RAMALLAH, West Bank—By launching a war to oust Saddam Hussein, the United States could create new business opportunities in the reconstruction of sanction-strangled Iraq, greater freedoms and a more focused U.S. effort to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Or, less hopeful Muslims imagine, installing a new Iraqi regime could stir instability and anti-Americanism across the Arab Middle East, and more broadly among Muslims.
Success in Iraq could even have a paradoxical result: While removing Saddam would tip the balance of power in the region toward the United States, the spread of democracy could work against U.S. interests if democracy gives greater voice to widespread anti-American views.
Throughout the Middle East, Knight Ridder reporters found both upbeat and skeptical scenarios in President Bush's high-stakes bid to topple Saddam and start a wave of democratization.
"There has to be a fresh start, once and for all. We're sick and tired of being next to Saddam and being threatened every day," said Sheikh Saud al Nasser al Sabah, a former Kuwaiti ambassador to Washington, who predicts a postwar business and tourism boom in the tiny oil state that has suffered economic and emotional insecurity since Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.
But Saudi Arabian businessman Abdulaziz Sugair, a former diplomat and air force officer, warned that the Bush administration is "alienating" a generation of the pro-American Arab elite by employing what seems to many to be a double standard that mostly ignores the Palestinian-Israeli crisis at the expense of the Iraq campaign.
"Ultimately, you're losing your most vocal constituents," he said of Saudi distrust of American intentions. Once a frequent visitor to the United States, Sugair and his family spurned an annual trip to California last year, sensing American hostility toward its once staunch Saudi allies since Sept. 11.
U.S. officials have gone to great lengths to separate their campaign to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction from Israel's crisis with the Palestinians. But in the Muslim world, the two are inextricable, underscored by nightly newscasts of Israelis battling Palestinians to crush their 30-month-old uprising, or intifada.
A crude cartoon in Saudi newspapers this month showed President Bush lecturing diplomats on the need for Iraq to disarm, while in the foreground Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wielded a bloody knife aimed at Palestinian children.
Israeli analysts are watching warily from the sidelines to see whether U.S. troops become mired in a wave of anti-American revulsion in Iraq and on its borders—protests, refugee upheavals, suicide bombings. They warn that applying the American notion that the majority rules to Iraq could uncork anti-Americanism among the Shiite Muslims who outnumber Iraq's long-dominant Sunnis.
"Democracy is a funny word in the language of the Middle East," a senior Israeli security official said of Bush's pledge to bring greater freedoms.
Of course, Israel supports the overthrow of Saddam, who attacked Israel with Scud missiles in the first Gulf War, and hopes his downfall would weaken support for Palestinian attacks on Israel.
Palestinians, meantime, are hoping that international pressure on Washington might prod the Bush administration toward more even-handed mediation of Israeli and Palestinian peacemaking.
More skeptical Palestinians wonder whether Sharon has convinced Bush that Israel's war with the Palestinians—like Washington's plans for Iraq—requires more force and less negotiation.
Washington has offered few hints on where it might next turn its anti-terror campaign, although Israelis have been offering a few suggestions. They want Washington to disarm Syria, which like Iraq has an anti-Israeli Baath Party regime and has acquired weapons of mass destruction, and also to take on Iranian-backed Muslim fundamentalism, which inspires the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.
But in Tehran, many Iranians remain dubious that the American administration will turn its enthusiasm for regime change to Iran and distrustful of Washington's promise to bring American-style democracy to the region.
"If they were planning to do so, they would have done so sooner," said Ali Asadpour, 23, a blue jeans salesman on one of the capital's trendy northern boulevards.
Tehran would like some influence on the creation of the next Iraqi government, but is most anxious just to keep Iraq in one piece. "Any disintegration will be damaging to global and regional peace and a catalyst for expanding violence and terrorism," said Mohammad Ali Abtahi, Iran's vice president for legal and parliamentary affairs.
Another question—how much the Bush administration is willing to spend, and in what countries—could also strain its vision of a peaceable postwar Middle East.
The United States has for years built its regional alliances not on democratic foundations but on security alliances with wealthy monarchies in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, and through economic aid to poorer monarchies and autocratic countries such as Jordan and Egypt.
Now, analysts foresee bleak financial times in places such as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which has survived for more than a decade on both U.S. aid and an exemption from the international economic sanctions against Iraq that has allowed it to get oil for free.
Jordan fears that the free-oil flow could collapse along with Iraq's infrastructure in a war, and is negotiating low-cost replacement deals from other neighbors while seeking more economic support from the United States, which is also weighing a huge, unprecedented $12 billion aid and loan request from Israel.
Wedged between Iraq on one side and Israel on the other, and with a majority of its own population Palestinian, Jordan is highly sensitive to shifts in the regional balance of power.
In wealthier Arab countries such as Kuwait and Qatar, some people envision benefits from their alignment with the United States, particularly by publicly permitting the Pentagon to base troops there.
Qataris speak with interest about the idea that Washington seeks to democratize Iraq and free the Iraqi people. The small oil nation's ruling emir has for several years now been tinkering with reforms, such as allowing women to vote, and Qataris like to boast that their tentative steps could be a model for emerging Arab democracy.
Yet Qatari democracy is not always enthusiastically pro-American. Its al Jazeera all-Arab television news network emphasizes critical coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and also hosts lively debates on issues ranging from Muslim fundamentalism to American imperialism.
To succeed in the Muslim world, said Hassan al Ansari, the director of Qatar University's Gulf Studies Center, "The United States has to prove the Arabs wrong by providing a real example of reforms" in Iraq. "That will provide the example and the model and the people will say, `Maybe that's what we want.' People want to see there is hope."
Kuwaitis see a mixed economic picture: a drop in the price per barrel of oil, because Iraq will be pumping freely again after 13 years of embargo, but a share in big contracts to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure, as well as more business and tourist travel.
"There may be a mixture of consequences," said a University-of-Colorado-trained Kuwaiti economist, Jasem Khalid al-Sadoun. "Some not so good—some maybe positive."
(Juan Tamayo, Nancy A. Youssef, Peter Smolowitz, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson and Warren P. Strobel contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.