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For Arabs, Iraq Crisis Showcased Flawed US Role

Sympathy for Iraqis outweighed fear of Saddam. Did US stand erode its clout?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 26, 1998


The Iraqi woman thought she knew Americans well: Before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, she had received a degree at the American Cultural Center in Baghdad. She was about to begin an advanced business course, but the war got in the way.

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Ban Selman speaks fondly of American friends who helped her out. But since then, her attitude toward America has changed. She tearfully walks with her brother through the ruins of the Amiriya shelter, where two American bombs killed up to 400 Iraqi civilians - including her mother and several other family members seven years ago this month.

Under threat of American airstrikes again, she at first refuses to speak: "We don't want to talk to Americans," Ms. Selman says. "Because Americans say they love human beings, but they are proving these words wrong. All they want in the Middle East is food and oil."

"We love Americans," confides her brother, Ahmed. "But give us a chance to prove we love peace."

For many in the Arab world, the recent high-stakes US-Iraq standoff over United Nations weapons inspectors has brought to a boil long-growing disillusionment with US Mideast policy.

Before UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan traveled to Baghdad to broker a peaceful solution over the weekend, violent pro-Iraq demonstrations in the Palestinian territories and Jordan pointed to the depth of unrest that has grown in the past year and a half, as the Arab-Israeli peace process has all but collapsed.

But underlying this disillusionment, Arab analysts say, is a fundamental reexamination of how America's role in the Middle East is perceived. Across the region, few Arab leaders supported military strikes against Iraq, saying that the Iraqi people would suffer more than the regime of President Saddam Hussein.

Still, US officials soldiered on with hard rhetoric until the last moment. Few here agreed with Mr. Annan's appraisal Tuesday that the US and Britain had acted as "perfect UN peacekeepers" - willing to show force, so that force would not have to be used.

'A critical stage'

"This is a critical stage in the development of the Arab mind," says Wamidh Nadhmi, a professor of political science at Baghdad University. "I don't want to see the America I respect for its democratic institutions and values leave this [bad] impression [that creates] a sense of martyrdom instead of dialogue."

Ironically, it was the Gulf War that first broke the Arab perception that US policy was irreversibly pro-Israel. That helped the US begin engineering the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Former President George Bush built a coalition of Western and Arab forces to oust Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 1991. Even Syria - still technically at war with Israel - sent troops to the front. US influence kept Israel from responding militarily when Iraq launched Scud missiles against the Jewish state, and this helped persuade Arab leaders Mr. Bush was serious about the US playing a constructive role for peace.

That impetus has long since dissolved, analysts say. The peace process began to fall apart in February 1996, and the policies of hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - almost universally blamed in the Arab world for undermining the peace process - are seen to have nearly finished it off.

Why not press Israel?