Fri, Nov 12, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Arab world divided over Fallujah

US ATTACK Many feel sympathy for the insurgents but find that unpalatable if it also means giving support to Islamist fanatics and Saddamist thugs

EGYPT , CAIRO

When an Islamist member of the parliament in Bahrain on Tuesday proposed condemning the US-led assault against Fallujah, one of his 39 colleagues angrily rejected the idea as supporting "terrorists" in Iraq, and a heated debate ensued. In the end, a compromise was reached: a statement censuring the death of civilians.

The incident epitomizes the deep ambivalence in the Arab world about the assault against Fallujah, the stronghold of the Iraqi insurgency.

"People have mixed feelings," said Sawsan Shair, a Bahraini columnist and political analyst. Few Arabs support the occupation, but most also dislike rooting for people they see as thugs beholden to Saddam Hussein and wild-eyed mujahedeen from around the world.

A group of Saudi clerics issued a statement calling on all Arabs to support jihad against the American occupation, and there have been newspaper editorials criticizing the assault. But there are also signs of a certain distance from the Iraqi insurgents; a commentator on a satellite television roundtable referred to those in Fallujah as mundane-sounding "contractors."

Public reaction to the assault has been muted in the Arab world thus far, especially in comparison with the emotional outpouring and sharply rising anti-American sentiment during the major attack on Fallujah in the spring.

One reason is the sense that this operation is at least partly an Iraqi project, with the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, making most of the pronouncements about the assault and framing it as a fight against Saddam loyalists and Osama bin Laden's followers.

In addition, the bloodshed fomented by the resistance in the past months has diluted support for the insurgents, although the American presence remains widely abhorred.

"The local Iraqi participation is more visible than in the past," said Mustafa B. Hamarneh, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan in Amman. "This is one of the main factors, the fact that there are Iraqi generals, Iraqi troops on the ground."

In addition, initial reports have said that most civilians had fled Fallujah before the assault began, and the resistance was much lighter than anticipated. "If you remember, Arab public opinion shifted enormously during the invasion when there was fierce resistance at Umm Qasr," Hamarneh added, referring to the southern port city where the first serious engagement in the invasion took place. "There have been no heroic stories coming out Fallujah."

Another factor is that because the American Marines have seized the hospital in Fallujah, television and newspapers have not been able to show pictures of bleeding women and children being taken into emergency wards.

Al-Jazeera, the Arab-language satellite news station, also says during almost every report that its Iraq bureau was shuttered by the interim government. Given the paucity of pictures, the station took the unusual step of using part of its daily global news roundup to exhibit a slideshow of still photographs of the fighting taken from The New York Times'' Web site.

At the same time, much Arab attention has been focused elsewhere: on Yasser Arafat, who died early Thursday morning.

Finally, this is the last week of Ramadan, when families are either out at night buying presents for the holiday that marks the end of the month of fasting, or else glued to their television sets, awaiting the denouement of various special Ramadan television serials and quiz shows.

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