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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Megawati Faces a Test After Bombing in Bali

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- The Bali nightclub bombing that killed nearly 200 people may push Indonesian leader Megawati Sukarnoputri off her political fence and put her fragile hold over the world's largest Muslim country on edge.

The United States and other countries are demanding that Indonesia crack down on al-Qaida and the homegrown extremists many believe orchestrated the attack, but Megawati could incite a radical Islamic backlash if she does. Yet with the death toll from Bali topping 180 -- mostly young foreign tourists -- the opportunity for Megawati to act may never be better.

"Megawati doesn't have too much wiggle room right now," said Ken Conboy, a former deputy director at the Asian Studies Institute in Washington who now works in Jakarta for the Control Risks security group. "She's known to be a reticent soul, but if enough people push her, she'll do it."

There has been some movement already: An army-sponsored militant group, Laskar Jihad, said it was disbanding. The organization is blamed for killing thousands of Christians in sectarian warfare in the outlying Maluku islands. Laskar Jihad is not accused of involvement in the Bali bombings, but its continued existence has been a public relations liability.

President Bush said Monday the Bali attack appeared to be part of a new wave of terrorism inspired by al-Qaida and that he planned to discuss it with Megawati. "I hope I hear the resolve of a leader who recognizes that any time terrorists take hold in a country it's going to weaken the country itself," Bush said.

However, Megawati is known for being indecisive, aloof and enigmatic, and almost never saying anything pointed. She has, in fact, made almost no public pronouncement since the bombing. She made a tearful tour of the blast site Sunday, but has barely been visible since returning to the capital, Jakarta.

Megawati, 55, owes her job to being the daughter of Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, and to blunders by political rivals. She is a nominal Muslim with nationalist and secular leanings, who takes care not to offend the many Islamic politicians questioning whether a woman should head a Muslim country. Critics accuse her of being incapable of grasping the issues -- economic decline, civil strife, rampant corruption -- besetting this sprawl of 13,000 islands. Still, Megawati took a bold step by allowing the United States, Australia and Britain to join the Bali investigation.

Any solid forensic or high-tech evidence linking the bombing to al-Qaida or its regional ally, Jemaah Islamiyah, likely will come from foreigners rather than the poorly equipped local police. That evidence could help Megawati win public support for a crackdown. She also will need some military approval to proceed against Jemaah Islamiyah.

Megawati's tough sell starts with her own fractious coalition government. Vice President Hamzah Haz, who leads a moderate Islamic party, has been an outspoken supporter of Abu Bakar Bashir, the man many countries consider the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah. The group allegedly seeks to establish a pan-Islamic state in Southeast Asia and stands accused of plotting to bomb the U.S., British and Australian embassies in Singapore.