DAMASCUS, Syria—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives in the Middle East on Monday with the Arab world seething with anger at U.S. policy on the war in Lebanon.
Across the region, from the tortuous streets of Damascus' historic district to the deserted cafes of bombed-out Beirut and the crowded marketplaces of Cairo, the Bush administration's unconditional support for Israel's bombardment of Hezbollah militants is hardening anti-American sentiment among moderates and hard-liners alike.
Many are also furious with U.S.-backed regimes in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which have failed to denounce what's widely seen as the Israeli military's indiscriminate killing of Lebanese civilians.
Rice has said she will not push for a cease-fire and will not meet with the leaders of Hezbollah or their Syrian supporters, signaling to many in the Middle East that the U.S.-Israeli alliance is impregnable and that the Bush administration is willing to let Israel's military campaign drag on despite the deaths of more than 350 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians.
"So she's coming here when there are no more Lebanese left. To do what exactly?" chortled Abbas Reslam, a 36-year-old refugee who fled to Syria last week after bombs fell outside his home in the southern Lebanese town of Taiba.
More than 150,000 Lebanese have escaped to neighboring Syria since Israel began pummeling Shiite Muslim areas in south Beirut and along the Israeli-Lebanese border in retaliation for Hezbollah's July 12 kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers.
Television images of dead and bloodied children have been beamed across the Middle East, fueling anger at the United States and Israel and sympathy for Hezbollah's radical Shiite militants.
"America supports Israel even if what she does is wrong," said Nabeel Kahal, who hangs a picture of Hezbollah's bearded, smiling leader, Hassan Nasrallah, in the window of his general store on a bustling street in Damascus.
"People supported him (Nasrallah) before the war, but now they support him even more strongly. His popularity is going up and up."
With rage at the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its standoff with Iran over its nuclear program still boiling, some analysts say giving Israel carte blanche against the region's militant Islamic groups—including Hamas in the Palestinian territories—is undermining the Bush administration's war on terror.
Muqtedar Khan, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, wrote in an editorial last week:
"Muslims across the world are watching a nuclear power supported, armed and funded by the U.S. bombard and kill dozens of civilians, destroy the economy and infrastructure of Palestine and Lebanon, kidnap dozens of elected Palestinian leaders, bomb their homes, and all the U.S. does is provide political cover for Israel in the U.N. Security Council and on the world stage. Al-Qaida must be running out of enrollment forms."
Even in the Christian sections of Beirut, which are largely immune to the violence, anger at Israel is growing.
"If they keep targeting civilians like this, they're only hurting themselves," said Riad Khattar, the Christian owner of an Internet cafe in Beirut.
"Even the Christians are now starting to support Hezbollah. This was not the fact before the war. By killing civilians, they are making Hezbollah stronger and stronger."
But the news that most riled Khattar, 35, was Rice's statement last week that the violence in Lebanon was merely the "birth pangs of a new Middle East."
"We were surprised because we sure didn't feel" birth pangs, Khattar said. "We feel bombs."
The "new Middle East" includes U.S.-friendly regimes in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which condemned Hezbollah for what all three called "adventurism" that threatened Arab interests. The comments underscored the estrangement between the regimes and their people, many of whom see their governments as American puppets.
"Nothing compares to the shock over the Arab official position," said an editorial on Sunday in Al-Masry Al-Yom, an independent Egyptian daily. "We all know the Arab regimes have turned into a paralyzed, impaired lot, unable to act, but we never imagined that this impairment would lead to public adherence with Israel against an Arab nation."
Hezbollah's two state sponsors, Iran and Syria, retain support among Arabs. In Cairo, a taxi driver, Mohamed Saleh, said, "Iran and Syria are the only two countries with integrity."
But both countries remain shut out of diplomatic efforts to end the crisis. Neither has been invited to a summit in Rome on Wednesday, and on Sunday John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, rebuffed Syria's call for direct talks with the United States.
In battered Lebanon, few are optimistic that Rice's visit will end the violence. On Sunday, standing outside the wreckage of his family's apartment building in Beirut's southern suburbs, Zein Sabra demanded that a reporter convey a message to Rice.
"Ask her, you ask her, `Is this the democracy Bush promised?'" demanded Sabra, 37. "If she's coming to stop the war, good, but we know she's not. She already said Israel needs more time to end Hezbollah.
"Well, you tell her we're all Hezbollah, we're all the resistance. This is because of the United States."
(Hannah Allam in Beirut and McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Miret el Naggar in Cairo contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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