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Middle East: Washington Facing 'Hatred Like Never Before' In Arab World

The United States is facing rising animosity in many parts of the Arab world because of its policies on Israel and Iraq. Far from winning over hearts and minds, analysts say U.S. foreign policy may actually be turning more Muslims against America.

Prague, 27 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- As the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once put it: "A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere."

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, one of America's best friends in the Arab world, seems to agree. Mubarak recently warned the United States that its policies on Iraq and Israel risk inflaming the Islamic world and turning it more than ever against Washington.

"Today, there is a hatred of the Americans like never before in the region," Mubarak bluntly told "Le Monde," a French newspaper. "At the start, some [Arabs] considered the Americans were helping them. There was no hatred of the Americans. After what has happened in Iraq, there is unprecedented hatred, and the Americans know it."

Mubarak's comments have been echoed elsewhere in the Muslim world after U.S. President's George W. Bush's recent embrace of a controversial move by Israel and the ongoing warfare in Iraq between American forces and insurgents, including Sunni, Shi'a, and foreign fighters.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, also an ally in the U.S. war on terrorism, said last weekend that America risks incurring the wrath of the world's 1 billion Muslims with its policies in the Middle East.

Bush set off a Muslim uproar when he came out strongly in support of an Israeli plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip but retain key West Bank settlements. Bush also rejected the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel, given what he called the "new realities on the ground."

Even special UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, the man Bush is hoping can help bolster the U.S. mission in Iraq, had strong words about America's support for Israel.

"What I have said was a statement of fact, not an opinion. What I have said is that the policy of Israel -- not Israel -- is a poison. The policy of Israel is a poison in the region, and [this] is the feeling of everyone in the region and beyond. And I think this is a statement of fact, not an opinion," Brahimi said.

Brahimi has U.S. support for a plan to select an interim Iraqi government to take power from the U.S.-led coalition on 1 July.

While Brahimi's comments may have been partially intended to win Islamic support for his plan, analysts in Muslim countries interviewed by RFE/RL said his statements reflect a new, stronger anti-American dynamic in the region.

Nizar Hamzeh, a professor of politics at Beirut's American University, said fewer and fewer Muslims now appear to view moderation and negotiation as viable tactics.

"The average [Arab] citizen is simply saying that it looks like the Islamic militants -- whether they're Palestinians or Arab Muslims in general -- look to be more right and [that] everybody else who accepted negotiations are wrong," Hamzeh said.

The Arabic press is full of similar opinions.

Kuwaiti sociologist Khaldoun al-Naquib told Egypt's "Al-Ahram" weekly that "jihad" may be the only way for the Muslim world to win what he called its "confrontation" with the West. "In my view," he said, "there is only the way that is being pursued by Hamas and Islamic Jihad."

Lebanon's Clovis Maksud, a former head of the Arab League, told the same newspaper: "[Arabs] are going through a historic dilemma where we have to choose between [hawkish U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul] Wolfowitz and [Pentagon adviser Richard] Perle, and between fundamentalists led by Bush and obscurantists (those opposed to human progress or enlightenment) led by [Al-Qaeda chief Osama] bin Laden."

Former Turkish diplomat Oktay Aksoy, now with Ankara's Foreign Policy Institute, told RFE/RL that, at the very least, U.S. credibility in the region has suffered a major blow.

"If there is progress in Palestine, the opposition in Iraq would not be so much supported by the Arab masses." -- Former Turkish diplomat Oktay Aksoy, now with Ankara's Foreign Policy Institute
“It has got worse,” Aksoy said. “[U.S.] credibility, unfortunately, has lost a lot. Everybody knows that it is the U.S. which can provide some sort of solution to the problems in Palestine and between Israel and Palestine. The stance taken by the Bush administration has unfortunately damaged the neutral position that the Muslim countries would expect of the U.S.”

Muslim perceptions of America's pro-Israeli position were magnified after Washington did not explicitly condemn its latest targeted assassination of a Palestinian militant leader. Although the United States expressed concern over the killing last week of Hamas leader Abdel-Aziz Rantisi, it also supported Israel's right to defend itself.

Moderate Palestinian leaders accused Bush of giving a green light to the killing, a charge Washington vehemently denies.

Afterward, Hamas appeared to take a radical new turn. It stated that, henceforth, it will treat the United States as an enemy on a par with Israel.

Analyst Hamzeh said Washington would be remiss to take the threat lightly, suggesting that Hamas and other radical Palestinian organizations might soon join the ranks of Islamic groups such as Al-Qaeda in targeting U.S. interests.

"With this stage that the region is in, actually, all possibilities are there. Potential operations against the Americans are there. Potential operations against American interests [are] there. In such a sense, one cannot discount such potential or such possibility, and has to watch out for that," Hamzeh said.

Another area of concern is Iraq -- that is, how will the current standoffs between U.S. forces and insurgents in Al-Fallujah and Al-Najaf pan out.

Aksoy said many in the Arab world are rooting for the Iraqi insurgents, whether they are Sunni Muslims in Al-Fallujah or militiamen led by rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the Shi'a holy city of Al-Najaf.

The Turkish analyst said Arab support is fueled, at least in part, by the perception that the United States fully backs Israel against the Palestinians.

"If there is progress in Palestine, the opposition in Iraq would not be so much supported by the Arab masses."

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell warned today that American forces may run out of patience and attack Al-Fallujah, whose insurgents have been compared by some in the Arab media to the fighters from Texas who defended the Alamo -- a 19th-century American battle that became a symbol of courageous resistance.

For now, the United States appears to be taking a different tack in Al-Najaf, likely because it is one of Shi'a Islam's holiest cities.

But Hamzeh said that if heavy fighting should occur in Al-Fallujah or Al-Najaf, with televised images spilling into Muslim living rooms, the damage to America's image in the Islamic world could be massive.

Still, the Lebanese analyst said the damage won't be limited to America. He said it is likely to be felt more strongly closer to home in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia -- American allies whose governments have become prime targets for Islamic militants.

"If you look at basically what's happening in Saudi Arabia, basically what's happening in Jordan, these mini revolts by themselves are indicators that there's a big challenge, actually, to the power of these regimes. Demonstrations even in Egypt on campuses -- the regime's still in control, but again, the question is how long can these [regimes] control their own situation? It's something else to think about," Hamzeh said.