JAKARTA, Indonesia – U.S. money and military assistance to countries where tens of thousands died in the tsunami may lessen anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world and help in the fight against terrorism, Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) said Tuesday.
"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," Powell said.
Indonesia (search), the world's largest Muslim country with 238 million people, had the largest loss of life in the Dec. 26 disaster that struck 12 countries around the Indian Ocean. Indonesia is a fledgling democracy and an ally in the Bush administration's war on terrorism, but suspicion of Americans runs deep here.
Islamic militants are blamed for three large bombings in the past two years, including one that killed 12 in the Jakarta hotel where Powell's entourage is staying during a tour of tsunami damage.
The United States bankrolls humanitarian relief in part "because we believe it is in the best interest of those countries and it's in our best interest," Powell said. "It dries up those pools of dissatisfaction that might give rise to terrorist activity."
Powell and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (search), leading the U.S. delegation, met with Indonesia's foreign minister and inspected American and international relief efforts in Phuket, where thousands died in shattered beach resorts popular with Western tourists.
They saw scores of photographs and posters outside the Phuket town hall seeking information on missing tourists.
Powell's airplane flew in slowly, giving him a close view of flattened houses and ruined beaches. He toured an office where American forensic experts were helping Thai officials identify thousands of bodies that washed ashore, and he said he would recommend expanding U.S. forensic assistance.
Powell and Jeb Bush briefed President Bush by phone on the initial phase of their trip, informing him that the governments of India, Sri Lanka and Thailand appear to have a "strong capacity" to manage tsunami relief, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said in Washington.
However, Powell told the president that the situation was much different in Indonesia, where damage was severe in the Aceh province Powell plans to tour on Wednesday.
Aceh and the western coast of the island of Sumatra took a double hit from the 9.0 undersea earthquake nearby and the huge tsunami it spawned.
The tsunami then spread for thousands of miles, hitting countries in South Asia and Africa. The death toll has reached about 140,000 and is expected to go higher.
"It turns out that the majority of those nations affected were Muslim nations," Powell said. He said of the U.S. aid, "We'd be doing it regardless of religion, but I think it does give the Muslim world and the rest of the world ... an opportunity to see American generosity, American values in action."
Sixteen Americans are confirmed dead in Thailand and Sri Lanka, and an unknown number are missing. Although the State Department has a list of 4,000 or more Americans who are unaccounted for, officials do not believe that anywhere near that number have died. Many on the list are simply out of touch with family, or may have never been in the affected region, officials said.
Powell announced no increase in the U.S. commitment of $350 million in aid, a number he has called sufficient for now. In Washington, the White House said Tuesday the number is likely to rise eventually.
"The level we're at right now, which is an initial funding level, is the right level for right now," McClellan said.
Powell will represent the United States at a conference of donor nations and affected countries Thursday. The Bush administration took early criticism for being slow to contribute and react. Powell has repeatedly defended the U.S. response as appropriate.
In Washington as the new Congress convened, legislators announced plans to introduce a bill that would allow Americans to claim tax deductions when filing their 2004 forms for donations made through Jan. 31 to tsunami relief efforts.