Arabs view US: Clumsy hegemon? Noble cop?

As Bush continues urging a preemptive strike against Iraq, Arabs question broader US goals in the region.

Hamid, a Qatari fisherman, has some advice for US President George W. Bush: "Get your big fish, but don't kill all the minnows when you cast your big net," he says over a cup of tea as the sun sets on dozens of wooden dhows lining this small port on the Persian Gulf. "At least, this time go after Saddam Hussein – and get him, but you don't need to kill tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers as you did in 1991."

The burly fisherman, who preferred to give only his first name, voiced concern for Hussein's foot soldiers and Iraqi civilians, saying: "Hey, we are all Arabs, and we like the Iraqi people – they are good people."

The Qatari fisherman's views typify the confusion in the Arab world over the broader goals and objectives of US foreign policy. As it continues to plan possible military action against Iraq, the Bush administration issued a 33-page document late last week outlining its new doctrine for preemptive strikes against threatening foes.

While Hussein himself is far from popular, many here in the Arab world worry about the broader direction of American policy. "Arabs respect force, and if you go in and take out Saddam Hussein powerfully and cleanly, there won't be much to object to, but it is the bigger issues of war and peace that bother many in the Arab world," says Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies, who recently returned from a tour of the Middle East.

What many Arabs want – first and above all – is peace in the Middle East. They question why Washington – which many consider the only power capable of putting an end to ethnic and religious violence in the Middle East – has not yet tackled the fighting in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, but now wants to open a new front in its war on terror – a struggle they worry could spark far greater instability.

"Right now, the US is behaving like a bull in the china shop," says Mawafak Tawfik, an Iraqi writer and journalist, who was deprived of his Iraqi citizenship several years ago.

"Many Arabs are saying that the US has finally gone crazy," Mr. Tawfik says, "but if Washington really spoke of regional disarmament, all of us would be happy to go along."

Washington's eagerness for a regime change in Baghdad has heightened a mood of anti-Americanism across the Gulf region, particularly in fundamentalist Islamic circles.

In a typical view alleging a US-led conspiracy, Egyptian Yousuf Al Qaradawi, tiny Qatar's most prominent Islamic cleric, charges that the US plans against Iraq are all about helping Washington's ally, Israel.

"They want to actually wipe out Iraq to help Israel," he tells his followers during a sermon held in the country's largest mosque. He also warns that no country in the region should allow their bases to be used for an attack on Iraq.

In recent months, the United States has been upgrading the sprawling Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar as an alternative to the Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia.

While much of the Arab world is skeptical of US foreign policy, there is a somewhat muted minority who sympathize with US strategic goals in the region and praise Washington for playing the world's policeman when no one else can or will.

Dr. Abdulhameed I. Alansari, the dean of the Sharia (Islamic law) faculty at Qatar University, says that "radicals" like Imam Qaradawi are out of step with both international and Islamic law.

He says that a US policy of intervention in Iraq stands on solid ground as long as Iraq continues to flout UN weapons inspections.

"International law promotes nonintervention in internal matters, but there can be exceptions," he says. "Look at the positive role that the US played in intervening on the behalf of Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo. When the political order in certain countries represents a danger for neighboring countries and violates all international norms and customs, there can and should be intervention, just as there was in Afghanistan against the Taliban regime."

The diminutive and bespectacled professor, who dresses in a traditional Qatari white robes and a long-flowing headdress, also argues that the Islamic concept of "jihad," or holy war, "as it was originally conceived," means that it is the duty of Muslims to help liberate other Muslims from tyrannical political orders – the very kind that Saddam Hussein reigns over.

"At the moment, the Muslim world is too weak to do it, so in this circumstance we should leave it up to someone else like the United States."

Still others, like the Iraqi writer Tawfik, say Washington needs to focus on the big picture of eliminating terrorism by peaceful diplomatic means before taking on new enemies. He says that people like Osama bin Laden would not be able to recruit new followers if Washington were more even-handed in the Middle East.

"History has presented the Americans with a golden opportunity," he says. "The world has never known such influence and power, both economic and military. Saddam is very bad – maybe the worst – but why not have a policy of disarmament across the board in the Middle East – one that would include the Israelis, too?"

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