The battle on Arab street


Saddam’s stature among ordinary Arabs grows each day that he survives the war while anger against America heightens

THE United States is facing a new fight that is away from the battlefield – on the Arab street.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s stature in the Arab world grows with every day that he survives the war.

Veteran Middle East expert Mustafa Hamarneh, head of the Centre for Strategic Studies at University of Jordan, said that the situation was a replay of what happened in the 1991 Gulf war.

He told The Straits Times: ‘Each day the Americans throw their best punches at him and leave him standing, Saddam’s prestige among ordinary Arabs grows.’

On Arab television, from North Africa to the Middle East, dramatic ‘live’ pictures of the damage caused by the coalition’s bombing of Baghdad and other Iraq cities have helped fan anti-American feelings.

Mr Saddam’s rhetorical and material support for the Palestinian uprising and a series of blunders by the American military on the war front have not helped matters.

For example, five people were killed when the US accidentally bombed a bus carrying Syrian civilians who were trying to flee Iraq for Damascus last week.

The bus, the Pentagon said, was near a military base and the bomb was launched before the pilots saw the civilian bus. Following this, four Jordanian students were also killed by missile strikes in north Iraq.

Fuelled by reports in the Arab media, thousands of people in Iran, Yemen, Egypt, Syria and Jordan have taken to the streets over the last week to demonstrate against the US attacks against Iraq.

Professor Diad Makhadmed, a political scientist at the University of Jordan, said: ‘Before the war, Saddam was not exactly a well-liked figure in the region. Now, the man in the street sees him as someone who has the guts to stand up to the Americans.

‘The perception now is that Saddam is telling the truth and the Americans are not. There are two sides of the story but the Arabs are intent on only believing what their media tells them.’

The nightmare scenario for many countries in the region is a drawn-out war in which a defiant Mr Saddam in Baghdad resists the American onslaught as Al-Jazeera broadcasts reports about the hungry and frightened residents.

Having failed to win backing from United Nations Security Council members for a war, the US has risked driving a wedge between Arab countries and weakening its own support base.

The final communique in Cairo earlier this week after the Arab League meeting registered antipathy to US military action against Iraq but stopped short of condemning Washington, given the security and financial interests of several Arab states.

Arab leaders wanted to convince their people they were trying to stop the war, even if they were offering the US covert or overt assistance, which ranges from access to military facilities to free aviation fuel and passage through the Suez Canal.

The resolution was passed without Kuwait and Qatar – two of the staunchest supporters of the US.

Much to the anger of some Arab countries, Kuwait plays host to the bulk of the US and British ground invasion force. A third of Kuwait has been effectively sealed off by the military.

The same goes for Qatar, which has allowed the US to set up its Central Command in Doha.

While some governments are openly pro-US, others are pro-Saddam, especially in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

Analysts said that the greatest danger for the pro-US countries is that the humiliation of an Arab leader at the hands of ‘infidels’ will fuel religious extremism among the ordinary people.

As one Arab official noted: ‘It will heighten Islamic nationalism throughout the Arab world. The irony is that Saddam is an opportunist who uses religion only when it is expedient.’

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