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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 September, 2004, 17:15 GMT 18:15 UK
Arabs ambivalent over hostage crisis
By Sebastian Usher
BBC World Media correspondent

Simona Pari (left) and Simona Torretta - Italian aid workers who were kidnapped in Iraq
The fate of two kidnapped Italian aid workers remains unclear

The Arab media has presented the latest hostage crisis in Iraq as just another element in the bloody and chaotic pattern of violence in the country.

The latest developments have been reported and often broken on Arab television channels, but they have soon been superseded by bloodshed elsewhere in Iraq or in the Palestinian territories and Israel.

There has been little sign of the outrage that greeted the kidnapping of two French hostages last month and none of the soul-searching prompted by the Beslan siege.

The issue of foreign hostages in Iraq was examined this week on the most heated discussion programme on the Middle East's most-watched television station, al-Jazeera.

Television debate

In the programme The Opposite Direction a fiercely anti-American political analyst, Talat Rumayh, faced off against an Iraqi politician, Karim Badr.

Al-Jazeera pictures of three Western hostages - including Briton Kenneth Bigley - in Iraq
In the Arab media the plight of Iraqis and Palestinians overshadows that of the hostages
Mr Rumayh claimed that the kidnappers were Iraqi resistance fighters and compared the number of their victims to the thousands of Iraqis, who had been killed:

"Two thousand people have been killed since the beginning of the attack on Falluja, which was dismissed in one report, one line or just a couple of words... while we keep hearing about the hostages. It's the hostages and the terrorists, always the terrorists," he said.

Karim Badr responded by saying all Iraq was disgraced by the beheadings.

"We have to prove our humanity. I am addressing my brethren in Iraq: These are masked creatures that resemble humans, who I am certain are uglier than their deeds," he said.

"Is the killing of people and exploding cars in the streets an act of resistance? Is the kidnapping and murder of people in this manner an act of resistance? I am certain they do not represent the Iraqi conscience in any way at all."

Viewers 'unmoved'

Viewers were unmoved. In a phone poll 93% supported the kidnappings.

The kidnappers' demands are limited to Iraq, whose political and security problems remain the focus of Arab attention rather than the fate of Western hostages
A little later - after the beheading of the second American hostage - an Iraqi religious leader told al-Jazeera that the foreign hostages were capturing the world's attention at the expense of the Iraqi people's suffering.

In the Arab media, naturally enough, this order is reversed - with the plight of Iraqis and Palestinians overshadowing that of the hostages.

But this is not to say that the Arab satellite channels have ignored the human impact of the story - the hostages' relatives appeared live on al-Jazeera, hoping to convey their pleas for mercy directly to the kidnappers.

The Arab press has also, in the past, condemned Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as a thug who perverts Islam.

But there has not been the same outcry as when two French journalists were taken hostage and their kidnappers demanded that France rescind its ban on Islamic headscarves in schools.

Then, many Arab commentators warned that the kidnappers' actions could irrevocably tarnish the image of Islam and the Arab world.

This time, the kidnappers' demands are limited to Iraq, whose political and security problems remain the focus of Arab attention rather than the fate of Western hostages.

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