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Vitriolic language over U.S. war plans permeates Arab world

AMMAN, Jordan—With war between Iraq and the United States likely just days away, anger and frustration aimed at the United States and Arab leaders are gripping the streets here.

There is admiration for an Egyptian singer who speaks against the war and for the French government for challenging the U.S. position. Citizens say they embraced recent angry speeches by Hezbollah's Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and Syrian President Bashar Assad, both of whom rejected the U.S approach.

Increasingly, newspaper columnists are expressing frustration over leadership.

"It's very shameful. We look like chickens," said Maged Ibrahim, 52, a jewelry store owner in Amman. "The U.S. has declared war on the Arabs, and we are sitting here waiting for them to kill us."

Analysts say the impact of war will ripple through the Middle East for at least the next decade, and they worry that if the frustration being addressed by residents isn't addressed soon, it could lay the foundation for radical opposition groups and the birth of more terrorists.

"Don't look for visible opposition," said Mustafa Hamarneh, director of Jordan's Center for Strategic Studies. "Look for the manifestation of opposition—suicide bombings, small attacks and more terrorism" both in the region and the United States and "the Arab governments won't know how to deal with it."

At the root of the frustration is an embarrassment among Arabs that their leaders have been so ineffective on the Iraq question and on the 30-month-long Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza. Many say they had hoped Arab leaders would unite on both conflicts and collectively be a strong voice. Instead, they say they saw their leaders cater to the United States.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar have allowed the United States to deploy troops on their soil. Egypt has floated its currency against the U.S. dollar and was host to an Arab League summit that was mocked throughout the region. Jordan has declared itself America's "best friend" in the region and has allowed limited troop placement—despite a January poll conducted by the Center for Strategic Studies showing 88 percent of Jordanians opposed to supporting a U.S.-led attack.

Most noticeably, there was universal dismay at how Arab leaders handled themselves during the Arab League summit. During the March 1 meeting, which people watched live, the leaders bickered and had a difficult time reaching a consensus. Only Syrian President Bashar Assad made an impression among the people in his aggressive speech against the war.

"It was wonderful," said Mohammed Abu Khasan, 38, of Amman.

"Of course he knows he is next after Iraq. I wish everyone had said what he said, but it was just for show."

Ibrahim agreed, saying: The leaders "did not hurt. They did not help. They just took photos of each other at the summit."

On Amman's King Talal Street, a shopkeeper who asked not to be named says a speech last week by the leader of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement reflected his feelings about the possible war more than anything he has heard from his government.

In his speech, Nasrallah said Arab governments had failed the people and that war could lead to an uprising among the Arab people.

"This American invasion will lead to an unprecedented awakening within this Islamic nation and among its youths and to a holy war and revolutionary movement placing this nation before an inevitable decisive battle."

"We need this to happen," the shopkeeper said. "We have gotten used to the ineffectiveness."

The mere mention of French President Jacques Chirac's name prompted Ahmed Khalil, 32, to gesture a kiss and shout: "We want to give the French a big kiss for speaking with us about the war."

At a music shop a few stores away, Akram Mohammed Ali, 24, says his favorite song is a work by Egyptian Shaaban Abdul Rehim entitled "Don't Hit Iraq."

"He is the only one who speaks for the Arabs," Ali said.

Rehim's songs are often controversial. A few years ago, he released "I Hate Israel."

Whether the unhappiness reflected in interviews could lead to the toppling of regimes is not clear. Analysts note that the governments have a strong hold over their people and the feeling is that there is nothing anyone can do to bring any real change.

"There is a big difference between challenging the government on this or that issue and taking over," said Mohammed Sayed Said, who leads Egypt's Center for Strategic Studies "It is not a confrontational issue, just a feeling that Arabs are incompetent."

Said added that opposition groups over time could build the kind of support they need. "It would be a gradual change rather than a revolutionary one," Said said.

Jordanian officials say a better economy will improve people's attitude toward their leaders. "Economic stability leads to political stability—and vice versa," said Minister of Trade and Industry Sanah Bashir.

Hamarneh disagrees, pointing out that Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the richest countries in the Middle East, have as much resentment. Hamarneh believes that the only solution is the installment of a democratic regime in Arab countries. That, too, is unlikely he says unless the United States successfully establishes a democracy in Iraq, the first in the region's history.

"If it works in Iraq, it would spread in the whole region," he said. "But I don't think it will."

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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