What's behind Arab backlash

Some anger over US bombing of Iraq stems from domestic problems, discontent with peace process.

The recent fate of American flags in Gaza may best tell the story of how Arab support for military strikes against Iraq has waxed and waned.

When President Clinton made a historic visit to Palestinian territories one week ago, few commentators could resist noting the political sea change: Where once American flags were burned because of America's close ties with Israel, now they were being heralded. America's role as the "honest broker" appeared to have been reaffirmed, and Mr. Clinton was now a trusted "friend."

But just days later, as the first US missiles struck Iraq, the flag-burning scenes were back. Riots erupted in Egypt, and the US Embassy in Syria was attacked by protesters.

"It must have made a difference in [Americans'] minds," says a senior Western official here. "After being a hero in Gaza, to people stepping on portraits of Clinton. It had an impact they didn't expect."

Military attacks are rarely conducted without weighing political considerations, especially in the Middle East where one of Newton's laws of physics prevails: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. As the United States planned the airstrikes, potential Arab reaction was likely an important factor.

"There was little scope for diplomacy after UNSCOM [the weapons inspection program] reported noncooperation, so it was a sad day when the bombing started," says Prakash Shah, UN special representative to Iraq who was appointed after the February Iraq crisis. The Council was due to meet yesterday to consider how weapons inspections in Iraq could resume.

Arabs' view of Iraqis, then and now

Iraq holds a special place in the popular Arab imagination as a country whose history is based on having the essentials of life: water, arable land, and therefore food. It is an article of faith throughout the Arab world that the Iraqi people have suffered mightily under eight years of United Nations sanctions, and that US and British actions have prevented them from being lifted.

In Baghdad, the result is seen as popular Arab support: "These people of Iraq are the strongest among Arabs; they are the only ones who stand up to Israel and the US," says Zaid Kamel al-Assadi, a Baghdad pharmacist.

But did street protests in the Middle East stem from concern for the people of Iraq? Or are there other underlying reasons for the outbursts?

Politically, the Wye peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians - reached only after nine days of intense US pressure on both sides - paved the way for a regional improvement of Washington's reputation.

One result came during the previous Iraq crisis in November, when in an unprecedented move Iraq was told by Syria, Egypt, and six Persian Gulf states that it bore "sole responsibility" for any US strikes. Iraq had at the time halted cooperation with UN weapons inspectors, in violation of Security Council resolutions, and even friends such as Russia voiced their disapproval.

But this time violations hinged on a negative report about Iraq's noncompliance by Richard Butler, the UN's chief weapons inspector who Arab and some Western analysts believe is too close to the Americans. This time there was no pan-Arab statement condemning Iraq, just violent street scenes.

Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein portrayed the strikes - as he has done numerous times in the past - as a war against all Arabs and Muslims by non-believing Western powers. But Saddam's troubles may not have been at the top of the agenda of many who were demonstrating in Cairo, holding an anti-US rally in a country that is a longtime American ally and receives some $1.8 billion in US aid a year.

Chance to attack internal situation

President Hosni Mubarak appealed to the US to stop the strikes after protests outside the US Embassy were put down by truncheon-wielding police, but he took no concrete action. "Mubarak called for an end to the strikes because he is not sure if he can control the internal situation inside Egypt," says a Western diplomat here. "It is the opposition in Egypt who have seized on this as a chance to hit at Mubarak. This is not popular support for Iraq."

The risk is the same for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whose US-brokered land-for-peace deal with Israel has been criticized by extremist groups. In the past, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have shown their ability to undermine Mr. Arafat by carrying out suicide attacks. Prior to Clinton's visit, Arafat launched a heavy-handed crackdown.

In Syria, a state that is rigidly controlled by the regime of President Hafez al-Assad, the anti-US demonstrations were even more remarkable. Syrian troops actually took part in the US-led military coalition that ousted Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 1991, and in every previous crisis with Iraq, Damascus has limited its dissent to rhetoric.

In Syria there was a genuine outpouring of anger, some say. But Arab analysts also suggest that the violence - in which protesters scaled the embassy walls and tore down and burned the American flag - was a not-so-subtle message to Washington that the moribund Syria-Israel peace track should once again receive US attention.

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