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Arab nationals react with hope, horror to collapse of Baghdad

CAIRO, Egypt—As Baghdad fell to coalition forces Wednesday, Middle Easterners from Egypt to Iran reacted with a mixture of hope and horror. There was relief that Saddam Hussein's regime was gone and that the relentless rise in civilian casualties probably would cease, but the presence of Western troops in an Arab capital evoked deep dismay.

"I feel defeated," said Gasser Abdel-Razek, a 34-year-old human rights activist in Egypt. "In my adult life, this is the first Arab capital to completely fall into the hands of a foreign power."

It took decades for Arab countries to win independence from colonial powers, and bitter memories linger. "The U.S. will eventually leave, militarily at least," Abdel-Razek continued. "Other occupation forces have left, but they have left us in a mess that we still haven't gotten over."

It was hard for some Arabs to accept that the fighting was ending. "I am very depressed," said Marwa Farouk, a 24-year-old Egyptian lawyer. "We had all hoped that the Iraqis would resist longer than this."

The absence of a fierce final battle gave rise to coffeehouse conspiracy theories, including speculation that Saddam's Baath Party officials cut a deal with coalition forces.

Some voiced anger at Saddam. "He fled in a disgraceful manner. He didn't fight," said Hassan Barari, a researcher at Jordan's Center for Strategic Studies.

In England, Iraqis in exile prepared to go home and bury relatives who were killed in the crossfire. Ali al Bayati, the leader of an exile group who lives in Manchester, England, said a friend had just learned that 10 members of his family had died in a shelling incident in the south.

Al Bayati warned that Iraqis won't accept outside rule for any period of time, either by the United States or the United Nations. "We think the Iraqi people are able to run their country and run their affairs much better than anyone else," he said.

In Saudi Arabia, Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal said U.S. and British military occupation must end "as soon as possible."

He added, "We are searching for a role to be played by the Iraqi people. The government we will deal with is a government that will be accepted by the Iraqi people."

Parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi of Iran, a non-Arab Islamic country, said Iran didn't regard occupation of another country as a victory. "If the U.S. does not allow the Iraqi people to decide their own fate, it will be the beginning of a dilemma," he said.

Among Palestinians, where support for Saddam has been the strongest, it was hoped that the end of the war would mean Washington would turn its attention back to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ghassan Khatib, labor minister in the Palestinian Authority Cabinet, pointed out that no Israelis have died during the past 21 days of the war, though 33 Palestinians have been killed.

"If (President) Bush wants to win over Arab opinion, he must pressure the Israeli government to accept the `road map' immediately," said Cairo bookseller Abdul Sattar, referring to a plan that would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state in 2005.

Throughout the war, Arabs have drawn parallels between Iraq and the Palestinians. Thanks to similarities in landscape and architecture, footage from the two conflicts has sometimes seemed interchangeable. Shots of tanks on the streets, of soldiers questioning civilians and buildings reduced to rubble suggested that hostilities could spread throughout the region.

On Wednesday, a new iconography began to take shape, as TV stations broadcast footage from a park in Baghdad that showed Iraqis and American soldiers working together to topple a statute of Saddam.

Mordechai Kedar, an Israeli professor of Arabic, watched the drama unfold on the al Jazeera network.

"I couldn't move," Kedar said. "It was so symbolic, what was happening in Baghdad, that this statute of Saddam was a hollow piece of bronze. It resembles the whole regime, which was a hollow thing with no support."

An al Jazeera announcer also watched as the statute was torn down.

"I don't know if today's sun knows where it is setting and where it will rise," he said. "It could be better than what has happened in the past, or it could be worse."


(Ackerman reported from Cairo; Youssef from Amman, Jordan. Also contributing to this report were Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Dave Montgomery in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Tehran, Iran; Fawn Vrazo in London; and Carol Rosenberg in Jerusalem.)


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