BALI, Indonesia – President Bush tried to convince skeptical Islamic leaders Wednesday that America is not biased against Muslim countries, and praised the anti-terror work of Indonesia's president in an appearance near the site of an Al Qaeda (search)-sponsored bombing that killed 200.
In Australia, hundreds of protesters marched against the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq as Bush arrived from Bali (search) for the last stop of a six-country Asian-Pacific trip.
During a 3-hour stop on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, Bush praised President Megawati Sikarnoputri (search), an ally against terrorism, and tried to dispel the conviction of many Muslims that the war on terror is, in fact, a war against Islam. He presented his case in a meeting with moderate religious leaders.
"I felt he was a quite warm person," said Azyumardi Azra, a Muslim scholar at the National Islamic University in Jakarta. "He responded and he listened."
With gunboats on the horizon and 5,000 troops on shore, Bush's visit took him within several miles of the spot where 202 people were killed in Al Qaeda linked terrorist bombings a year ago. There were fears for his safety because Indonesia is regarded as one of Asia's biggest terrorist targets, but the visit went off without a hitch.
Trying to counter anti-American lessons in many Indonesian schools, the president said he would ask Congress for $157 million in education grants for Megawati's government. Like Bush, Megawati faces an election next year, and she tried to appear close to Bush while saying that her citizens are suspicious of the United States.
"We do not always share common perspective," Megawati said at an oceanside news conference under a thatched-roof platform.
En route to Australia, Bush recounted his meeting with the religious leaders, talking to reporters gathered around an Air Force One conference table.
Bush was weary with jet lag, his elbow on the table to prop up his chin. He sat with an open collar and no tie and wore a dark blue jacket emblazoned with his name. The day's travels had begun in Singapore and ended later in Australia's capital of Canberra, the visit to Indonesia tucked in between.
"They said the United States' policy is tilted toward Israel, and I said our policy is tilted toward peace," Bush said of the religious leaders. He said he reminded them that he was the first American president to support a Palestinian state, living side by side with Israel in peace.
But he also said Palestinians have to fight terror before a state can be created. He said the peace process "will pick up where it left off" once Palestinians settle on a leader who is committed to dismantle terrorist groups.
Bush said there was a sense among the religious leaders that Americans believe Muslims are terrorists. "I wanted to make it very clear that I didn't feel that way," he said, "and Americans don't feel that way."
The president also defended the attack on Iraq, a decision denounced by many Muslims. One of the leaders who met with Bush had said that many saw the invasion as "another example of American's neo-imperialism."
He was confronted, too, with recent statements by a Pentagon official, Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin (search), casting the war on terrorism in religious terms. "I said he didn't reflect my opinion," Bush said.
Still, Ahmed Hasyim Muzadi, chairman of the country's largest Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama, said it would take many more discussions to convince him American policy would address Muslim worries. The Mideast, in particular, Muzadi said, has "the potential to divide Southeast Asia."
Standing beside Megawati, Bush was asked about Iran's agreement to suspend uranium enrichment and give inspectors unrestricted access to its nuclear facilities as demanded by the U.N. atomic watchdog agency.
"The Iranians, it looks like they're accepting the demands of the free world, and now it's up to them to prove that they've accepted the demands. It's a very positive development," Bush said.
"It would help our relations with Iran, obviously, if they do abandon their nuclear weapons program," Bush added later on his plane. "It also would help if we end up reaching an agreement on the Al Qaeda that they hold."
Bush's Asia-Pacific travels have won international support for his initiative to help solve the North Korean nuclear crisis. After North Korea rejected the plan as a "laughing matter," Bush didn't hide his contempt for Kim Jong-Il, a leader whom Bush once said he loathed.
"I just can't respect anybody that would really let his people starve and shrink in size because of malnutrition," Bush said. "It's a sad, sad situation for the North Korean people."
He praised Australian Prime Minister John Howard as "a man of steel ... a stand up guy" for not buckling earlier this year to his nation's largest peace marches since the Vietnam War. Instead, Howard sent 2,000 troops to Iraq for the war.
Authorities expected 5,000 demonstrators outside the Parliament building during Bush's speech. Before his arrival, about 2,000 people chanting "Go home Bush" and "Iraq for Iraqis, troops out now" marched in Sydney, Australia's biggest city.