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Indonesia's president backs US. Does her country?

As Megawati pledges support in Washington, Islamic groups threaten Americans in Indonesia.

In the world's most populous Muslim nation, tensions are rising over an expected US attack on Afghanistan.

The US State Department is warning Americans to stay away from Indonesia. Some US Embassy staffers and their families here are preparing to leave. US Ambassador Robert Gelbard is criticizing Indonesia's police for not moving against militant groups who have threatened to kill him and attack the US Embassy.

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Yesterday, more than 1,000 protesters burned US flags outside the embassy in Jakarta. Last weekend, some groups searched hotels in Solo, central Java, looking for Americans to expel from the tourist-oriented city, but failed to find any.

The unrest is emerging as one of the first tests of President Megawati Sukarnoputri's commitment to join the "war on terrorism." In Washington last week, Mrs. Megawati pledged to combat terrorists at home and abroad. In return, President Bush offered $530 million in economic aid and a partial reprieve for Indonesia's military, which has been in the US doghouse since 1999 over its conduct in East Timor. Mr. Bush said the US would sell non-lethal spare parts and expand links to its army.

For a newly democratic country struggling to rebuild a shattered economy and quash armed separatist rebels in two provinces, firm backing from the US is a welcome boost. Relations between the two countries have often wavered since the ouster in 1998 of strongman President Suharto - a loyal US ally and strident anti-communist.

But Megawati faces a difficult task in quelling protesters and militants. Among her backers were conservative Muslim parties who had originally balked at electing a woman as the third president since Suharto. Vice President Hamzah Haz, who leads the largest Muslim political party, initially said that the Sept. 11 attacks might "cleanse the sins of the US." He has since toned down his rhetoric.

Although most Indonesian Muslims dismiss the extremists as a tiny minority, many also feel uneasy with the US "war," saying this 'crusade' appears to be anti-Muslim. Others question the evidence against Osama bin Laden.

Such sympathies have buoyed the anti-American campaign by militants, including Laskar Jihad (Army of the Holy War) - which sends young recruits to fight in the Maluku islands, where some 9,000 Christians and Muslims have died in sectarian violence in the past two years.

This group, which openly solicits donations in Jakarta, denies threatening Americans in Indonesia. But it vows to fight back against any attacks on the "Muslim community."

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"The American idea of fighting terrorism is turning into a way of weakening Muslims," says Ayip Syafruddin, deputy chairman of Laskar Jihad. "We hope Megawati won't be trapped into supporting such a war."

Dewi Fortuna Anwar, policy adviser to former President B.J. Habibie, says that "Megawati must tread very carefully" in tackling Muslim extremists.

Security analysts say that before the Sept. 11 tragedy, Megawati had already told her security chiefs to clamp down on Laskar Jihad and other extremists. Now she has an extra incentive to get tough on groups that allegedly have links with bin Laden and Muslim militants in Malaysia and the Philippines. (Laskar Jihad's Syafruddin denies the group has ties with bin Laden or receives any foreign funding.)

Any crackdown would depend on the Indonesian security forces, which Western countries have often criticized over human-rights abuses.

"With the US taking a softer line towards the [Indonesian Army], it's in their interest to act professional and show they can get the job done," says Ken Conboy, a political-risk analyst.


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