‘A Big Blow to the Arab Psyche’

Times Staff Writer

For many across the Arab world, Wednesday’s televised images were surprising, sobering and scarcely believable: American tanks roaming the streets of Baghdad, joyous Iraqis greeting the invaders with salutes and V-for-victory signs, young men carrying away the chunks of a toppled Saddam Hussein statue.

An old man swung his shoe against the portrait of a smiling Hussein -- the ultimate insult in a region where even showing the sole of one’s shoe is considered disrespectful. Shiite Muslims thumped their chests with clenched fists, a religious gesture banned by Hussein two decades ago under threat of death.

After 21 days of war, Arabs from Saudi Arabia to Morocco grappled with their feelings about the rapid American thrust into Baghdad -- and their unmet expectations that Hussein would, as he had promised, valiantly defend his capital. What emerged, as a stinging reminder of Arab impotency, was sadness and disillusionment. Arabs saw occupation, not liberation.

“This is ’67 all over again,” cried a university antiwar activist in Cairo, referring to Israel’s victory in the Middle East War. “We’ve tried to give hope to people without hope, and now I need someone to give me hope.”


In Jidda, Saudi Arabia, Khalid Maeena, editor of the Arab News, considered what headline he would choose for today’s edition to reflect the disintegration of Hussein’s regime. He toyed with “Baghdad Liberated” but instead chose “Baghdad Occupied.”

“There are many who are unhappy,” he said. “I mean, nobody loved Saddam. But you saw the pictures in the paper of the kids dead. Is that the price to pay for getting rid of one man?”

In neighboring Iran, a non-Arab nation that warred with Hussein’s Iraq for eight years in the 1980s, footage was aired of the felled statue and rejoicing in the streets. But the government-controlled news broadcasts maintained an anti-American slant, suggesting that what comes next might be worse for Iraqis than the Baathist regime was.

“Jay Garner has a long history in the arms trade, is a major supporter of the Zionists,” a news report said, referring to the retired U.S. Army general chosen to oversee postwar efforts in Iraq.


Former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani said Iraqis would not accept the rule of an American general. “The U.S. wants to safeguard Israel’s interests in the region, and its own access to oil,” he said.

Only one Arab group outside Baghdad -- other than the Kuwaitis -- seemed to share openly the jubilation conveyed on TV: Iraqi exiles.

“I am happy, so happy,” said Abdul Jalil Jawad, a teacher who gathered with friends in a smoke-filled coffee shop in Amman, the Jordanian capital.

One friend, Tareq Ahmad, nodded in agreement. “Every honest Iraqi is happy today,” he said. “Saddam is out and this is a chance to live freely again.” Then he added uneasily, “But there is still danger in Baghdad -- instability and insecurity.”


The Arabs’ mood has swung from apprehension before the war, to elation at the Iraqis’ initial resistance, to outrage as civilian casualties mounted, and finally to acquiescence -- and even anger over the fact that Hussein again proved himself a man of bluster and empty threats.

Taking Hussein’s spokesman at his word, Egypt’s Al Wafd newspaper had declared in a headline Wednesday: “Baghdad Will Not Surrender.”

“I will not accept any claim that [the Iraqis] remained steadfast for 19 days,” wrote Samir Ragab, editor of the Egyptian Gazette. “What about Saddam Hussein’s vociferous proclamations that this army would rout the invaders? Why didn’t the Iraqis blow up the bridges over the Tigris and Euphrates to prevent the invaders from reaching their targets? It is disgraceful that these huge Iraqi troops relaxed idly and woke up to the roar of gunfire on all sides.”

At the root of Arab sullenness is a deep mistrust of U.S. intentions in Iraq and the humiliation of seeing American tanks in an Arab capital. Arabs from all walks of life draw heavily on their wounded modern history, making them suspicious of foreigners who come bearing promises.


They point out that Napoleon seized Egypt from the Mamelukes in 1798, promising to introduce Western technology and culture but not mentioning his need for a strategic location on the route to British-ruled India. His promises unfulfilled, the expedition was chased away three years later.

When the British took Baghdad from the Ottoman Turks in 1917, their general, Frederick Stanley Maude, told the citizenry: “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.” Mesopotamia (the land between the rivers) was renamed Iraq by the British, who stayed as colonialists until 1932.

“Certainly the speed and ease of the Americans’ advance through Baghdad surprised everyone,” said Emad Shahin, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo. “But remember, Saddam Hussein is a man who has never shown any kind of willingness to fight. He never takes the initiative. Even in the [1991 Persian] Gulf War, his only objective was the survival of his regime.

“In the end, this is a big blow to the Arab psyche. You’ve got the takeover of a major Arab capital by the American military. We’re witnessing events that are no less significant to the future of the Middle East than those in 1948 [the birth of Israel] and 1967. We’re seeing a system change, not just a regime change, and there’s a mood of anxiety, frustration. These are very precarious and uncertain times.”


Foremost in that apprehension is the question posed by Abeer Maghribi, a Syrian marketing manager in London: “What’s next? We’re all fearful of what the Americans have in store for us.”

Arab commentators and others criticized the brief placing of an American flag over the face of the Hussein statue, suggesting it showed that Washington has a grand scheme to subjugate the region, take over its oil resources and create regimes that do not threaten Israel.

Many believe that a prolonged U.S. military presence in Iraq will make securing peace more difficult than waging war. They recall how the Shiites in southern Lebanon welcomed the invading Israelis with cookies and flowers in 1982. More than 20 years later, the Israelis, having become the enemy, were forced to withdraw after a bloody and failed occupation.

“There will be resistance from Saddam loyalists, and it will take some time to be over,” said Arafat Aoud, a Jordanian journalist, as he watched news clips of looting crowds in Baghdad. “The civil disorder is understandable after such a long period of repression.”


He added, perhaps forgetting that the only authority remaining in Iraq is allied troops, “The police will take care of it.”


Times staff writers Alissa J. Rubin in Amman; Kim Murphy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Jailan Zayan in Doha, Qatar; and Azadeh Moaveni in Tehran contributed to this report.