Region Responds to Conflict

Images of Iraqis welcoming US troops are matched by concern among neighbours, even in Israel, over the long-term impact of the war.

Region Responds to Conflict

Images of Iraqis welcoming US troops are matched by concern among neighbours, even in Israel, over the long-term impact of the war.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

In Safwan, the first town captured by British and American forces on their march into southern Iraq, jubilant Shia Mulsims sang and danced, kissed their "liberators" and offered them food and water. They tore down posters of President Saddam Hussein and, jumping on them, cried: "Saddam, your days are numbered!"

Iraqi Shias contacted by telephone in Baghdad as they waited for a third night of bombardment said they too were "very happy" at the news of the capture of Safwan. They hoped it would soon be the turn of Baghdad. Outside Baghdad, and outside the range of television cameras, it was impossible to gauge Iraqi reaction to the Anglo-American advance: while it was possible to contact the capital, there was no communication with other major Iraqi towns - either from Baghdad or from outside the country.

In the Arab world, the Anglo-American war to change the regime in Iraq was more generally portrayed as the third great calamity of the century, comparable in its likely consequences with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

"Today, as then, we can point to three aspects of the process of change that is especially troubling from an Arab perspective," Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper said in a front-page editorial. "The major driving force for change comes from outside this region, the Arab people seem to have very little if any impact on the course of events that will define their future, and few if any people in this region have any idea of what is to come."

Some, however, believe they do. They predict that US forces will have no trouble winning the war but will forfeit the peace, just as Israel did after its invasion of Lebanon. Indeed, the television footage of Iraqi Shias welcoming the Anglo-American force liberating them from Saddam was eerily reminiscent of the scenes of Lebanese Shias welcoming the Israelis who drove the Palestine Liberation Organisation out of Lebanon in 1982.

Sheikh Naim Qassem, deputy secretary general of Lebanon's Hezbollah party, spoke for many in the Arab world when he told a seminar in Beirut the Iraq war was driven by Washington's regional ambitions to re-write the political map of the Middle East and, in so doing, to control its oil.

"Iraq represents an essential key to unlock the potential Washington is pursuing," Qassem said. "The United States will easily win the war in Iraq because of its superior military arsenal. But it will lose the war, politically, socially and economically because of its unilateral action that is spurring resistance all around the world."

The second US-led war in Iraq in 12 years drew unusual points of agreement between Arabs and Israelis.

"Why Iraq? Why now? Why by war?" the daily Yediot Ahronot asked editorially. "After all, most of the world sees Saddam Hussein as someone who is not worth the effort, a washed-up dictator of limited powers who is no longer a threat to the welfare of the world, or its stability."

The paper recalled Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's confident assertion that there was only a 1 per cent chance Israel would be come under attack.

Yediot Ahronot said the massive cost and scope of the war would be justified only if Saddam Hussein's army collapsed "like a pack of cards", if the people of Baghdad welcomed the Anglo-American forces with "joy" and if weapons of mass destruction were quickly found.

Otherwise, the paper said, "the credibility of the Bush administration will be mortally wounded, America will withdraw into a mood of soul searching, and the picture of American soldiers killing Arab soldiers to no good purpose will be everlastingly and shamefully etched in the national and religious consciousness of the Middle East."

Julie Flint, a long-time correspondent from the Middle East and a former IWPR trustee, is coordinating editor of the Iraqi Crisis Report.

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