SOLO, Indonesia – A reputed leader of the Al Qaeda-linked terror group blamed for deadly bombings across Indonesia on Thursday accused President Bush and Australian Prime Minister John Howard of waging wars against Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Militant cleric Abu Bakar Bashir also called on Bush and Howard to convert to Islam, saying it was "the only way to save their souls," adding that families still grieving after the 2002 Bali blasts that killed many foreigners should also become Muslim to find "salvation and peace."
Bashir, 68, was released from prison Wednesday after completing a 26-month sentence for conspiracy in the Bali bombings that killed 202 people, was at a hardline Islamic boarding school that has spawned some of Southeast Asia's deadliest terrorists.
The firebrand cleric also declined to directly condemn young men who carry out bombings in Indonesia in the name of Islam, saying they he still considered them "holy warriors," because they believed they were defending the oppressed.
But he also said they misguided and wrong to use bombs in a country at peace.
"Why use bombs in a non-conflict zone, preaching is enough," he said.
Jemaah Islamiyah is accused of carrying out church bombings across the world's most populous Muslim nation in 2000, the 2002 bombings on the resort island of Bali, attacks in the capital Jakarta in 2003 and 2004, and a triple suicide bombing on Bali last October.
The attacks together killed more than 260 people, many of them foreigners, and have thrust Indonesia onto the front line of the global war on terror.
Though the United States and Australia said they were disappointed at Bashir's release, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono noted Thursday that it did not mean his government was soft on Islamic militants.
"Abu Bakar Bashir was put on trial. He was punished," Yudhoyono said in Jakarta, adding that Indonesia has arrested hundreds of suspected terrorists and sentenced three linked to the 2002 Bali bombings to death.
Bashir, who has never been linked to the execution, preparation or commission of terrorist attacks, was asked Thursday about families still suffering from the Bali blasts.
He said the attacks "were God's will" and that survivors should "convert to Islam" if they wanted to soothe their suffering.
He had the same message for Bush and Howard, whom he criticized for waging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying converting was "the only way for them to save their souls."
Both ideas were crudely expressed, but are in line with basic Islamic — and Christian — teachings on personal redemption and God's omnipotence.
Bashir also told Australia, which urged Indonesian authorities to keep a close eye on his activities, not to "intervene" in his nation's affairs.
"I don't interfere in Australian affairs, and you should not intervene in ours," he said.
Bashir called Bush an "infidel," but said he was happy the American people were starting to realize that their president had made a mistake when he decided to wage war on Muslims. He did not elaborate, but was apparently referring to sliding opinion polls.
"I feel sorry for the American people, but it seems now they realize he was wrong," Bashir told reporters who were invited to speak to him on the porch of his modest home inside the al-Mukmin boarding school complex, which he founded in 1972.
Bashir's freedom has raised concerns that he will energize Indonesia's small, Islamic radical fringe by making impassioned speeches at rallies and mosques, but few believe the cleric will play any direct role in terrorism.
Before the Bali blasts, Bashir was chiefly known for his campaign to make his secular nation an Islamic state — something he said Thursday he would continue to do — and his vitriolic criticism of the West.
Sidney Jones, a leading international expert on Jemaah Islamiyah, said she did not think Bashir's freedom increased the threat of bombings in Indonesia.
But, she said, "there is no question that his stature has grown in prison and that he's now seen as a symbol of defying the West and the United States in particular.
"For that reason, he will be a very popular speaker among many young Muslim crowds in many parts to Indonesia, including many people who have no interest in violence whatsoever."