BY Richard Sisk In Washington and Samuel Goldsmith
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITERS
The small-time Florida pastor who set the world on edge by threatening to burn Korans on 9/11 called off his twisted plan Thursday, claiming he had won a deal to move the mosque near Ground Zero in return.
The Rev. Terry Jones later flip-flopped and said he might go ahead with the hateful plan after the mosque's backers said there was no such deal.
"Given what we are now hearing, we are forced to rethink our decision," Jones said. "So, as of right now, we are not canceling the event, but we are suspending it."
In the end, Jones said only that he planned to travel to New York and hoped to meet with the leaders of the planned Islamic center.
He claimed to have cut a deal over the mosque with a Florida Islamic leader and expected "the imam in New York to back up one of his own men."
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder of the mosque project, said he never spoke to Jones or Imam Muhammad Musri of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, the supposed go-between.
"We are not going to toy with our religion or any other," Rauf said. "Nor are we here to barter. We are here to extend our hand to build peace and harmony."
Musri later said Jones "stretched my words" when he claimed a deal had been cut to move the mosque. The imam said Jones only put the Koran-burning on hold because of pressure from the military.
He said Jones canceled the stunt because he feared it might endanger American troops, not because of any deal on the mosque.
After a confusing day of twists and turns, officials from the White House to the Pentagon to Muslim capitals were left to watch anxiously to see if Jones would jump-start his harebrained plan, which threatened to unleash anti-American bloodshed.
President Obama urged him to call it off, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates took the extraordinary step of phoning Jones personally, appealing to him not to put U.S. soldiers in danger by staging "International Burn a Koran Day."
Official fears that desecration of the Muslim holy books by the once-obscure backwoods preacher could ignite a wave of killings are well-grounded.
In 2005, a false report that U.S. guards at the Guantanamo terror camp had flushed a Koran down a toilet set off riots in the Mideast. At least 17 people were killed.
Angry marchers in Afghanistan and Pakistan burned U.S. flags yesterday over the threatened burning of the Korans.
The State Department warned Americans overseas to be on guard. Interpol told cops worldwide to brace for trouble. U.S. embassies buckled up. The Taliban pumped out leaflets saying, in effect, we told you so.
Obama warned that Jones' planned stunt would be a "recruiting bonanza" for Al Qaeda, demonstrating U.S. contempt for all Muslims hold sacred.
Jones had been holed up in his Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., ignoring the pleas of Obama, the Vatican and world leaders to call off his vulgar stunt, when he emerged in the late afternoon with a dramatic announcement.
Claiming he had received a "sign from God," Jones said he wouldn't be burning any holy books after all.
The Pentagon confirmed that Gates had called, but not much else of what Jones had to say was confirmable.
"We have agreed to cancel our event," Jones said. "We are, of course, now against any other group burning Korans. We would right now ask no one to burn Korans. We are absolutely strong on that."
"It is not the time to do it," Jones said, before veering off into his claims that his threats had caused the New York mosque developers to blink.
"The American people do not want the mosque there, and of course, Muslims do not want us to burn the Koran," said Jones. "The imam [Rauf] has agreed to move the mosque," he said.