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To Many Arabs, the U.S. and U.N. Are One Entity

The invasion of Iraq put the world body in danger by rendering it irrelevant, some argue. 'Didn't they see it coming?' asks one.

August 21, 2003|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

AMMAN, Jordan — The silence said the most: Aside from a chorus of official sympathy and condemnations, the devastation of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad drew barely a shiver on the Arab street and in the Middle Eastern media Wednesday.

In a shift made blazingly clear with the bombing, the United Nations' status has become so thoroughly degraded in the Arab world that many people here no longer draw a distinction between the international body and the United States. It has long been criticized as puny and has traditionally been mistrusted in these parts, but the U.N.'s inability to stop the war in Iraq has sowed new seeds of resentment.

"Didn't they see it coming?" Mohsen Farouk, a 36-year-old carpenter from Cairo, demanded. He decried the deaths of innocent people but insisted that nobody should be surprised. "It was just a matter of time," he said. "The U.N. is just a puppet of the U.S., and anyone who is angry with the U.S. is likely to consider the U.N. a target."

The hard-line Iranian newspaper Kayhan was even blunter. A front-page headline Wednesday read, "Destruction and Killing the Result of Bush's Policies in Iraq."

Throughout the Arab world and Iran, the bombing was chalked up -- tacitly or explicitly, depending on who was talking -- to a blundering U.S. occupation, an organic outgrowth of the untenable instability in Iraq. Moreover, many Arabs argued, the U.S. invasion endangered the United Nations by rendering it irrelevant.

"There has been resentment simply because the U.N. became a tool in the hands of superpowers," said Hasan abu Nimah, a longtime Jordanian diplomat and former representative to the U.N.

The power wielded by the U.S. at the United Nations has long stoked anger in much of the Middle East. The Arab world has seethed whenever Washington used its U.N. veto -- as it has done with some frequency -- to quash efforts to send international observers into the Palestinian territories or halt the construction of Israeli settlements.

"The U.S. is so powerful and the U.N. is so weak," said Mishary Nuaim, a political analyst at Saudi Arabia's King Saud University. "Nobody can do anything to stop the U.S."

But in a region that scorns weakness, the United Nations sank to new depths in public opinion when the United States invaded Iraq without the international body's approval.

"There's a widespread feeling that the Americans were lazy in protecting the United Nations. Perhaps they've done it on purpose. Now it has been proven to the Arabs that it is a weak instrument," said George Jabbour, a Syrian political scientist. "It was assassinated twice -- first when the U.S. went to war without a decision from the Security Council, and again yesterday."

When the U.N. entered Iraq after the war, some neighboring countries decried the move as lending a whiff of U.N. legitimacy to an unjust occupation. To critics, the world body appeared to endorse the controversial U.S.-led administration of Iraq.

"The U.N. did nothing for the Iraqis during the war," said Mohammed Hindawi, a 32-year-old engineer in Cairo. "They arrived in Baghdad when the coast was clear. People expected the U.N.'s support, and they didn't get it. It's payback time."

At a cafe in Cairo's leafy Zamalek district, where the drone of Al Jazeera television mingled with the clatter of conversation, a table full of men erupted in protest at the mere suggestion that the U.N. and the U.S. are two distinct bodies.

"The U.N. is just a screen for the U.S. -- it lost all credibility during the war," said Ahmed Dafran, a 60-year-old retired cabdriver. "The Iraqis haven't had time to breathe since the war and haven't got their heads around what's happened. All they see is a stream of foreign bodies coming in and telling them what's good for them."

Although some Arab governments supported the war, most of the Arab street was bitterly opposed to it from the outset -- and has interpreted the chaos of the occupation as confirmation of its worst fears.

In their political rhetoric, Arab countries have dealt uncomfortably with the occupation. A deeply divided Arab League decided this month not to grant a seat to the new Iraqi Governing Council. It wasn't an elected government, members explained, although it was a step in the right direction.

Beneath the criticism, analysts say, neighbors are gulping against the fear of what might happen if the United States eventually became so bloodied it pulled its troops from Iraq.

"We're now entering a dangerous phase, and there's an understanding that if the United States should leave Iraq, there would be chaos and it could engulf them," said Michael Young, a political analyst in Beirut. "So even though publicly there may be talk of ending the occupation, privately they understand the U.S. has to stay."

Still, many mainstream Arabs draw a certain quiet satisfaction from the stream of guerrilla attacks on U.S. soldiers, said Abu Nimah, the Jordanian diplomat.

"They didn't support the war, and they don't support the occupation," he said. "And they don't want to make the life of the occupiers easy."

Times staff writer Azadeh Moaveni in Tehran and Jailan Zayan in The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.

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