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A Divide Deepens in Arab World

Times Staff Writer

The rapidly escalating conflict in Lebanon has divided the Arab world, deepening the gulf between rulers and ruled and reinforcing in the public’s mind the impotence of leaders who for two generations have been unable to produce a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, governments with ties to the United States have guardedly denounced Hezbollah for the attack on Israel that triggered the fighting -- even as their citizens began tacking up posters of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the cleric who heads the Shiite Muslim militant group and has vowed to bring “war on every level” to Israel’s door.

The disconnect between the broad range of public support for Hezbollah and the unease felt by many Arab leaders is one of the reasons that Arab governments have been largely unable to mount an effective diplomatic response to Israel’s 5-day-old bombing campaign.

Over the weekend, for example, the Arab League, meeting in Cairo, was able to agree on little more than a statement urging all parties to avoid actions that might “undermine peace and security,” appealed to the United Nations for intervention and unsurprisingly declared the Middle East peace process dead.

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On one level, the divide pits Syria and non-Arab Iran, which are longtime backers of Hezbollah, against Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, whose Sunni Muslim-led governments fear the rise of Islamic militancy and the influence of Iran.

“The resistance will win and the Israeli aggression will fail,” Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal said in a statement Sunday, pledging a “firm and direct response” if Syria is attacked. “The resistance has hit deep inside Israel, and the enemy did not expect this.”

Iran, meanwhile, threatened that Israel would suffer “unimaginable losses” if it widened the conflict with a strike on Syria.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Sunday rallied behind Hezbollah, describing Israel as “an evil, cancerous tumor” in the midst of the Islamic world.

By contrast, the Saudis on Friday blamed the current crisis on “irresponsible adventurism” by Hezbollah -- a statement echoed by Jordan and Egypt.

The divide also separates those governments from large segments of their populations.

“What has the Egyptian government done to thwart the Israeli aggressions? The government is having normal relations with Israel, sitting back and saying how much they love Palestine, while Palestinians are being shot dead every day. And then comes this very small nationalist resistance movement which finally manages to do something that all the Arab governments with their huge armies haven’t been able to do,” said Iman Hamdi, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo.

“It very much discredits these regimes in the eyes of the people,” she said.

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The decision by President Bush not to support the Lebanese government’s plea for a cease-fire, even though that government has been backed by the United States, has dealt a further blow to public feelings about the U.S. in the region.

Members of the governing bloc in the Lebanese parliament, led by Saad Hariri, “are the most pro-American Arabs in the Middle East. They have promised, ‘America will protect us if we stand against Syria,’ ” said Joshua Landis, a Middle East expert and professor at the University of Oklahoma.

Now Israel is “blowing the hell out of them, and America isn’t taking one step to protect them,” Landis said. “The whole Arab world is going to look and see that Hariri has been sacrificed on the altar of Israeli power. For the Arabs, this just rips the face of democracy right off.”

Even the U.S.-backed Cabinet in Iraq has been critical, with Prime Minister Nouri Maliki calling on Arab leaders to “adopt a clear stance that denounces the criminal operations committed in Lebanon and Gaza.”

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The one action that Arab governments have been able to agree on so far is to pledge money to help Lebanon. On Sunday, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates promised $90 million.

The fact that Hezbollah is a Shiite militia plays a considerable role in the Arab split. Sunni leaders, who historically have dominated the Arab world, worry about the rise of Shiite power, particularly after the elections in Iraq that brought that nation’s Shiite majority to power.

Widespread public support for Hezbollah opens a new door to Shiite Iran, Hezbollah’s principal patron, whose growing assertiveness already is a source of worry for Arab leaders. A little more than a year ago, Jordan’s King Abdullah II warned of a “Shiite arc” spreading from Iran through Iraq to Lebanon.

“Hezbollah is seen by many of the Arab regimes as an extension of Iranian power,” said Mouin Rabbani, a Jordan-based analyst with the International Crisis Group.

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At the same time, analysts said, moderate Arab governments reacted with equal unease to Israel’s conflict with the Sunni Islamist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip -- perhaps reflecting concern not as much with Shiite power as with the rising influence of militant Islamic movements, the main source of opposition to established Arab regimes from Cairo to the Persian Gulf.

There is new talk in the Arab world, Rabbani said, “about a clash of cultures, one between the culture of resistance and the culture of servitude. The official regimes don’t like to be upstaged by upstart resistance movements who demonstrate they’re able to indeed successfully confront Israel. They don’t like to be confronted in a context that raises question marks about their own inertia.”

Mohammed Ali Abtahi, an Iranian Shiite cleric and frequent visitor to Lebanon, said that Hezbollah will probably be brought harshly to heel if the conflict widens, but that it stands to gain substantial strength and credibility if a more or less equal cease-fire is declared.

“Israeli pressures have humiliated the Arab world, and when a political movement like Hezbollah confronts Israel, it quickly becomes popular,” he said. “This is a reason why, I dare say, Hezbollah is more popular than Lebanon itself.”

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Arab governments “are in a kind of Catch-22 now,” said Labib Kamhawi, a political scientist in Amman, the Jordanian capital.

“If we uphold democracy, the opposition will bring to power the fundamentalist forces. And if we don’t, this will play into the hands of underground extremism,” he said.

“And the military arrogance of Israel, the fact that Israel is bombarding a helpless country like Lebanon, destroying its infrastructure, dismantling the state, is making people more and more angry.”

Public support for Hezbollah has now reached far beyond the Shiite community or even the wider Islamic opposition. This week, thousands of Sunnis and secular Arabs flocked to the streets protesting the airstrikes.

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Here in Damascus, the predominantly Sunni Syrian capital, posters of Nasrallah are affixed to car and shop windows.

“I feel a sense of pride because of this small group of people who are capable of fighting the state of Israel and all its military power,” said Fayez Smet, a criminal defense lawyer. “Whether they win or not, they are heroes.”

“I’m a democrat. I’m not anti-American. I like the American nation,” said Mouaffaq Farhat, who until recently managed the Mercedes dealership in downtown Damascus. “But the Americans who are supporting the Israelis now have to understand that Hezbollah is fighting for what they believe are their rights. And people nowadays unfortunately know only the language of force.”

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Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Baghdad and special correspondents Kasra Naji in Tehran and Qaisar Ahmed in Cairo contributed to this report.


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