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Bush rebukes Malaysia leader over remarks about Jews

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad

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Bangkok (Thailand)

BANGKOK, Thailand (CNN) -- President Bush pulled aside Malaysia's prime minister on Monday and rebuked him for his statement last week that "Jews run the world."

Bush told Mahathir Mohamad, who steps down as prime minister next month, that his comments about Jews "stand squarely against what I believe" and went on to characterize them as "wrong and divisive."

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Bush approached the Malaysian leader for a brief conversation between meetings at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

Earlier in the day, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said that despite her boss's strong feelings, he does not want Mahathir's comments to become the focus of the APEC summit.

Bush "thinks those remarks were reprehensible," Rice told reporters in Bangkok, but the focus should remain on terrorism and not religious differences.

"Everybody thinks that the comments were hateful. They were outrageous," she said. "I think that the leaders may have an opportunity to talk about it at some other time. But right now, the key for everybody is to step back and give no cover to people who kill because they want to kill."

The often-controversial Mahathir was addressing the Organization of Islamic Conference on Thursday when he created a furor by proclaiming that "Jews rule the world by proxy."

"They get others to fight and die for them," he said in a speech peppered with references to Jewish domination.

Israel condemned the remarks, and Malaysia's foreign minister, Syed Hamid Albar, apologized for any "misunderstandings" about the prime minister's speech.

"Please forget about anti-Semitism," Syed Hamid told reporters. "Islam has never advocated being anti-anybody including the Jews. The only problem with the Jews is when the State of Israel was created."

In his speech, Mahathir rejected suicide bombers who "blow themselves up and kill people and invite the massacre of more of our own people," calling on Muslims to instead emulate the historic Jewish response to oppression.

"Not by hitting back, but by thinking," he said.

"They invented socialism, communism, human rights and democracy, so that persecuting them would appear to be wrong, so that they can enjoy equal rights with others," he said. "With these they have gained control of the most powerful countries and they, this tiny community, have become a world power."

He called on the world's 1.3 billion Muslims to use political and economic tactics, rather than violence, to achieve what he called a "final victory."

But Rice said that such antagonistic speech will only spur more hatred and violence.

"It is not a matter of the Muslim faith. It's a perversion of the Muslim faith," she said. "It is not a matter of grievances, of political grievances. It is a matter of murder, mass murder and killing."

"Terrorism is an effort not to improve political circumstances," she said, "it's an effort to end the conversation."

White House correspondent John King contributed to this report.

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