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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) _ Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, once scorned by the United States for heavy-handed treatment of opponents, now is seen as a valued volunteer in the war on terror.

At his meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell on Tuesday, the veteran premier of predominantly Muslim Malaysia was to hear a ``thank you'' for his anti-terror vigilance since Sept. 11.

The esteem with which Mahathir is held now in Washington contrasts sharply with the time a few years ago when Vice President Al Gore delivered a speech in Malaysia in support of political rival whom Mahathir had put in jail.

One of those opponents is a former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, who is serving a 15-year sentence on sodomy and corruption charges. On Tuesday, Powell's top aide for East Asia, James Kelly, visited Anwar's wife in an apparent show of support for the former Mahathir ally, who is seen as a political prisoner by some Malaysians.

Just as terrorism dominates the Bush administration's current foreign policy, the terrorism theme dominates Powell's six-nation swing through Southeast Asia.

Malaysian officials say they have arrested scores of suspected Islamic militants with suspected ties to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, including a former army captain accused of letting two of the Sept. 11 hijackers meet in his apartment in 2000.

On a trip to Kuala Lumpur this past spring, FBI Director Robert Mueller said Malaysia has provided the United States with prime intelligence about al-Qaida activities throughout southeast Asia.

Yet Mahathir's views on the Middle East still contrast sharply with Washington's.

``The more oppressive and violent the Israeli attacks against the Palestinians, the more angry and irrational will be not just the Palestinians but all Muslims,'' he has said.

Powell's next stop, early Tuesday afternoon, was Singapore, another stalwart member of the U.S.-led anti-terror coalition. In January, Singaporean authorities arrested Mohammed Mansour Jabarah, alleged ringleader of a plot to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Singapore. Jabarah, a Kuwaiti-born Canadian citizen, was turned over to the United States and is being held at an undisclosed military base there.

In Brunei, where Powell travels after his stop in Singapore, he and representatives of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations are expected to sign an agreement to enhance anti-terrorism cooperation. A separate agreement would commit the same nations to cooperate in curbing financial transactions involving terrorist groups.

Powell also will meet in Brunei with foreign ministers of Russia and China, and perhaps with Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun of North Korea.

North Korea has indicated an interest in talking with the United States, and a meeting in Brunei would be a logical venue because both Powell and Paek will be there with top aides.

U.S. officials said Monday they had no announcement to make on a possible meeting.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said Monday, during a visit to Pyongyang, that North Korea is ready to negotiate with the United States and Japan to discuss inter-Korean issues ``without any preliminary conditions.'' He was quoted by the Itar-Tass news agency.

Powell, interviewed Monday by a Thai television station in Bangkok, said North Korea has been on an ``incorrect path.'' He said the United States will continue to maintain troops in Asia to guard against potential aggression, mentioning North Korea as a possible instigator.

But he has said repeatedly that U.S. officials are willing to resume security talks with the North Koreans, described by President Bush as a member of an ``axis of evil'' with Iran and Iraq. There have been no U.S.-North Korean negotiations since late in the administration of former President Clinton.

After Brunei, Powell is to visit Indonesia and the Philippines.

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On the Net: ASEAN: http://www.aseansec.org/1024x768.html

Powell's trip: http://www.state.gov/secretary/trvl/2002/11841.htm

State Department's East Asian and Pacific affairs desk: http://www.state.gov/p/eap/