Arabs Swell With Pride as Iraqis Hold Out

Times Staff Writer

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.

Overwhelming majorities in the six countries believed the U.S. war on Iraq would achieve the opposite of the Bush administration's goals by increasing terrorism and reducing the chances for democratic reform. President Bush's plan, in other words, will have backfired.

"Whenever I hear of an American soldier killed or an American helicopter shot down, I feel alive inside," said George Nasser, a Christian Palestinian banker in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. "Any real Arab feels the same."

Khalid Abbadi, a Bethlehem dry cleaner, said that even though he did not support Hussein, the Iraqi resistance to U.S. and British forces made him proud.

"To stand up to the strongest country on the face of the Earth is a great honor," he said.

In the Arab view, Bush and his advisors made a series of blunders in drawing up their plans for Iraq. Foremost, they believed their own propaganda that the Iraqis would greet the invading Americans with cheers. There are so far few signs of such a welcome.

U.S. officials, insisting they erred only in timing and not in substance, say that the people of Iraq will jump on the pro-American bandwagon once they can be sure that Hussein and his regime are really gone.

"Once the Iraqi people know the coalition is serious, they will not fight [against it]," said Dhirgham Kadhim, an official with the Iraqi National Accord, an opposition group based in Jordan. "Once the people realize that this is really serious about taking out Saddam, they will not fight. Gradually you will see the attitude will change."

But Iraqis have endured a long history of occupation and betrayal.

Seated in old Mesopotamia, Baghdad was a cradle of civilization, a city whose Golden Age at the turn of the last millennium saw a flourishing period of learning, art, culture and prosperity. The Mongols, led by Genghis Khan's grandson, invaded and looted the city in 1258; foreign rulers came and went in the centuries that followed: Persians, the Ottoman Turks, the British.

As fallout from the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the long-oppressed Shiite people of southern Iraq did attempt to rise up against the regime.

Hussein obliterated the uprising, and coalition forces did not stop him.

This time, American motives are so mistrusted that U.S. forces have not been able to exploit a natural ally like the Shiites.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, an influential Shiite cleric based in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, issued a fatwa, or religious edict, this week ordering the faithful not to cooperate with the Americans.

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Times staff writers Laura King in Bethlehem, Alissa J. Rubin in Amman and Jailan Zayan in Doha contributed to this report.

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