Arab view dims on Iraq rebels

Insurgent tactics are drawing rebukes from the Arab world.

More than a year and a half after the US invasion of Iraq, popular support in the Arab world for the insurgents is softening - somewhat.

With images of civilian casualties from US airstrikes set against insurgent slayings of unarmed Iraqi police and civilians, Arabs and the Arab media are increasingly struggling with the question of how far to support an insurgency that sometimes uses tactics they feel are immoral.

Conversations with ordinary people, intellectuals, and politicians illustrate that clearer lines are being drawn in people's minds between what is seen as "legitimate" and "illegitimate" resistance.

"People are coming ... to grips with complicated realities,'' says Abdel Moneim Said, director of Egypt's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "We can't deal with the emergence of groups like the ones who bombed Taba here in Egypt until we understand that some of these so-called resistance groups are intrinsically evil."

Egyptian militants killed 34 people in attacks on Taba, popular with Israeli tourists, and a nearby campsite on Oct. 7.

Mr. Said says that while most still see the US invasion and occupation of Iraq in stark terms, there is a growing number of regional thinkers who are also looking at the chaos of postinvasion Iraq as a partial consequence of Saddam Hussein's divide-and-rule policies and seeing some of the problems of pre-invasion Iraq reflected in their own societies.

"After three, four decades of independence we're coming to see that not all of our problems are generated from the outside," says Said. "Gradually Arab countries see it's not only independence versus occupation, it's also freedom, development, and progress or the lack of progress. We can see our societies are not what we'd like them to be."

When the US invasion began, a fairly one-dimensional view of the war's actors was held by most in the region, with its history of interventions by Western powers. Like an American western with a Mesopotamian twist, the Arab media scripted the war as the checkered headscarves of the insurgents (the white hats) against the Kevlar helmets of US airborne, infantry, and Marines (the black).

But among the events that have created doubts in some Arab minds have been the videotaped beheadings of a number of foreign contractors, the executions of 49 unarmed Iraqi military trainees last week, and the kidnapping of aid-worker Margaret Hassan, an Iraqi citizen and critic of the US invasion.

Doubts about the 'good guys'

The US remains the principal "bad guy," but the realities of an ugly war are leading to a more ambivalent attitudes towards the insurgency.

Even Lebanon's Hizbullah, a Shiite Islamist group that Washington says is a terrorist organization, has criticized the extremists. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah's secretary-general, said recently: "Indiscriminate and arbitrary acts are not resistance. The true resistance should protect its people and not kill them."

"In general the Arab people are with the Iraqi resistance,'' says Ahmed Sheikh, editor in chief of Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite channel that has often been criticized by US officials. "But the feedback we get is that people are very opposed to attacks like the killings of the 49 Iraqis. People know they're trying to feed their families and say it's haram [forbidden]. Attacks on US forces, though, are seen differently."

In Lebanon and Syria, among the most vocal opponents of the invasion, anger at the US remains high but is tempered by a growing sense of disgust at the brutal tactics of some insurgent groups.

"Arabs are differentiating between the legitimate resistance against foreign military occupation troops and unacceptable terrorism that is killing Iraqis or innocent foreigners," says Rami Khouri, executive editor of Beirut's English-language Daily Star newspaper. "The differentiation is very clear and very vocal."

"We abhor taking hostages, particularly women and children, and we abhor killing hostages. It's against our values, whether we are Muslims or Christians," says Mohammed Aziz Shucri, professor of international law at Damascus University. Professor Shucri says resistance attacks should be confined only to foreign troops. "Attacking civilians is not resistance against occupation."

Chibli Mallat, professor of international law at Beirut's St. Joseph University, says that public perception of the resistance in Iraq "has always been nuanced between supporting genuine acts of resistance as opposed to the killing of civilians." But recently, and somewhat surprisingly, Mr. Mallat says this distinction has come to be made by stridently anti-American groups. "Some of them have been on record recently saying this is totally unacceptable," he says.

US critics also rethink

One of them is Salim Hoss, a former Lebanese prime minister, who is a staunch critic of US Mideast policy.

On Tuesday he wrote in Lebanon's leading daily An-Nahar that some militants in Iraq are defiling the name of Islam. "Islam is a religion of forgiveness," Mr. Hoss wrote. "People should not kill others in the name of Islam because they don't know how much it hurts all Muslims."

"America is an illegal occupier, but I abhor the inhuman tactics some of these groups use," he said in a phone interview.

To be sure, there are still almost daily pictures of injured Iraqi women and children hurt in US bombings, and for many, those imagines trump any excesses by groups like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad.

Images on TV

And while big regional newspapers like Al-Sharq Al-Awsat and Al-Hayat were careful to point out that the 49 young Iraqi soldiers were unarmed and executed, much of the daily press in Egypt, for instance, created the impression that they were killed in a shootout.

"Many Saudis pretend that Zarqawi is an imaginary figure because they don't like a lot of what's attributed to him,'' says Mshari al-Thaidi, who writes for Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, which is published in London. "They don't want to pollute the image of the resistance, so they pretend he doesn't exist. They claim he's a figure created by the C.I.A."

"It's painful for people,'' says Al-Ahram's Said. "Even in the Ramadan evening talks among my family, there's a kind of annoyance and denunciation of the brutality, but they want to go over it quickly and get to talking about Palestine and America's failings in Iraq."

And though public opinion is drifting in a more critical direction, few expect it to have any impact on car bombings and kidnappings inside Iraq any time soon.

Radical Islamists in Iraq "are not in the game of winning popular approval for their actions," says the Daily Star's Mr. Khouri. "These are not people after audience share. They don't expect to get elected to office. The reality is that they don't care and they are operating on a different plane from the rest of the society."

Reporter Faiza Saleh Ambah contributed from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

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