US show of force galls Arab world

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

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.

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.

"This is a sharp lesson for Russia's military establishment," he says.

"The Iraqi Army was a replica of the Russian Army, and its easy defeat was not predicted by our generals. Today they are in denial ... but this will strengthen the case of reformers who say we must start thinking about modern armed forces."

One bright spot for Moscow, however, is a report that Iraqi forces used Russian-made Kornet laser-guided antitank missiles to destroy several Abrams tanks during the fighting. This has excited Russian arms manufacturers, who are already receiving inquiries from Syria and Iran, according to Mr. Shlyikov.

Syria fears it could have reason to need such weapons, in the wake of veiled threats from US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who has accused Damascus of aiding the Iraqi government during the war, and of sheltering senior regime figures.

Cowboy image

"We are concerned about American threats because we are dealing with a cowboy, who looks not for the truth but for how many guns he has," says Professor Shukri. "But the Iraqis were vulnerable because they made mistakes. It would be hard to justify this sort of policy in any other country."

Some radical Islamists in Pakistan accuse President Bush of having already found a justification.

"The enemy of Islam, Bush, has already drawn the lines between the Islamic world and the Christian world," warns Hafiz Hussein Ahmed, a senior Muslim cleric in Islamabad. "With the fall of Baghdad, the danger for the Islamic world has increased."

Moderate leaders across the Muslim world are anxious for America to help undercut that kind of talk by quickly handing over power in Iraq to a local government. That would disprove widespread allegations that the US is a new colonial power in the Middle East.

President Mubarak, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal and Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher all used almost identical language Wednesday to call for a speedy transition from US occupation to a new Iraqi government.

European leaders have taken a similar stance, urging that the United Nations be given a key role in Iraq's political future, and not just in humanitarian aid, as US officials have proposed.

"The United Nations must play a central role in the process of bringing peace and stabilization that is now beginning," German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder argued Wednesday.

France, which along with Russia and Germany, had opposed the US-led war in Iraq, hailed the fall of Hussein's regime, with Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin adding, "We have always been in the camp of democracies against that of dictators." President Jacques Chirac stressed that full sovereignty must be returned to Iraq as soon as possible "with the legitimacy of the United Nations."

However Iraq's political future is arranged, it will do little to salve the wounds of humiliation so widely felt in the Arab world at the scenes broadcast this week from Baghdad.

But some observers in the region hope that the images might shock ordinary Arabs into rethinking why they feel so humiliated.

"Since losing the war with Israel in 1967, a major defeat, Arab countries have swept their real problems under the carpet and always blamed their troubles on others," says Dr. Bishara.

"Thursday, that came back to haunt us," he adds. "What was defeated in Baghdad was a whole culture of denial."

Samir Ragab, editor of the Cairo daily Al-Gomhuriya, concurs, even though he had been urging guerrilla warfare against US troops in Iraq for weeks.

"Those fond of threadbare rhetoric and hollow slogans should learn a lesson from the harrowing events of the past 20 days," he says now.

But the widespread sense of confusion and anger in the Arab world this weekend could harbor the seeds of greater violence, some political figures are warning.

"This war will have larger consequences," says Nabil Osman, Mubarak's spokesman. "We will see more terrorism and violence here."

Ways to build goodwill

One way America can defuse that, says Mr Maeena, is to make a new and serious effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has persisted for half a century and poisoned Arab views of the US.

Victory in Iraq will give the US administration "a golden chance to show its good intentions," al-Maeena believes.

The other path to regional stability, America's friends are telling Washington, is through a prosperous and democratic Iraq whose citizens are demonstrably delighted by their new fate.

The magnitude of that challenge is clear.

"The real task is ahead," says Dr. Khalida Ghaus, who teaches politics at Karachi University in Pakistan.

"Saddam's shoes and broken legs are still hanging on the square in Baghdad. He has left his footprints."

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