Iraq Bombings: Reaction In The Arab World - Songs and smiles turn to fury and flag-burning

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I CALLED up a Saudi journalist friend yesterday and told him Downing Street was claiming the attack on Iraq was intended to protect the Arab Gulf. "Zbeili," he shouted down the phone. Zbeili is Arabic for garbage. "Why do you want to kill more of those poor people?"

The spin-doctors are trying to present the Anglo-American assault on Iraq in all its old 1991 Gulf War purity. Iraq's neighbours are under threat and must be safeguarded from his weapons. But with the exception of Kuwait, the Arab Gulf states wanted none of the West's protection yesterday.

Even in the West Bank, where President Bill Clinton's visit this week had produced the largest American banners ever seen in the Arab world, they were back to burning the US flag and shouting "death to Clinton".

Mr Clinton had sung with a Palestinian choir in Bethlehem three days ago; yesterday, crowds near Manger Square were throwing stones at Israeli troops.

"We thought he (Clinton) carried a message of peace," a disgruntled Palestinian girl said. "But now it is clear he is a murderer."

It is difficult to underestimate the degree of cynicism and distrust that is now felt in the Arab world towards the United States and the only ally to support Washington in the attack on Iraq. Why, the Saudis were asking privately yesterday, did America and Britain continue to pretend that the Saudis supported the bombardment when as long ago as last February, Saudi Arabia had refused permission for the US to use its air bases for raids on Iraq?

It transpires that when the US Defense Secretary, William Cohen, sought Saudi help during November's crisis with Iraq, Crown Prince Abdullah not only refused assistance but suggested the US may soon be asked to remove its aircraft from Saudi air bases altogether.

The painful truth is that most of the Arab dictatorships are more fearful of their own people than they are of Saddam Hussein - especially when ordinary Arabs are angry with their governments because of their support for Washington.

An example of this came in Cairo where 3,000 studentsprotested at the American attack. Egyptian state security police patrolled the university district.

Even Iraq's traditional enemies expressed revulsion at the bombardment. In the Iranian capital Tehran, a Foreign Ministry official said the attacks "will lead to even more pain and misery for the people of that country and will bring about insecurity in the region". The pro-Iranian Hizbollah guerrilla movement in Lebanon condemned what it called "American-British aggression" which, it feared, would be used by Saddam Hussein's regime "as an excuse for further atrocious massacres against the Iraqi people".

The word "aggression" - iitidak in Arabic - was used too, by Esmat Abdel- Meguid, secretary-general of the Arab League, and by Selim el-Hoss, the Lebanese Prime Minister. "While we condemn this attack on Iraq," Mr el- Hoss said, "we are astonished by the fact that Israel alone among the regional states is free from the constraints and controls of possessing mass destruction weapons."

Indeed, hypocrisy was what came across in many Arab newspaper headlines. "Desert Fox operation postpones Clinton's impeachment," the Lebanese daily As Safir announced.

When President Clinton launched air strikes against Afghanistan and Sudan at the height of the Monica Lewinski scandal, Arabs refused to believe it was coincidence. Now he has attacked Iraq at the moment of impeachment hearings, there is probably not a soul in the Arab world who does not believe Iraqis are dying to save the Clinton presidency. And America's failure to ensure that Israel honours the Oslo and Wye agreements is contrasted with his bellicose attitude towards Iraq.

Contrary to many news reports, American fixed-wing aircraft - as well as cruise missiles - were flying over Baghdad on Wednesday night. "We heard the planes very clearly," one Westerner told me from Baghdad.The aircraft may well have flown from the one Arab Gulf state which wants to help any American strike at Iraq: Kuwait.

Degrading act,

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