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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 May, 2004, 12:57 GMT 13:57 UK
Arab anger at Iraq torture photos

By Paul Wood
BBC Middle East correspondent in Cairo

On the Arabic satellite channels, it's "all torture, all the time" - wall-to-wall coverage of the photographs, the graphic images flooding into homes across the region.

Viewers watch al-Jazeera coverage of the PoW abuse story
The US has repeatedly criticised al-Jazeera's coverage in Iraq
"The situation has not changed in Iraq; only the prison warder is different," said one report on al-Arabiya.

The news bulletin was playing loudly on a TV in the corner of a café in Cairo's old town. Men looked up from their chess boards and water pipes.

"This is shameful, shameful, shameful," said one, getting nods of agreement. "A soldier urinating on a prisoner, sexual abuse and humiliation, is this human?"

Pictures flashed by of naked bodies piled up on one another and the taunting grin of an American woman soldier. All this is especially upsetting in a culture which prizes dignity, modesty and respect.

The man added: "The United States used to stand for liberty, now it stands for imperialism." One of the waiters said he was ready to go to Iraq to become a martyr, fighting the Americans.

These remarks were not surprising. The "Arab street" is often angry with the US and Israel. It is a safe way to express general discontent when criticism of your own leaders could be a risky business.

But there is no doubting the deep offence that these photographs have caused. The US Senator Joe Biden has called this the worst blow to American prestige in the Arab world for a decade.

The cafe I visited was well known in Cairo because - exceptionally - they cheered when the Americans took Baghdad and toppled Saddam just over a year ago. The coalition has no defenders there now.

And the damage goes beyond the usual tea-house chatter. The Arab League has condemned what it calls the savage mistreatment and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by US and British soldiers.

The Arab Commission for Human Rights wants an urgent and independent investigation. It says these are not isolated incidents.

Shock and sorrow

Nearby, at Cairo University, a furious row was going on with the photographs being brandished in the face of a visiting academic who was brave enough to defend the Americans.

The Kuwaiti political scientist, Dr Shamlan al-Eesa, was pointing out an uncomfortable truth. In many parts of the Middle East, this is how the police are expected to behave.

"These things happen every day in the Arab world, but no one reports it," he says. "That is the difference between the Arab world and the West - the West admits these things and tries to do something about it."

Daily Mirror picture
Even if the images are staged, the damage has been done
He was on his own. "This reveals the real nature of the United States and its policy," said a female student. "Democracy and human rights - all illusion."

A male student added: "I was shocked. Why were these photographs taken at all? This implies the soldiers were enjoying themselves. This is what gives us most pain and sorrow."

The US is trying to export democracy throughout the Middle East. There is no chance of that, says the Egyptian newspaper editor and democracy campaigner, Nabil Zaki.

"Now anything connected with the Americans is disliked," he told me, "Ninety nine per cent of the people of this region hate the Americans. They consider them aggressors."

Sometimes it almost seems as if the Arab media is revelling in the allegations. Al-Jazeera carried a report on one prisoner in Abu Ghraib: "Haj Ali, 58, crippled since he was a child."

"He has several chronic diseases... Although he suffers health problems, he was treated as a veteran criminal," the report said. "His arms and legs remained shackled even when he was hospitalised."

Al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya have both been criticised by the coalition, accused of hostile, inflammatory and inaccurate coverage. In common with the rest of the Arab media, they say the photographs show they were right all along.

Damage done

The danger for the coalition - and the West in general - is that in this climate, anything bad will be believed of US and British troops in Iraq.

The Iraqi newspaper al-Bayyinah carried a 2,000-word article, under the headline "Homosexuals Abuse Iraqis", which said that Abu Ghraib had been turned into a "cowboy night club".

"US soldiers drink alcohol over the prisoners' bodies while the minarets make the call to prayer," it said.

And another set of photographs is circulating on Arabic-language web sites. It apparently shows two Iraqi women, both wearing traditional black robes, being raped at gunpoint by men described as wearing US Army uniforms.

These pictures do not seem genuine: the uniforms do not seem right. The pictures of British soldiers abusing Iraqis might not be genuine either. But the damage has been done.

"The time will come when Iraqis will react to this," said al-Jazeera. In Kuwait, one of America's friends in the Arab world, al-Watan newspaper warned of "a gift to Islamic fundamentalists trying hard to defile the image of America".

So perhaps, in the backroom of a mosque in Saudi Arabia, in Yemen, or in Iraq itself, a young Muslim is being shown these photographs - and is recruited for jihad.

The BBC's Paul Wood
"They believe that what they've been shown already is a glimpse of the true face of the occupation"

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