Anwar Ibrahim can hardly express how wonderful it is to be free. "I've gone from the inferno to paradiso in a matter of days", says the former Malaysian deputy prime minister, who until eight days ago was under armed guard in a Malaysian prison.

"I read a lot about culture shock and now I've experienced what its all about. It's a different world. Freedom, the taste of it - it's indescribable."

He is now in a luxury private clinic in Munich, southern Germany, where he this week had an operation for a spinal injury he received in prison. He is sitting up in bed, surrounded by large bunches of flowers from well-wishers. His wife, Wan Azizah, a medical doctor who campaigned constantly for his release, is at his bedside.

He says his operation went "amazingingly well" and that his convalescence is also on course. But despite stern words from his doctors, he admits he has already resumed the intense political life interrupted almost six years ago.

Friends and allies have travelled from Malaysia, the UK and US to see him this week.

The phone calls have also started coming from influential Malaysians who criticised him in public while he was in jail but now want to become friends with a man likely to play a vital role in Malaysia's future. He says several newspaper editors have called to say they had no choice but to write critical articles about him.

He knows the pace of political life will quicken dramatically when he returns to Malaysia in late September or soon thereafter. He rules out, at least in the short term, joining the government or the ruling UMNO party, and indicates he want to help build a "responsible opposition".

He identifies two main areas where he wants to focus his energies: pushing for economic and political reforms, and providing leadership among moderate Muslims - in Malaysia and elsewhere in south east Asia - in the face of Islamic extremism and terrorism.

On reforms, he says he would be happy to sit down with Abdullah Badawi, prime minister, soon after returning. "It would be useful to meet him, although I'll disagree with him on lots of issues."

He says he feels "no personal enmity" towards the prime minister, although he criticises Mr Badawi for not moving quickly enough on economic reforms such as tackling corruption, and for shelving ambitious infrastructure projects. "We have yet to see action", he says, but when progress does come, then the prime minister should be given support.

Economic reforms should go further, especially by removing protectionist trade barriers around the country. He made particular mention of Malaysia's indigenous car project, the Proton.

Mr Anwar admits that some of the policies he backed while in power in the 1990s, such as the Internal Security Act, were wrong. He expresses regrets: "I'm in no position to defend all the actions of the government I was in."

Turning to Islam, he says "the world has changed" since he went into prison in 1998, and there has been a "failure of Muslim leaders" really to address extremism and terrorism. "These things are beyond [the leaders'] control," he says.

He argues for an international forum where these concerns can be discussed. When former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid called him on his release from prison, he says, Mr Anwar suggested that "we collect people together, to think these issues through".

Mr Anwar was jovial for most of the one-hour interview, telling jokes at frequent intervals. But he could not hide his deep bitterness towards Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister who sacked him from the cabinet and pressed sodomy and other charges.

Mr Anwar had harsh words for Dr Mahathir, comparing him unfavourably to former Russian leader Joseph Stalin. But his tone was also partly that of a man who has seen the tables turned.

"People in the ruling party don't consider him seriously any more," he said. "His rhetoric is regarded as obsolete."

And would Mr Anwar be pressing charges against his enemy if the federal court overturns the abuse of power charge?

"No," he says; Mr Mahathir is over 80.

"I have no malice. I don't want to waste my time on him."

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