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Mideast shaking its head

Bush sees a regional solution in his plan for Iraq. But Arab states say the problem is the U.S.

January 12, 2007|Megan K. Stack and Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writers

CAIRO — In ordering more American troops into Iraq, President Bush said he was sending a message of hope to millions of Arabs and Afghans trapped in violence. But to many on the ground in the Mideast, the speech spoke volumes of a gaping disconnect between high-flown U.S. promises and a deadly, turbulent reality.

After long years of war and political disillusionment, Bush would have been hard-pressed to come up with any message that would please the Arab world. Analysts say public opinion of the United States has sunk to an unprecedented low, with no end in sight to the bloodletting in Iraq or the Palestinian territories.

Many here, long mired in bloodshed and sinking deeper into sectarian tensions, hold America squarely to blame for both.

Rather than sowing political progress, they say, the U.S. presence in Iraq has poisoned the mood so thoroughly that secular and moderate activists now stay silent for fear of being tarred as American agents.

"What the United States did for the region is destruction for the forces who believe in democracy, rule of law and human rights," said Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza City. "We are the real victims."

The Bush administration has repeatedly portrayed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq as a boost, albeit a painful one, for Arab democracy and human rights. Victory in Baghdad will bring a brighter era to the entire region, U.S. officials have promised.

But after waves of outrage over torture in the Abu Ghraib prison, the spectacle of Saddam Hussein's trial and execution, and sectarian slaughter in the streets of Baghdad, few people here seem able to articulate what, exactly, the United States is even trying to accomplish.

"The U.S. should pull out its troops from Iraq because innocent people are dying every day, including U.S. soldiers," said Karim Salhab, a 25-year-old accountant in Beirut. "I don't think it's fair for the families of these soldiers that their kids die for nothing."

Conventional wisdom here holds that, because the U.S. invasion pitched Iraq into civil war, only an American withdrawal can set the shattered nation back on the road toward stability.

Bush "mismanaged and brutalized Iraq too long to even hope for stability while the troops stay," said Mohammed Sayed Said, an analyst at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "The reservoir of violence and bitterness and agonies is so huge that hoping for stability in the immediate future is self-deception at best."

If the United States really wanted to boost stability, many Arabs say, the Bush administration would aggressively seek a cure for the regional sore spot of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Bush's announcement comes at a particularly sensitive moment. The region is still reeling with indignation over the inflammatory images that emerged of Hussein's execution, in which the toppled Sunni Arab Iraqi president was forced to endure the sectarian taunts of Shiite Muslim guards while in the hangman's noose.

Besides rubbing raw nerves by degrading a onetime Sunni leader on the dawn of a sacred Muslim holiday, Hussein's hanging also fed popular fears that the war in Iraq left the country in the hands of Shiites -- shifting the power balance in a way that threatens many Sunnis.

Sunni governments such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are longtime allies of the United States, while Shiite-ruled Iran has long been America's nemesis. But the rise of Shiite political power in post-Hussein Iraq, along with the growing regional influence of Iran, has left many Sunnis feeling insecure.

Foremost among the causes of bloodshed in Iraq, according to an editorial Thursday in the pan-Arab Al Quds al Arabi newspaper, "is the U.S. occupation's bias in favor of one sect at the expense of the other, and its humiliation of the members of the latter in a manner that reveals a strong desire for revenge."

Some Sunnis in the region have fretted quietly about the possibility of a U.S. withdrawal. They fear that Iraq's minority Sunni population, already under attack by Shiite militias, would face even harsher retribution from Shiites after the departure of U.S. troops.

But on Thursday, those voices were all but silent.

Meanwhile, neighboring Iran warned against boosting the number of American troops in Iraq.

"The increase in the number of American military forces can escalate insecurity and tension in Iraq and work against solving that country's problems," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Hosseini told reporters in Tehran. "America is trying to accuse and blame other countries for interference in Iraq to cover its policymaking mistakes in that country."

Bush, in announcing his plans to beef up the number of American troops in Iraq, spoke of "millions of ordinary people ... sick of the violence" in Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. They are all looking to Iraq, he said.

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