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US show of force galls Arab world

A day after Baghdad's fall, many foresee American dominance in the Middle East - and possible reprisals.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 11, 2003


In the end, the "shock and awe" US war planners had promised for Iraq came not in a hail of bombs, but with the fall of a hollow bronze statue.

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And the impact is reverberating far beyond Iraq's borders, stunning ordinary Arabs and their leaders across the Middle East.

As they digested the news of Baghdad's unexpectedly swift fall on Thursday, and watched TV replays of Saddam Hussein's statue toppled by a US Marine tank recovery vehicle, many Arabs saw not the dusk of Iraqi dictatorship, but the dawn of a frightening new world.

"This represents what is really happening," said a commentator on the Al Jazeera television network, watched by millions in the region, as an American soldier wrapped the Stars and Stripes around Saddam Hussein's face.

"Everything that happens in Iraq now will have an American flavor and smell."

The conclusive display of American military power will have gratified US allies in the Middle East, such as Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak or ruling royal families in the Gulf, who had been fearful that a protracted war would inflame their citizens.

They are also hoping, with Washington, that scenes of grateful Iraqis welcoming US troops will erode overwhelming popular opposition to the war in the Arab world.

But they could have reason for fear, as well, if America's declared vision of a democratic Middle East is ever realized.

"The fall of Baghdad will break the back of petty tyrants around the region," predicts Khaled al-Maeena, a newspaper editor in Saudi Arabia. "These self-appointed guardians of Arab pride must realize that they have to share power."

As for America's enemies, the speed of Baghdad's capitulation is a worrying blow.

"For the Americans it is good; for us it is bad," says Mohammed Shukri, a law professor in the Syrian capital, Damascus. "If the Iraqis had fought harder, the US would have lost morally and politically."

For ordinary people around the Middle East, suspicious of American intentions in Iraq, the live TV coverage from Baghdad this week has been hard to swallow.

Watching "Rocky," not war

At a corner cafe in the Egyptian town of Ismailiya, patrons asked owner Riad Othman to switch from Al Jazeera to The Movie Channel on Wednesday. They sat there, drinking their coffee, glued to "Rocky II" rather than the images from Baghdad.

"This is not something we can bear to watch," explained Ibrahim Khader, a nut-shop owner. "It's pathetic, this capitulation."

Some dissidents raise their voices against the general tide of opinion, however, especially in Kuwait, where US-led forces evicted Iraqi occupiers in 1991.

"The success of the military campaign has definitely vindicated the decision to take Saddam head on," says Ahmed Bishara, head of the reformist National Democratic Movement in the Gulf kingdom. "And even if they don't find weapons of mass destruction, the torture chambers they have already found are enough to justify the war."

Even Dr. Bishara, though, cautions against success going to American policymakers' heads.

"Many nations around the world will realize now that there is muscle here that can be flexed," he says. "But I hope it will not increase belligerency in the US, giving them ideas about going around beating up other regimes."

That concern is shared further afield, too.

"They've demonstrated that they are willing to invade Muslim countries that they don't like, and they've shown that the United Nations has no ability to stop them," says Taufiq Amrullah, an Indonesian Muslim student leader.

"Now they say Syria and then maybe Iran. Where will they stop?"

Pax Americana?

Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri, an ally of Washington's, likened US policy to "the law of the jungle" in a speech this week, lamenting that "the powerful country feels it has the right to exert its will upon the weak."

"This is what Pax Americana looks like," comments Mustapha Hamarneh, a political analyst at the University of Jordan in Amman. "Any ruler who makes a couple of statements that Washington doesn't like in the future will find warships diverted to his coast. He'll have to run for cover."

This sort of fear beyond America's shores leads to some brutal conclusions.

"I am sorry to say this, but I do not wish the Americans a quick and easy victory in Baghdad," says Sergei Kazyonnov, an analyst with the Institute for National Security and Strategic Research in Moscow.

"If it is too easy, they will move on to other targets, like Iran and Syria, and the regional crisis will grow worse," he says. "Let them win, but let it hurt enough that they think twice next time."

Russian security officials have been especially shocked at the success of US generals in Iraq, says Vitaly Shlyikov, a former deputy defense minister.