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Tuesday, 9 October, 2001, 11:37 GMT 12:37 UK
Bin Laden stirs up Arab world
A fort in Oman
More than 23,000 British personnel are on exercise in Oman
By the BBC's Middle East correspondent Frank Gardner in Muscat

Official Arab reaction to Sunday night's US-led strikes on Taleban positions in Afghanistan has been muted.

Alone amongst Arab governments, Iraq was quick to voice its views, calling the operation an act of aggression and warning that it may destabilise the Middle East.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has good reason to worry. There are many in Washington who would like to see Baghdad next on the target list, although the US administration seems to be aware of the political risks involved.

Public outrage

Meanwhile, in the streets, cafes and internet chat rooms of the Middle East, ordinary Arabs have been venting their disgust.

"Idiots! They are out of their minds!" screams one posting on a popular Gulf website.

Further north, thousands of Palestinians have taken to the streets of Gaza, demonstrating against the West's actions.

It has not helped Washington's image in the Middle East that the waves of cruise missile and air strikes drew swift praise from the Arabs' arch-enemy, Israel.

Even in the tranquil Sultanate of Oman, a small anti-war demonstration took place in the capital Muscat before reportedly being dispersed by police.

Omanis are used to seeing US and British troops passing through their country - there are 23,000 British servicemen and women here on exercise now.

However, the predominately young population has grown up in a country with no enemies and most don not see the need for more violence.

In the sun-dappled alleyways of Mattrah souk, shopkeepers are shaking their heads.

All this is bad for business, although the occasional British squaddie on leave does venture here to buy a silver souvenir.

Ahmed the merchant sits on a bench in his mauve robe and crimson turban, sipping a sugary tea.

"By God," he tells me, "it would be so much better if people just sat down round a table and sorted this out in a sensible way, instead of all this fighting".

His friend Muhammad agrees. "Sympathy here is not so much with Osama Bin Laden," he adds, "but with the Afghan people.

"They're exhausted, yet they are the ones who are suffering and they are the ones who end up getting hurt."

Quiet support

Not everyone opposes military action. Pro-western Arab rulers have given a discreet nod to the use of their facilities to support the operations.

More than anyone in the region, the Saudi ruling princes can recognise the dangers posed by a cult figure like Osama Bin Laden.

In a country where there is zero tolerance for anti-government criticism, Bin Laden's constant verbal sniping at their regime from abroad makes him a liability.

Many ordinary Arabs are also unhappy with his creed of violence, but they remain unconvinced by the West's alleged evidence of his guilt.

Hero to some

Over the last few weeks, the West's message of the need to get tough with Osama Bin Laden and the Taleban has singularly failed to permeate through to most Arabs.

Osama Bin Laden
Saudi-born Bin Laden lamented the plight of Palestinians and Iraqis

They are not really listening to what President George W Bush or Prime Minister Tony Blair have to say.

Instead, they are too busy watching the latest vitriolic interview with Osama Bin Laden himself on al-Jazeera, the popular Qatari satellite TV channel.

The bearded Saudi-born exile may be a bete noire in the West, but here in the Middle East he has become a hero to some.

Despite his extremist Wahhabite interpretation of Islam, his declared motives tap into a rich vein of Arab discontent. "I swear by Almighty God," he told the Arab world on Sunday, "that neither the United States nor he who lives in the United States will enjoy security before we can see it as a reality in Palestine and before all the infidel armies leave the land of Mohammed."

Palestinians clapped for joy when they heard these words. Some Saudis even wept with tears of emotion. This is a man who speaks the language of the Arabs in more ways than one.

Now, perhaps belatedly, the UK Prime Minister Tony Blair is preparing to give a response to be broadcast to the Arab world on the same channel, al-Jazeera.

But in the race for the hearts and minds of countless ordinary Arabs, Osama Bin Laden is already firmly ahead of the West.

See also:

07 Oct 01 | South Asia
Bin Laden's warning: full text
08 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
Backlash fear for Westerners abroad
01 Oct 01 | Middle East
Saudi leaders fear Muslim backlash
08 Oct 01 | South Asia
US declares strikes 'success'
07 Oct 01 | Middle East
Expats fear attacks backlash
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