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Arabs wory over extremism while evoking vindication --

By Neil MacFarquhar

Arabs Worry Over Extremism While Evoking Vindication

Published: April 9, 2004

CAIRO, April 8 Some Arabs watching the escalating violence in Iraq expressed fear Thursday that the United States, rather than helping to stamp out extremism, might have created a new, toxic incubator for it, while others expressed satisfaction that the Americans were getting their nose bloodied.


There is an almost universal sense in the Arab world that Washington is paying the price for entering Iraq with no coherent plan beyond toppling Saddam Hussein, and that the anarchy they allowed to run unchecked in the first days of occupation a year ago has never really been tamed.

"Iraq appears to be disintegrating, and the Iraqis are not better off today than they were before the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime," said Mohammed Kamal, a professor of political science at Cairo University. "The Americans don't have a plan on how to get out of this mess that they put themselves in."

Most Arab governments, especially those enjoying close ties with Washington, maintained a studied silence on Iraq, trying to avoid either alienating the Bush administration or fomenting anger at home. There was a scattering of official statements, including one from the Arab League, calling for a greater United Nations role in restructuring Iraq and protecting its civilians.

"The developments in Iraq in the last few days are alarming, and we fear that we are facing a civil war in Iraq, reminding me of what happened in Afghanistan and Lebanon," said the foreign minister of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, one of the few to speak out. "We are worried about the cluster of resistance and terrorist organizations in Iraq, which has become a fertile ground for these people to implement their extremist ideology."

Arab news reports tended to concentrate more on events in Falluja than events in the Shiite community. "Falluja Is Burning" said a huge red headline in the Egyptian newspaper Al Ahrar, while Al Wafd, an opposition daily, screamed: "A Massacre Against Muslims in Falluja."

Many commentators drew parallels between Israeli repression in the occupied territories and its failure to pacify the Palestinians after more than three decades and United States actions in Iraq. Indeed, there have been frequent accusations that the Bush administration is mistakenly following the Israeli model.

"I don't think the Americans can achieve what they want by force, and it is the same phenomenon in Israel," said Abdulwahab Badrakhan, a columnist at Al-Hayat newspaper, published in London. "The Americans made a mistake when they did not involve the Arabs in the situation."

There is widespread concern that the violence will further inflame existing divisions in Iraq, which could easily provoke similar ethnic or religious schisms in neighboring states.

Among critics of the United States, and they are legion, there was satisfaction that chances are growing more remote by the day that Iraq will serve as a model that would eventually reshape the region. There is a sense that Syria and Iran are off the hook, while on a broader scale the violence is further undermining Washington's credibility and making Americans ever more unpopular.

"Freedom, democracy, the rule of law and other such promises have been transformed in the occupation's lexicon into violations, invasions, sieges, curfews, bombardments from Apache helicopters and the terrorization of a people," the daily Al Khaleej in the United Arab Emirates wrote in a typical editorial.

Few expect any improvement. "Thank God that the American administration is too stupid to win the Iraqis over," said Montasser Zayat, an Islamist lawyer in Cairo. "On the contrary, they create feelings of frustration and commit more mistakes, leading more Iraqis to rise against them."

There have been few demonstrations in the Arab world, which some analysts took as a sign of general satisfaction that Washington is in trouble and the resistance succeeding.

Among the Arab world's majority Sunni Muslim population, there is less of an emotional connection with the Iraqi Shiites, who are generally seen as an extension of Iran, analysts said. Also, the fiery young cleric who is leading the Shiite uprising, Moktada al-Sadr, is an unknown quantity.

The exception is the Shiite communities in Lebanon and the Persian Gulf, which evidently pay close attention to their brethren in Iraq.

The top Shiite cleric in Lebanon, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, once the Americans' nemesis there, condemned the "horrible massacres" by the United States in Iraq, saying they proved that Washington is lying when it says its goal is bringing freedom. At the same time, he called for self-restraint by Iraqis.

In Tehran, an editorial in the English-language Tehran Times, often used to send messages abroad, said the United States should be working more closely with moderate clerics to defuse the situation.

The wider Shiite populations worried that Mr. Sadr and his followers, who have little support outside Iraq, will divide the community and wreck the Shiite's historic opportunity to gain a dominant role. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who enjoys wide respect outside Iraq, has been biding his time, figuring that a democratic system will gain the Shiites effective control, given their majority status.

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