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Winds of Change Stir in Mideast, but Their Direction Is Unclear

Times Staff Writer

Over 60 dramatic hours ending Monday, events in the Middle East highlighted both the hopes and risks of change in the region as the Bush administration pursues its agenda of reform.

In Lebanon, an unpopular, Syrian-backed government was brought down by pressure from the streets. In Egypt, the head of a one-party state loosened his decades-old grip on power by announcing plans for multiparty elections. And in Syria, an authoritarian regime handed over Saddam Hussein’s half-brother to Iraqi authorities.

Within the administration, the developments were quietly hailed as signals that the president’s vision to spread democracy in the Middle East was not naive and misguided, as critics had said, but an idea Arabs genuinely wanted to embrace.

Despite this windfall of good news, however, Middle East specialists inside and outside the administration remained cautious.

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“I’ve been working on the Middle East too long to be crowing from the rooftops that we’ve won,” a senior State Department official said.

If any proof for that prudence were needed, it appeared early Monday in Iraq, when a suicide car bombing south of Baghdad left at least 115 people dead and about as many wounded in one of the deadliest attacks since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. William Quandt, a White House advisor in the Carter administration during the late 1970s -- also a time of hope for the region -- said he was heartened by the sight of thousands of Lebanese taking to the streets of Beirut to demand free elections and the withdrawal of Syrian forces from their soil. But he added: “It’s unsure where this will lead.”

The largest, best-organized opposition group in the country, he noted, was the Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah. The organization is strenuously anti-American, yet an important player in Lebanese politics. As a major supplier of social services to the country’s large Shiite population, Hezbollah would probably poll well in free elections.

In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak’s decision to allow his country’s first direct, multiparty presidential election this year could also complicate the U.S. agenda in the region, even though a senior administration official Monday called it a “positive and welcome step.”

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A truly democratic election in Egypt could result in major gains for hard-line groups, including the banned Muslim Brotherhood, also strongly anti-American, some specialists argue. Backers of Bush’s efforts to spread democracy in the region counter that strengthening radical groups is a risk the U.S. must be willing to take.

Support for stable, yet authoritarian regimes in the region -- the hallmark of U.S. policy for much of the past generation -- has produced a contempt for America that today drives Islamic terrorist groups, these sources argue.

Although Mubarak has frustrated U.S. policymakers in the past by opposing political reform in Egypt, he is believed to have been largely supportive of U.S. policy in the region, especially in the search for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Quandt recalled how, during his tenure at the White House, President Carter had nudged the shah of Iran to loosen his hold on the country’s political system and how, after the shah’s fall, some of the administration’s most respected experts on Iran had predicted that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini would be a Gandhi-like spiritual advisor to a moderate new Iranian government.

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“You get something that looks pretty good at the time, but then it eventually turns out very differently,” he said.

U.S. policymakers already have had a hint of what free elections can produce in a region where America’s image is poor and its agenda often viewed as a Zionist-led conspiracy to subjugate Muslim people. January’s election in Iraq produced an Islamic scholar with past ties to Iran as the front-runner to lead a transitional government in Baghdad.

Despite these concerns, U.S. officials were moving quickly Monday to keep up the momentum toward political reform.

“The resignation of the [Omar] Karami government represents an opportunity for the Lebanese people to have a new government that is truly representative of their country’s diversity,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. “We will do everything we can to support the Lebanese people.”

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State Department officials, who declined to be identified by name, said the street protests in Beirut had provided the administration with important new leverage to force the withdrawal of 14,000 Syrian forces that entered Lebanon in the spring of 1976.

Syria has resisted such a pullout on the grounds that its forces are required to maintain stability in a country torn by civil war.

“Today’s events prove that the status quo is untenable and that the way forward is to implement the Security Council resolution,” a senior U.S. official said. A U.N. Security Council resolution, calling for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon and free and fair elections, was passed in December under the sponsorship of the U.S. and France.

“We’ll be talking with the French and others on how to move this forward,” the same official said.

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The protests that led to the Karami government’s resignation stemmed from anger that erupted late last month in the wake of the assassination of Lebanon’s popular former premier, Rafik Hariri. Although it remains unclear exactly who carried out the killing, Syria’s involvement is widely suspected.

In the wake of developments in Lebanon and Egypt, administration officials also are taking a harder look at initiatives designed for the region that focus on broadening participation in the political process.

“It makes the message [of democratic reform] sound far less Western in its orientation,” a senior administration official said. “It shows there are voices in the region, that there is a popular will for change.”

Said a second senior U.S. official: “The theory [behind Bush’s democratization policy] has always been that if this were to work, it wouldn’t be exclusively because we were standing at the top ... hectoring people, but because there would be pressure from within and pressure from below in these societies.”

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Times staff writers Edwin Chen and Sonni Efron in Washington contributed to this report.


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