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Many in Middle East view deaths of U.S. contractors with indifference

AMMAN, Jordan—One question emerged for many Arabs who watched the grisly images this week of four American civilians whose bodies were burned and mutilated after an ambush in Iraq:

So what?

While the horrific killings Wednesday in the restive town of Fallujah outraged Americans and prompted the U.S.-led coalition to vow an "overwhelming" response, the incident barely registered in the Middle East, where the big news was an Enrique Iglesias concert in Egypt. The dead contractors were largely forgotten.

"Who cares?" said Fida Alsha'er, a columnist for a Jordanian women's magazine. "It's another example of how American life is considered something very expensive, very important, while the Arab life is worth nothing."

The Uncle Sam restaurant sits in the heart of Amman, the Jordanian capital, and its sign is all-American red, white and blue. But that's where the kinship with the United States ends. Tamer, a 24-year-old waiter who wouldn't give his last name, watched Egyptian soap operas at the cafe Saturday instead of western channels that featured persisting questions of when the U.S. would retaliate.

"It's not good to celebrate mutilation, but Iraq is an Arab country under American occupation," Tamer said with a shrug. "Iraqis have the right to fight back."

The four Americans, who worked for a North Carolina security firm, were ambushed as they drove through Fallujah on Wednesday. A jeering mob kicked, beat and dragged their charred corpses through the street. Two bodies were shown hung on a bridge over the Euphrates River. Clerics on Friday denounced the dismemberment as a grave sin in Islam, but stopped short of condemning the killings.

The two most-watched Arab satellite channels, al Arabiya and al Jazeera, showed unusual restraint in their treatment of the images Wednesday. Arabiya aired most of the scene, but blurred the bodies. Jazeera refrained from showing any photos. It was not clear whether the decision was out of sensitivity or because the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council has in the past banned both stations for airing "inflammatory" footage.

In Iraq—as well as Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Algeria and Egypt—newspapers ran initial reports of the incident at the bottom of the front page or buried inside. By this weekend, the papers either ignored developments in the story or stressed the failure of U.S. troops to stop the bloodshed in Iraq.

On Saturday, CNN International featured relatives eulogizing the dead men as freedom-loving heroes. Arabic-language news channels showed footage of Iraqis ripping, burning and trampling on the American flag at an unrelated demonstration. Most Arab media never even identified the slain men.

"There is so much animosity against Americans that people, on the whole, don't regard this mutilation as against individual corpses," said Labib Kamhawi, a Jordanian political analyst. "They feel this was something done against American policy, against America."

Amr al Azm, a 40-year-old Syrian archeologist, has given lectures in the United States on Arab jubilation at American deaths, particularly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He likens the situation to a speed demon cruising down the highway and cutting off other drivers. When the fast car crashes, al Azm said, the gut reaction of the law-abiding drivers is, "He got what he deserves."

That instinctive satisfaction of mighty America taking a loss, he added, was only intensified by Israel's assassination last month of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the beloved spiritual leader for the Palestinian militant group Hamas. An Israeli gunship fired three rockets at the elderly and disabled sheikh as he left a Gaza City mosque after prayers, sparking massive protests throughout the Arab world.

A shadowy group calling itself "Brigades of Martyr Ahmed Yassin" claimed responsibility for the Fallujah ambush in a statement that, like the attack itself, received little attention in the Arab world.

"It's not a big incident in the daily litany of woes in the Middle East," al Azm said in a telephone interview from his home in Damascus. "The Arab media is full of this stuff every single day. Just last week, we saw the mutilated remains of Sheikh Yassin and his wheelchair. Was there similar outrage in America over that?"

Hundreds of American troops in Iraq never saw the gruesome Fallujah footage in full because many satellite TV networks didn't show it and many Internet sites are blocked on U.S. bases. Marine Lt. Col. John Pioli, however, happened to be in Jordan and watched a snippet of the incident on Arab television.

"For 10 minutes, I was disgusted, upset, extremely angry and thinking that being here is a waste of my time," said Pioli, who is helping to rebuild the Iraqi military. "Then I thought, `Nope, there's still too much work to be done.' I want to do what I need to do so I can prevent my son from ever having to come here."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.