JAKARTA, Indonesia – Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) said Tuesday the outpouring of American aid and humanitarian help in the region devastated by the tsunami (search) may also help Muslim nations see the United States in a better light.
"What it does in the Muslim world, the rest of the world is giving an opportunity to see American generosity, American values in action," Powell said after meeting with Hassan Wirayuda, his Indonesian counterpart.
"America is not an anti-Islamic, anti-Muslim nation. America is a diverse society. We respect all religions," he said
Powell said he hopes Muslim countries see the wide range of U.S. aid and involvement around the world, of which the disaster relief is only the latest example. U.S. involvement and cooperation "is in the best interest of those countries and it's in our best interest," he said.
"It dries up those pools of dissatisfaction that give rise to terrorist activities," Powell added.
Meanwhile, in an interview with Thailand's Independent Television, Powell again rejected criticism of the U.S. response as being slow.
"Who criticized us? It wasn't the countries in the region," he said.
And, Powell said, he called the foreign ministers of the devastated countries right away and President Bush spoke to heads of government and state within 48 hours.
"So I don't accept the criticism that some in the media have given to the United States that we were slow," he said.
In Washington, the State Department said 16 Americans — eight in Thailand and eight in Sri Lanka — died in the disaster. The number of U.S. fatalies had stood at 15 for several days.
Spokesman Adam Ereli said he could provide no estimate of how many Americans were missing. "What we are trying to do is work systematically through all the calls we've received and account for the whereabouts of all those calls," he said.
However, Ereli said "we will soon be in a position to be a little more specific."
The Powell entourage was staying at the Jakarta Marriot that was bombed in the fall of 2003 and has since been rebuilt. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world.
Powell said earlier that the United States may be able to do more to help identify the remains of tsunami victims and pledged U.S. support for a regional warning system in hopes of preventing such massive loss of life in the future.
Getting his first up-close look at heavy damage from last week's undersea earthquake and tsunami, Powell visited the Phuket resort area that is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Thailand for European and American beachgoers.
Powell and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (search) saw scores of photographs and posters posted outside the town hall seeking information on missing tourists.
Powell's airplane flew slow and low on its final approach to the airport, giving the secretary a close view of flattened houses and ruined beaches. He toured an office where American forensic experts are helping Thai officials identify thousands of bodies that washed ashore and said afterward he will recommend expanding U.S. forensic assistance.
Thai officials told Powell the thing they most want is U.S. help for a warning system in the Indian Ocean and China Sea and Powell pledged U.S. technical help for some kind of a regional warning system.
"We'll do everything we can to contribute," he said.
Discussing U.S. aid in general, Powell said, "The United States has made a significant financial contribution, but we have done much more than that." He cited millions of dollars being raised in private donations in the United States even before President Bush announced Monday in Washington that his father, the first President Bush, and former President Clinton, will spearhead a fund-raising drive.
Powell also noted the massive U.S. military assistance now swinging into high gear that is delivering food, water and supplies and evacuating wounded.
In an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America," he urged patience, saying that getting aid and supplies to the victims "is not a simple matter."
"Everybody thinks you can just magically move aircraft, helicopters and aircraft carriers across an ocean in a day. ... It's not just money. It's getting food, water, medical supplies in place. It takes time to generate such an effort."
Earlier in Bangkok, he declared that the United States "will certainly not turn away from those in desperate need" as he works with Asian leaders to speed up relief efforts in the tsunami disaster.
Accompanied by Jeb Bush, the secretary of state on Tuesday stressed a two-prong commitment of U.S. financial and military support to help the region recover.
Thailand's foreign minister, Surakiart Sathirathai, said the Thai government would welcome U.S. technical assistance to build an early warning system to guard against tsunamis in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.
"We are in solidarity with you as you deal with this crisis," Powell responded at a news conference. The United States has faced criticism that it was slow to respond to the Dec. 26 disaster. Other countries were quicker to commit large amounts of aid money, and Japan has outpaced the U.S. total of $350 million pledged so far.
The relief effort for countries devastated by the undersea earthquake and killer waves is going well, Powell said as he visited Thailand. The trip also will take him to Sri Lanka. With Indonesia, the three countries suffered the heaviest damage and loss of life.
With international government donations and pledges totaling some $2 billion, Powell said a main focus was on spending the money wisely. He said he wanted a firsthand look before recommending to the president what the United States should do next.
Jeb Bush noted that his state of Florida had suffered four hurricanes. "We share this experience," he said, adding that the American people want to offer a helping hand.
Powell will represent the United States at an international conference in Jakarta. That conference will provide an opportunity to iron out any problems coordinating aid and recovery efforts among the many countries and organizations participating, he said.
"But right now I would say things are going exceptionally well when you consider we're only eight days into this," he said.