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Iraq: Mood Still Wary In The Arab World After The Toppling Of Hussein

Before the war in Iraq, public opinion across the Arab world was overwhelmingly opposed to a U.S.-led military intervention. What is the mood like now that Saddam Hussein's regime has been overthrown and U.S. forces occupy Baghdad?

Prague, 17 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- According to political analysts in the Arab world, most people in the region have experienced a rollercoaster of emotions in the past month.

As the United States prepared to lead a military operation to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, the overwhelming majority of people in the Arab world signaled their strong opposition. Tens of thousands of them publicly expressed their feelings in noisy demonstrations.

After the start of the conflict, as U.S. forces appeared to get bogged down in southern Iraq and Iraqi resistance was greater than anticipated, many in the region cheered, seeing the Iraqis as redeemers of Arab valor in the face of overwhelming odds.

It was the raw emotion of a people that has long seen itself as the underdog, as Muhammed El-Said Said, deputy director of the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, explains. "In the Arab world, a negative self-image [has] prevailed for a long while and now, when the resistance was tough and high, people felt more or less rehabilitated from the inside. People felt that the Iraqi resistance liberated them from this very negative self-image."

The subsequent collapse of Iraqi defenses and the U.S.-led roll into Baghdad and the rest of Iraq transformed that euphoria into bitter disappointment, even humiliation.

Hani Hourani, founder and director of the Al-Urdun Al-Jadid Research Center, an independent think tank in Amman, told RFE/RL that two emotions now prevail in Jordan. The first is fear that Washington's war of words with Syria could escalate into another armed intervention.

"People worry that the next step could be against Syria. This is the issue that is dominating discussions among people. They are worried and they feel that it is too much, from their point of view, after Iraq to target Syria," Hourani said.

The second emotion that prevails in Jordan is confusion laced with cynicism. Many people are reluctant to believe that Iraq's defenses suddenly crumbled, after what appeared to be tough resistance in the first days of the war. They point to the disappearance of most of Iraq's political and military leadership and wonder if there was more than meets the eye in the apparent U.S. military victory.

"They believe that there is a kind of deal, a kind of conspiracy, something hidden because they don't know where the leadership of the Iraqi regime has gone. Where are the high-rank officers, where are the people who were at the top of the regime?" Hourani said.

Most people in the region were aware of the repressive nature of Saddam's regime, and in this sense welcome his downfall. But questions about what has happened to the leadership -- combined with horror at the scenes of chaos and civilian deaths in Iraq as well as deep skepticism about what drives the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush -- all form public opinion in Jordan and other Arab countries.

"People believe that he [Bush] is not inspired by the values of democracy, but that he is inspired by imperialist ideas -- the interests of big oil companies, by religious motives, by many things, but not democracy. For me, I can't believe that [U.S. Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld or Bush are fighting [for democracy] or eager to do all these things for democracy in our countries. It is only naive people who believe that," Hourani said.

Does the United States, then, have any chance at changing negative perceptions and improving its image in the Arab world in the aftermath of the Iraq war? Said said Washington does have an opportunity, but it all hinges on deft diplomacy: "There is some understanding among certain sectors of the intellectual community for this action [in Iraq]. But of course, at the broad popular level, the rejection was much more pronounced. Now, if the United States manages to do it right, I believe that there could be a case for persuasion and for a shift in the public mood. But then you have to define how the United States would 'do it right.'"

'Doing it right,' according to Said, means involving the United Nations -- early on -- in helping to form an interim political administration that will pave the way for elections. It also means ensuring the broad distribution of reconstruction contracts to other than U.S. firms. Otherwise, he said, Arabs will have their views confirmed that the United States is acting as a greedy, colonial power and the battle for "hearts and minds" will have been lost.

"If you leave it entirely in the hands of the United States, you can hardly rule out manipulation and impositions and of course, in such cases, you leave great room for continued cynicism on the actual motives and purposes for the invasion, including the question of oil, political domination, and serving the strategic interests of Israel," Said said.

Said noted that early signs are not encouraging, as self-proclaimed leaders are beginning to emerge on the Iraqi political scene -- many of them with the help of the United States, but little grassroots support.

"We see people who were chosen arbitrarily because they were in the opposition or because they were tribal chiefs or they had some kind of status in relation to this invasion. Those who supported the invasion or declared early loyalty to the American military. And the Nasiriyah meeting [this week] was something very close to that," Said said.

Regardless of what happens in Iraq, experts in the Arab world almost universally agree that the United States, if it is to retain any admirers in the region, must without delay publish the so-called "roadmap" for Middle East peace and work toward the establishment of a Palestinian state. To many in the Arab world, the Bush administration got its priorities wrong. Had it addressed the grievances of the Palestinians first, Said said, it would likely have gained quite a measure of popular support for removing Saddam Hussein from power. As it is, earning the Arab world's trust will be much more difficult.