KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) - Muslim countries were split over whether to condemn Palestinian suicide bombers as terrorists at the start of a major Islamic conference Monday.

Fault lines appeared immediately as the Palestinian representative disagreed with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, the meeting's host, who said that suicide bombers killing Israeli civilians should be regarded as terrorists.

"It is not necessary to condemn the suicide bombers, because we have to take into consideration the reasons behind somebody willing to lose his life," Palestinian Foreign Minister Farouk Kaddoumi told reporters at the conference. Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories is "the highest and worst kind of terrorism, and the human being, if he sacrifices his life - there must be a reason," Kaddoumi said. "The reason is state terrorism."

Deputy Foreign Minister Ivica Misic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, chief of his country's anti-terrorism team, disagreed.

"I don't care about race or religion," Ivica said. "I agree that if a person kills or harms a civilian he is a terrorist, no matter how noble his struggle may be." An attempt to paper over the divisions with a resolution condemning Israel for state terrorism was passed unanimously, but the conference risked bogging down under the old dilemma: when is a terrorist a freedom fighter?

Mahathir, a vital U.S. ally in the campaign to crack Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, called for agreement that any attack on civilians - by the Sept. 11 hijackers, Israel's army or Palestinian suicide bombers - be labeled terrorism. "Muslims everywhere must condemn terrorism, once it is clearly defined," Mahathir said. "Bitter and angry though we may be, we must demonstrate to the world that Muslims are rational people when fighting for our rights and we do not resort to acts of terror."

Mahathir, Asia's longest-serving leader, hopes that the three-day meeting of the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference will lead to a United Nations convention to define terrorism and an accepted way to hold perpetrators accountable, including governments.

Malaysia has been pushing for an international conference since Sept. 11, which Mahathir said had hurt the image of Islam.

The gathering of foreign ministers and other officials follows escalating bloodshed in the Middle East. Palestinian suicide bombings killed 15 Israelis on Sunday and Israeli troops deepened their invasion of the West Bank. Malaysia, which has urged participants to refrain from emotional rhetoric so the meeting will be seen as positive by the non-Muslim world, resisted Arab pressure to include a condemnation of Israel in the main declaration, which should be issued Wednesday.

In a compromise, a separate statement was adopted in Monday urging the U.N. Security Council to provide protection to Palestinians ``and apply deterrent sanctions against Israel."

Israel's actions were "dragging the region toward an all-out war," the statement said.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, who arrived late, said the United Nations had failed so far to reign in Israel because "they are allies of the Israelis."

Any final declaration on terror could meet death in committee. Qatar's foreign minister, Sheik Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabor Al Thani, chairman of the Islamic Conference, suggested forming a panel to study an anti-terror document agreed to in 1999.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, asked by reporters about the suicide bombings, said that "civilians should be spared. At the same time, if we are looking for a solution to this problem, we have to look at the cause of this conflict."

Mahathir said the Sept. 11 attacks, blamed on Saudi-born Islamic radical Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida group, were an "unmitigated disaster" for the world's estimated 1.2 billion Muslims, with the religion becoming increasingly perceived as rooted in violence.

Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and other groups have produced terrorists, and singling out one religion was unfair, Mahathir said.

Malaysia is a prosperous Southeast Asian country of 23 million people and has jailed 24 people accused of involvement in an al-Qaida-linked plot to blow up U.S. targets in Singapore. They include a former army captain who hosted two of the Sept. 11 hijackers at his apartment in 2000.

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