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Arab world divided on Libya no-fly zone

The Arab world is largely supportive of Libya's rebels and a no-fly zone to protect them, but is unsure how it feels about Western intervention on their behalf.

By Hannah Allam, Shashank BengaliMcClatchy Newspapers / March 21, 2011

A pro-Qaddafi protester holds a picture of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi as a group of protesters try to block the path of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, as he leaves the Arab League headquarters on his way to Tahrir Square, after meeting with Arab League chief Amr Moussa, in Cairo March 21.

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters



The US and allied bombing raid that began this weekend opened a floodgate of competing emotions across the Arab world, which supports the Libyan rebels but is wary of more Western intervention in the region.

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Arabs are watching the strikes against Muammar Qaddafi's regime with a blend of relief for the help to outgunned rebels, trepidation about ulterior motives of Western intervention, and envy in volatile countries where calls for international backup have gone unheeded.

The Arab League initially supported the campaign but began to back away Sunday, calling a crisis meeting after the group's chief, Amr Moussa, told reporters that the league had endorsed a no-fly zone, not bombings. The confusion over what a no-fly zone entails persisted among ordinary Arabs, too, as Libyan state television reported at least 48 civilian casualties, a figure that couldn't be independently verified.

"My whole generation grew up with Desert Fox in '98 all the way up to the Iraq war, and then the Israeli occupation as well, so that tends to feed into a desire not to see Western political or military intervention," said Heba Morayef, of the Cairo office of Human Rights Watch. "In the case of Libya, however, it's more complicated."

In a region where news of Western warplanes striking a Muslim nation typically elicits rage and vows of revenge, the initial support for Operation Odyssey Dawn shows just how isolated Qaddafi had become in the Middle East.

President Bashar Al Assad of Syria, another pariah state, is a lone voice in support of Qaddafi, perhaps fearful of a similar uprising at home.

Few others in the region would miss the flamboyant colonel, who appeared to take delight in berating and goading fellow leaders. He has a long history of stunts at the annual Arab Summit, such as smoking cigars on the conference room floor to show contempt for the speakers or trading insults with the Saudi king in a fight so heated that it had to be taken off the air.

"Usually, Arab rulers tolerate each other, no matter how idiotic they are, in order to survive," said Mohamed Qahtani, a Saudi human rights activist. "But the guy is insane, there's no question about it. He's unacceptable in every way."

The tiny Persian Gulf states of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates reportedly are taking part in the Libya campaign. In contrast, Gulf countries are silent or complicit in attacks on protesters in Bahrain and Yemen, where dozens have died in the past week. Saudi Arabia sent 1,000 troops to help defend the Bahraini government, and there's little uproar over Yemen's vicious campaign against rebels.


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