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Arabs Take Pride in Iraqi Resistance

Images of captured U.S. soldiers are cheered as hopes rise that coalition forces can be defeated.

March 26, 2003|David Lamb | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — From the Arab League to the Arab street, television images of Iraqi resistance and American prisoners of war have drawn cheers. Pictures of four dead U.S. soldiers are circulating on the Internet under the words "About Time." Said a Cairo cabby: "The Iraqis are wonderful. I never dreamed they could do this."

The reaction reflects not only the depth of anger toward the United States -- "America hates us because we are Arabs," college freshman Dina Ahmad said -- but also the pleasure derived from not being witness, at this point anyway, to another Arab military or political failure.

Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of Al Quds Al Arabi, a London-published Arabic newspaper, likened the Iraqis' willingness to fight to Egypt's surprise crossing of the Suez Canal in 1973 to attack Israeli forces. "The Egyptian soldier returned the trust and confidence to all the Arabs by his heroic fight," Atwan wrote this week, not mentioning that Egypt lost the war.

Atwan's analogy to the '73 war may be a reach because military events in Iraq are just beginning to unfold, but in the Middle East perception is often more important than reality. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein's information minister declared victory after three days while Iraqi troops were being pounded. He explained that coalition forces had predicted Iraq could last only two days, so every day after that was a victory.

In the cafes of Beirut, the shopping malls of Saudi Arabia and the hotel lobbies and offices of the United Arab Emirates, huge crowds gather around TVs tuned to one of three Arab satellite networks, usually Qatar-based Al Jazeera, which claims a daily audience of 45 million.

Men -- the presence of women is uncommon -- watch quietly and somberly, seldom showing emotion or commenting to one another as clips from Iraq are followed by those of Israelis fighting Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, as though the two events were one.

"This shows Arabs can stand up and confront America," said an elderly Egyptian puffing on a shisha pipe and sipping Turkish coffee. "What the Iraqis have done makes you feel proud. No one complains that the owner doesn't turn on the soccer matches anymore. The news is all we want to watch."

On Al Jazeera, which has a significant effect on shaping public opinion, the tilt is distinctly pro-Arab, often touching on sensationalism, in comparison with CNN or BBC. It emphasizes not the coalition's advance toward Baghdad, but its pace being slowed by resistance.

When it reports that a farmer with a rifle shot down a U.S. Apache helicopter, people talk about it for days as an example of Arab heroism, not aware that coalition commanders attributed the downing to mechanical problems.

Many Arabs believe that Al Jazeera crossed the line when it showed the four dead U.S. soldiers. "That disgusted me. I turned away," said Soliman Kenawy, editor of Egypt's Akhbar El Sayarat magazine. "It was very un-Islamic because we believe when a man dies, he is part of another universe and deserves respect."

Egyptians also are uncertain how much credence to put in Hussein's promises of victory and are divided over what the outcome of war will be.

In their expressions of sympathy with the Iraqi people, they almost never mention the name of Iraq's president, who is widely reviled as an embarrassment to the Arab world.

"America can never win," said Mohammed Maghrabi, 70, a professor of English at Mansoura University in Cairo. "The Americans are mercenaries. Iraqis fight for a cause, defending their land. It's a Vietnam! Even a peasant managed to shoot down an Apache with his old rifle."

"Before the war," said Wafaa Ezzat, 24, a pharmacist, "I used to say the U.S. will 100% win. I thought it would be a walk in the park. Now it seems there is a chance for the Iraqis. I'd say it's 50-50."

"America is definitely going to win," said Marwa Taha, 35, an economics graduate student. "But it won't be as easy as the war in Afghanistan was."

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