rattan mats. They live off the donations of rice, cooking oil, water and a few other essentials.

“It leaves me speechless that so many foreign countries are helping us,” she said. “I am truly grateful.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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