Some of Hussein's Arab Foes Admire His Fight (FWD: NY Times)

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at
Wed Mar 26 05:37:23 MST 2003

Some of Hussein's Arab Foes Admire His Fight

March 26, 2003

DAMASCUS, Syria, March 25 - Normally the appearance of
Saddam Hussein on television prompts catcalls, curses and
prayers for his demise from a regular gathering of about 20
Saudi businessmen and intellectuals, but Monday night was
different. When he appeared, they prayed that God would
preserve him for a few more weeks.

"They want Saddam Hussein to go and they expect him to go
eventually, but they want him to hold on a little longer
because they want to teach the Americans a lesson," said
Khaled M. Batarfi, the managing editor of the newspaper Al
Madina, describing the scene in a sprawling living room in
Jidda, Saudi Arabia.

"Arab pride is at stake here," he added, describing a
sentiment sweeping the region from Algeria to Yemen.
"American propaganda said it was going to be so quick and
easy, meaning we Arabs are weak and unable to fight. Now it
is like a Mike Tyson fight against some weak guy. They
don't want the weak guy knocked out in the first 40

>From the outset, there has been a certain ambivalence in
the Arab world toward the war in Iraq, an ambivalence
tipping toward outright hostility as Baghdad, the fabled
capital of "The Arabian Nights," shudders under American

The region's governments, edgy about the idea of a United
States-inspired change of government in Iraq, have been
trying to placate Washington and siphon the anger off their
streets, although they have permitted larger demonstrations
than usual.

The Middle East's educated elite, seeking deliverance from
repressive governments, hope Washington wants to create a
model for the region in Iraq, but the United States lacks a
credible track record. The public recognizes that leaders
like Mr. Hussein abuse their people, but the suspicion that
the United States is embarking on a modern crusade against
Islam tends to overwhelm other considerations.

Since the creation of Israel in 1948, followed by repeated
military setbacks, Arabs have felt a certain humiliation in
their own neighborhood. The supposed benefits of breaking
free of colonialism proved a lie - they could choose
neither their neighbors nor their own governments. Fed on
rhetoric about lost Arab glory, they have long waited for
some kind of savior.

The Iraqi leader sought to fill that role, gaining vast
public support in 1990 by contending that the road to
Jerusalem led through Kuwait. Nobody believes him any more,
but the yearning remains.

This week it seemed that the Iraqi people, or whoever
exactly was fighting America, might win that role.

"If Saddam's regime is going to fall, it's better for our
future, for our self-confidence and for our image that it
falls fighting," said Sadik Jalal al-Azam, a Syrian author
and academic. "People are not defending Saddam or his
regime, but they are willing to put Saddam aside for a much
greater issue."

Arab governments opposed the war in Iraq from the outset.
They shared no great love for Mr. Hussein, but replacing
him by force seemed a bad precedent.

"If they do not like 100 regimes around the world, are they
going to change all 100?" asked Buthaina Shaaban, a
spokeswoman for the Syrian Foreign Ministry, reciting a
familiar argument used by opponents of the Bush
administration's policy.

That prospect is unnerving for Middle Eastern governments
for a variety of reasons. In Syria, which is controlled by
a rival branch of Iraq's Baath Party, overthrowing the
Baathists next door comes uncomfortably close to a scary
preview of what might happen there.

"Nobody knows who will be next," said Georges Jabbour, a
Syrian law professor and member of Parliament.

Longtime rulers have begun making noises about reform.

President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt recently announced a
series of minor changes lightening the government's
repressive hand, including abolishing the special state
security courts for ordinary crimes.

Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia also started publicly
addressing the issue of reform, although that seems more
inspired by the post-Sept. 11 discovery of widespread
sympathy for Osama bin Laden rather than concern that
democracy in Iraq might destabilize the kingdom.

"Frankly, we would prefer being attacked by missiles of
Jeffersonian democracy to facing Scuds and other missiles,"
Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, said
earlier this month.

Educated elites across the region once cherished the idea
that the United States would push governments in the area
to become more democratic, but they gradually abandoned
hope. Promises for Iraq have rekindled that hope, although
the Bush administration's changing justifications for
invading Iraq - from concerns about weapons of mass
destruction to the need for a new government - have cast
doubt on its sincerity.

"The U.S. has always supported the dictators who rule our
countries," said Haitham Maleh, the 72-year-old lawyer who
is head of the Human Rights Association of Syria. "If they
create a real democracy, then any dictatorship will fear
its neighbor, but we doubt America will leave a democracy
in Iraq."

Much of the doubt comes from the perceived double standard
in American foreign policy in the Middle East. Washington
pushed the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that Iraq was
flouting United Nations resolutions to disarm, Arabs point
out repeatedly, while doing nothing tangible about similar
resolutions demanding Israeli withdrawal from occupied
Palestinian lands.

Given the lack of openness in the Arab world, assessing the
broader public mood is difficult. The closest thing to an
opinion poll is gauging the random opinions of people

"I have a question about the war," a Palestinian said in
Amman. "Why just Saddam, why not all of them?" He reeled
off the decades in power accumulated by Yasir Arafat, King
Fahd, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, Mr. Mubarak and on and on.

The surprise question hinted at support for getting rid of
Mr. Hussein, but also pointed to the public debate over why
the United States is singling out Iraq when the region has
so many repressive governments.

Those reservations grew this week as the images of the
bombs devastating Baghdad appeared on television and the
civilian toll rose. It was not unusual to see Arabs both
weeping and seething in front of the television news.

The Arab world started out angry that yet another Arab
country was facing destruction, but it was braced for what
was promised to be a short campaign. A sea change in that
attitude materialized by Sunday morning, following the
events at the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr.

First, American officials said Umm Qasr had fallen, while
resistance clearly persisted; then, a marine briefly raised
an American flag over the city, long enough for it to be
filmed and shown repeatedly on Iraqi television.

"That electrified Iraqi patriotism," said Walid Khadduri,
an Iraqi expatriate and editor of the Middle East Economic
Survey. "The mood changed. It has nothing to do with the

The sentiment proved infectious across the region -
volunteers even showing up by the score at Iraqi embassies
prepared to join the fight. Many Arabs cursed their own
governments for doing nothing but issuing empty

"The Iraqis are real men, and I am proud of them," said
Gasser Fahmi, a 30-year-old computer engineer interviewed
on a Cairo street. "At the start of the war, I was very
frustrated and did not want to hear the news, but now I
watch the news closely to see how many losses the Americans

The war is too young yet to see where the ripples will
lead, and much hinges on its outcome. But it already seems
certain that the war will prove to be a powerful watershed
in the region.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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