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WAR WITH IRAQ / MUSLIM REACTION

Muslims' Condemnation of U.S.-Led Attack Is Muted

Around the world, they call for solidarity with the Iraqis. But at the same time, they appear to distance themselves from Saddam Hussein.

March 21, 2003|David Lamb | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — From Indonesia to Egypt, the Muslim world reacted to the U.S.-led strike on Iraq on Thursday with widespread condemnation, scattered demonstrations and a few calls for holy war, but the response was generally muted.

While virtually no one spoke in defense of the attack and many called for solidarity with the Iraqi people, one name was curiously absent from official communiques and in casual conversations -- that of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who tried to rally Muslim and Arab support by portraying himself as the defender of Islam and the Palestinians in a nationally televised address to his people.

"I think Saddam Hussein is a burned-out figure," said Hisham Kassem, publisher of the Cairo Times and chairman of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. "For me, there's nothing genuine about him, including that speech. No one believes him, especially when he's talking about Islam and the Palestinians."

Brushing aside Hussein's claim in a televised speech early Thursday that his adversaries were "infidels" and "enemies of Islam," Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak cited the need for Arab unity to bring peace. Mubarak urged Iraq to disarm, saying its 1990 invasion of Kuwait led to regional security problems. He never mentioned Hussein by name, which diplomats interpreted as a snub.

Like many Muslim leaders, especially Arabs, Mubarak has tried to balance his desire to see Hussein unseated with his realization that appearing supportive of an American-led war would generate anger among his people. Shortly after the early-morning airstrikes on Baghdad, Egypt's satellite TV channel aired footage of Hussein's gassing of Iraqi Kurds before the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The most unruly demonstration was in Cairo, where about 1,000 students hoisted an Iraqi flag near the U.S. Embassy, threw stones and clashed with police as they spilled out of the American University campus and charged to Tahir Square -- the heart of this teeming capital of 10 million residents.

Construction crews and office workers watched the demonstrators but made no attempt to join the protest and responded with neither encouragement nor animosity. Western diplomats said the fact that the war had started with a limited, rather than all-out, attack had probably defused some of the passions on the streets.

"It is a sad day for all Arabs," Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa said in a brief statement. "It is sad that an Arab nation and people are coming under a military attack that does not take into consideration the civilians. We are very sorry and angry."

The outcry in Muslim countries was more restrained than in other parts of the world, including some of the United States' long-standing allies. Demonstrators thronged the streets of London, Berlin, Paris, Sydney, Australia, and Seville, Spain, denouncing Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, there was also little support for Hussein himself.

Ihsan Ali Buhulaiga, a Saudi economist and member of the crown prince's advisory council, likened Hussein to a yellow leaf on a tree. "It will just drop," he said. "Just give it a little more time. Sometimes you don't have to use an elephant to kill an ant."

The economist said he believes Hussein's popularity has plummeted since the Gulf War years ago because Arabs saw through his "Robin Hood" claim that he was invading Kuwait to use the country's oil dollars for the betterment of all Arabs.

In Kuwait, in marked contrast to much of the rest of the Arab world, people expressed near unanimous support Thursday for the start of fighting.

"We're convinced and completely behind the American administration," said government retiree Easa Khuder. "Bush gave him a lot of time and warned him to leave. If he doesn't listen to the U.S., he has to go."

Among the few places where Hussein garners support is the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. There, Palestinians, who feel their Arab brothers and the world at large ignore their plight, applaud the Iraqi president's anti-Israeli rhetoric and admire his stand against the United States.

In the Jordanian village of Safawi, the mood was also strongly pro-Hussein.

Shopkeepers had their television sets tuned to Iraqi stations, where a program that showed Saddam's face superimposed on a green landscape in one shot and a desert castle in another, played over and over. "Saddam is a great man, a great Arab leader," said one shopkeeper, who declined to give his name.

Though there were some anti-American protests in non-Arab Muslim nations, most were small.

In Indonesia, for example, the world's most populous Muslim country, about 2,000 demonstrators staged a noisy rally outside the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, carrying signs that read, "Wanted: Bush, President of America, Criminal Against Humanity." One speaker told the crowd, "This isn't democracy but demo-crazy."

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