Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's threat to hold Syria responsible for the alleged shipment of military equipment to Iraq exacerbated unease Saturday about U.S. intentions in the region, with some here worrying that this country will be Washington's next target.
In newspaper headlines, on the street and among the Arab elite, the response was one of bitter amazement and, then, angry resignation. Some people expressed puzzlement at why Rumsfeld would make the statement at a time when the United States' stock in the Arab world is already low.
"Only a madman would think of widening the circle of war," said Syrian Information Minister Adnan Umran, a former ambassador to Britain who also spent several years in the U.S. as a diplomat.
In a news conference in Washington on Friday, Rumsfeld accused Syria of sending night-vision goggles and other items to Iraq, saying: "These deliveries pose a direct threat to the lives of coalition forces. We consider such trafficking as hostile acts and will hold the Syrian government accountable for such shipments."
Rumsfeld also accused Iran of aiding Iraq by allowing hundreds of fighters to cross its border into the country.
In this restive region, his words were widely taken to mean that the United States is prepared to attack Syria and Iran unless they fall into line.
Rumsfeld's language hit a nerve particularly with the Syrian public, which has rallied enthusiastically behind President Bashar Assad's outspoken opposition to the war.
Assad is the only Arab leader other than Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to publicly express the hope that the U.S. and British forces will be defeated.
In a front-page interview with Lebanon's pro-Syrian As Safir newspaper last week, excerpts of which have been widely circulated in the Arab media, Assad said the U.S.-British forces might be able to occupy Iraq but would not succeed in holding sway over it.
"The United States and Britain will not be able to control all of Iraq. There will be much tougher resistance," he said. "But if the American-British designs succeed, and we hope they will not and we doubt that they will succeed, there will be Arab popular resistance anyway, and this has already begun."
The Syrian government quickly denied Rumsfeld's allegation, putting out a statement in a matter of hours even though the incident occurred on a Friday, the weekly holiday. Officials emphasized that the country abides by U.N. resolutions that ban sending military aid of any kind to Iraq.
By Saturday, Syrian leaders appeared eager to downplay the event, framing it primarily as confirmation that Washington has abandoned efforts to use diplomacy to engage the Arab world. But Arab newspapers spotlighted the threat in Rumsfeld's remarks.
"Washington Expands Stumbling Aggression by Warning Iran and Syria," read the front-page headline in As Safir. Al Hayat, the London based pan-Arab paper, had as its main headline: "Rumsfeld Threatens Syria and Iran."
Similar views were heard in the streets of Arab cities. People recalled the United States' first mention of Iraq during the hunt for terrorist leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Now they're bombing Iraq," said Dalia, a 34-year-old banker in Cairo who would give only her first name. "Today they mention Syria -- next year they'll be bombing Syria."
Safa, a 59-year-old charity organizer who also gave only one name, said she believes that was part of Washington's plan. "We all knew Syria would be next. Then it will be Iran. There is no stopping the U.S.," she said. "They said they wanted to reshape the Middle East. Syria is the next likely target because of their anti-American policy."
Rumsfeld's comments solidified newspaper editor Mostafa Sayed's belief that Israel is behind the war in Iraq -- a commonly held theory in the region. "The war serves Israeli aims," Sayed said. "This war is about oil and Israel. They want to divide Syria and Iraq into little states so that Israel can become a superpower."
Rumsfeld's remarks even seemed to drive longtime opponents of the Syrian government to reverse their opposition to Damascus' official policies.
Syria's outlawed Muslim Brotherhood called on the government to "offer all support to aid the Iraqi resistance before Syria becomes America's next target." And in an interview with the Al Jazeera television network, Ali Sadreddin Bayanouni, the leader of the group, said, "The real reason for this war is control over the region.
"This aggression will not stop at Iraq. The Arab nation, in its entirety, will be a target of this aggression."
Among political analysts in Syria, there was bemusement at Rumsfeld's allegation. "He loses his dignity when he says things like that," said Thabat Salem, a former journalist and an analyst in Damascus. "Let's even say that what he's saying is true -- then he's threatening another war for a batch of night-vision goggles."
But some here say they believe that the real reason for Rumsfeld's remarks is that he is upset that the allies have run into resistance in Iraq and wants to distract the media from that. "He's mad at how the war is going," Salem said.
Special correspondent Jailan Zayan in Doha, Qatar, contributed to this report.