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Saddam's arrest expected, discouraging among Arab world

NABLUS, West Bank—The Middle East greeted Saddam Hussein's capture with a mixture of dismay, defiance and relief. But whether pro-American or anti-Israeli, moderate or militant, few in the volatile region held out hope that the arrest would do much to promote peace.

The capture of the man viewed as both hero and pariah of the Arab world is seen as anti-climactic, after the American-led invasion of Iraq. Other than in Iraq and Kuwait, which Saddam invaded in 1990, most Arabs across the region appeared dismayed and embarrassed over how U.S. troops arrested the bedraggled Saddam near his hometown of Tikrit.

"There is disappointment in nationalist circles in the way he was captured, that he didn't commit suicide so he wouldn't undergo an embarrassing interrogation," Victor Nahmias, an Arab affairs expert, said on state-run Israel Radio. "Here was the symbol of heroism and here is an American non-Muslim (tugging) at his beard. It's hard for proud Arabs to take."

That may explain why many Arabs ignored the event. In Nablus, residents turned out to watch thousands of Hamas members march through the streets in a parade marking the militant organization's anniversary. They carried fake weapons: bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and Qassem rockets.

Saddam's arrest appeared unlikely to ease the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which did abate at the end of the first Persian Gulf War, in 1991. Sunday, Israeli authorities issued 42 warnings of imminent terrorist attacks, and militants in Gaza fired 17 mortar shells at Jewish settlements.

Palestinians mourned little for the man who had paid cash rewards to the families of suicide bombers who killed Israelis. Nor was there celebration among Israelis who endured his Scud missile attacks in 1991.

"It was expected," West Bank Hamas leader Adnan Asfour said of the arrest. "We don't like Saddam, but we support any person suffering from injustice or who is a victim, just as we consider the Iraqi people victims."

Palestinians were angry when the Americans toppled Saddam's regime last spring, said Mohammed Horani, a legislator from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah party. "It's a symbolic thing that happened today, although as a Palestinian, I can say no Arab man would like to see an Arab president arrested in this way."

The widely hated Iraqi dictator had become a hero to average Arabs in recent months, a symbol of resistance to the projection of America's military might in the region since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The demise of his regime—once the banner of pan-Arab unity—came to symbolize Arab weakness.

Most Arab governments, fearing a backlash from their constituents, whose anti-American sentiment has grown since the occupation of Iraq, didn't issue any statements about the arrest. Those who did alluded only to hopes that the Iraqi people faced a brighter future.

Reaction was muted even among Iranians, who despise Saddam for waging war against them during the 1980s. The only official statement came from an unidentified Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman, who said Iranians were "sharing in the happiness of the Iraqi people, and Saddam's punishment obviously will mitigate the Iranian people's suffering."

Some observers predicted that the capture would bring more difficulties for Americans and their Arab allies.

Jordanian political scientist Labib Kamhawi said it served as a warning to other Middle Eastern dictators who cast their lot with the United States, as Saddam once did. "Most of them are friendly to America," Kamhawi said.

With Saddam gone, America's fight is no longer against him, but the Iraqi people, he added. "Americans will be looked at now exactly as the Israelis, who are occupying the West Bank."

The region's only glowing response came from Jerusalem, where Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lauded the capture as a "great day for the democratic world, for the fighters of freedom and justice and those who fight against terror."


(Knight Ridder correspondent Michael Matza in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)


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