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Last Updated: Saturday, 12 April, 2003, 12:24 GMT 13:24 UK
Disappointment stalks Arab world

By Frank Gardner
BBC security correspondent

Palestinian militants in Gaza burn a flag on top of a mock coffin for Arab armies
Palestinian militants in Gaza burn a flag on a mock coffin for Arab armies
On a park bench in central London two men sit slumped in despair.

Both Arabs, both journalists, they draw deeply on their cigarettes. For the past few hours they've been watching the fall of Saddam's regime in Iraq, and they are not happy.

This, they told me, was a disaster on a par with Israel's defeat of the Arabs in 1948. It was, they said, a black day.

Of course, not all Arabs feel that way. Millions of Iraqis have embraced the end of Saddam's repressive regime. Kuwaitis are dancing for joy.

Their country no longer has to live in the shadow of a giant neighbour, that nearly swallowed them up in 1990. In the air-conditioned shopping malls of Kuwait City, mobile phones have been bleeping constantly, as teenagers text each other the latest news of their enemy's downfall.

Nobody particularly liked Saddam Hussein, but he was an Arab with an Arab army
But in the wider Arab world, there is a sullen air of disappointment, perhaps even humiliation. Nobody particularly liked Saddam Hussein, but he was an Arab with an Arab army. And that army was defeated by a force most Arabs view as colonial aggressors.

The Pentagon may portray its troops as liberators, but in the cafes of Cairo and Damascus they are seen by many as occupiers, bent on stealing Iraq's oil.

Men stare, glassy-eyed, at wall-mounted television sets, stirring their sweet tea and slowly shaking their heads. They never really expected Saddam's forces to win. But they did expect them to put up more of a fight.

Media takes sides

From day one of this war, Arab public opinion has been firmly against the US-led invasion.

Perhaps it would have been different if the Palestinians had a state of their own. But Arabs blame Washington for the suffering of the stateless Palestinians, and for 12 years of UN sanctions on Iraq.

Whatever the US and British motives in deposing Saddam, few Arabs believe this war was carried out with their interests in mind.

Baghdad fell yesterday to the hands of the new Tartars
Al-Watan - Oman

The Arab media has made no attempt to be impartial. Coalition forces have been called 'aggressors', dead Iraqis are 'martyrs'. There's been a widespread acceptance in the Middle East that US warplanes deliberately targeted first civilians, and then journalists in Baghdad.

There's been little mention of the enormous lengths pilots have gone to, to avoid hitting residential areas.

In most Arab countries, the coverage has been heavily influenced by governments, acting through their powerful ministries of information.

An editorial in Egypt's pro-government Al-Gomhuria newspaper called for 'armed struggle and martyrdom bombers' to 'compel the aggressors to withdraw in disgrace'.

Oman's Al-Watan called Coalition troops 'the new Tartars', and said 'free people should not sleep while there is inequity or occupation'.

Arab volunteers

And sure enough, many ordinary Arabs have answered the call. Thousands volunteered to fight the Coalition.

They went, not to defend Saddam, but to defend as they saw it, a Muslim country from latter-day Crusaders. But this campaign was so swift that most never even made it past the Syrian border.

In Cairo, whole busloads of volunteers never even pulled out of the capital. The would-be martyrs have returned, frustrated, to their homes and families.

There is, of course, a large dose of hypocrisy here on the part of several Arab governments.

Bin Laden always warned that the West was out to colonise the Arab world ... many will now agree
Egypt, Saudi Arabia and all the rulers and sheikhdoms of the Gulf have opened up their bases and airspaces to Coalition forces. The US-led invasion of Iraq would have been a logistic nightmare without their support.

Take Qatar for example. It's home to Coalition headquarters and General Tommy Franks's staff. Yet last week the pro-government newspaper Al-Watan claimed the US had declared war on Islam, and perpetrated what it called terrorist crimes against Muslims.

Only words perhaps, but sentiments like these play right into the hands of extremist groups like al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda waits

The shadowy organisation of Osama Bin Laden has been largely silent since war started.

Osama bin Laden
Osama Bin Laden may reap dividends from the war
But in the long-run it will probably reap dividends. Recruiting is almost certainly up, since countless Arabs watched daily reports of Iraqi civilians being killed and maimed by US airstrikes.

Bin Laden always warned that the West was out to colonise the Arab world. With US tanks on the streets of Baghdad, many will now agree with him.

And that is despite Washington's insistence that its troops will leave once stability is restored.

Palestinian dream

But if al-Qaeda stands to gain from this conflict, the losers must surely be the Palestinians.

Saddam Hussein was their last distant hope of ever seriously confronting Israel's military might.

In the teeming slums of Gaza, I've interviewed families who boasted of the money Saddam had sent them - bounties for their young men who went off to blow themselves up in Israeli shopping malls.

For those who've grown up knowing nothing but life as a refugee, there was always the dream that one day, Saddam's vast army would come marching westwards, all the way to the gates of Jerusalem.

Today, that dream lies broken in the rubble of Saddam's smashed regime.




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