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Arabs Swell With Pride as Iraqis Hold Out

Many in Mideast cheer as their neighbor resists what is seen as a colonial invasion. A farmer credited with downing a U.S. copter is lionized.

March 28, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

DOHA, Qatar — The new face of Arab pride is Ali Obeid, a toothless farmer who is being hailed by Iraqi authorities as the man who brought down an American Apache helicopter with nothing more than his vintage bolt-action rifle.

Never mind that Obeid, who looks to be in his 60s, with gray whiskers and a checked kaffiyeh, probably did not actually shoot the Apache. He is a symbol.

Around the Arab world, the U.S.-led war on Iraq is seen as a colonial invasion. A war that to many American minds is a moral fight to oust a dangerous tyrant is fueling a new wave of pride and patriotism for many Arabs.

Iraqis living outside the country are attempting to return to help resist. News of each American setback is greeted with cheers in cafes and smoking parlors. Callers to phone-in television programs exult in "Bush's Vietnam." Among the Western-educated elite, cell-phone text messages express outrage and solidarity.

And Obeid, the rifle-toting farmer, is a household name.

Arabs see these facts: Despite Bush administration assurances that the war would be swift, and Iraqis would welcome the invaders with roses, fighting has entered a second week. Baghdad has not fallen, Saddam Hussein is possibly still alive, and resistance has been fierce. In fact, Iraq's tiny, disheveled port town of Umm al Qasr, close to U.S.-friendly Kuwait, was holding out days after the Pentagon declared it liberated.

"Suddenly, little David is challenging big Goliath," said Abdel Bari Atwan, a preeminent commentator on Arab affairs. "OK, David is a ruthless, brutal dictator, but he's surviving and giving it a go.

"For the first time, I'm hearing one huge "alhamdullah [Praise God!]."

For Arabs, an important psychological barrier has been breached. The notion of American invincibility has been shattered. Initially resigned to witnessing another humiliating occupation of another Arab land by yet another foreign power, Arabs instead view events with a kind of osmotic excitement.

Indeed, the fact that the war has already lasted as long as it has is seen by some Arabs as a victory. Israel's historic defeat of multiple Arab nations in 1967 took only six days.

Arabs refer to it as being steadfast, using a verb form, yasmud, "to steadfast." It means to endure, and many Arabs see themselves as experts at it.

"To steadfast for seven days, and to see that the Americans now have POWs and that their sophisticated technology is failing, is a huge moral boost, for a people [who have] been humiliated by defeat after defeat," said Atwan, who edits the Al-Quds al Arabi newspaper in London.

It's not love for Saddam Hussein. Many Arabs, from the wealthy Persian Gulf to the teeming streets of Cairo, hate him. But they hate American policy even more.

In Amman, the Jordanian capital, a traditional jumping-off point for entry into Iraq, Iraqi citizens thronged their embassy this week demanding documents to return home. Embassy officials say they have issued 3,100 visas since the beginning of the war to Iraqis who wanted to return.

"Everyone is leaving," Mohammed Jassam Abbas, who runs a small cafe in downtown Amman, said with a touch of hyperbole. "After tomorrow, I will close this restaurant and leave."

In contrast to the expressions of support for Hussein that are often heard among Iraqis, he carefully avoided saying anything about the Iraqi president. His desire to return, it seemed, had little to do with Hussein and everything to do with loyalty to his country.

"I am going back to defend the Iraqi people, to defend the old women of Iraq, the old men of Iraq, the land of Iraq," said the 33-year-old Shiite. "Do you allow someone to enter your home and force you out of it? They have put up the American flag in Umm Qasr -- this is not liberation, this is occupation."

In Doha, capital of the gulf emirate of Qatar and headquarters to the U.S. military's war effort in Iraq, Maher Abdullah hosts a popular television program on the Qatar-based Al Jazeera network. He feels strongly feels the war is wrong that he left this week for Baghdad -- even though getting there means braving a battlefield.

Abdullah, 44 and a father of two daughters, gave professional reasons as his motivation -- he intends to broadcast for Al Jazeera once there -- but said he is also driven by a need to show solidarity.

American policy is seen in this part of the world as arrogant, hypocritical and overly influenced by Israel to the detriment of the Palestinians.

Because the Bush administration has failed, in the Arab view, to condemn Israeli abuses of Palestinians, it has no moral authority to condemn the abuses of another nation, even one as egregious as Hussein's Iraq.

Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland, surveyed public opinion in six Arab states with close U.S. ties in the weeks just before the war. He said he had never found popular disdain for American policies to be greater.

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