Like `Gen. Custer, making a last stand'

Hussein: Support for the Iraqi leader is growing among Arabs as his forces dig in against the U.S.

War In Iraq

April 02, 2003|By BOSTON GLOBE

AMMAN, Jordan - From the bustling souk, or traditional Arab market, to the upscale boutiques of the Sheyfiyyeh district, Jordanians are hailing a new folk hero.

Before the war, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was widely despised across the Arab world as the brutal killer of his people, the "Butcher of Baghdad." But as his Baath regime stands up to the modern armies of the United States and Britain, Hussein is emerging in the region as a modern-day Saladin, the fabled 12th-century Muslim warrior who crushed the Christian Crusaders.

"In my brain, I know Saddam is a beast, a monster among men," said Tareq Awwad, 31, a banker who spent his lunch hour Monday trying on sunglasses at La Lunette, a trendy eyewear emporium. "But my heart feels such pride to see an Arab who refuses to kneel."

Awwad added: "The U.S., in its arrogance, thought it would be a small matter to crush a scorpion. Instead it found a lion."

That view was heard repeatedly in Jordan's dingy cafes, where mustached men in head scarves sipped glasses of sweet tea, and in fashionable cafes, where the sons and daughters of the country's power elite ordered up lattes and cappuccinos.

Most Arabs strongly oppose the war in Iraq. But until last month, that didn't translate into popular support for Hussein except among the more rabid anti-Western extremists and among Palestinians.

Most Arabs assumed that Iraq's forces would be swiftly defeated. Now, with Arab broadcasters and front pages trumpeting every minor coalition setback as a resounding defeat, Hussein is receiving accolades even from Arabs such as Awwad, who follow a Western lifestyle, admire American freedoms and prosperity, and detest Islamic fundamentalism.

"Saddam's bravery makes me proud to be Arab," said Feras Dirawi, 26, an import-export businessman in an Italian suit. "It doesn't matter that he had his bad points as a leader - killing his people and so on. What matters is that, unlike every other ruler in our region, he is willing to take a stand against the Americans and Zionists."

Among more ordinary Arabs, Hussein is spoken of with something approaching reverence.

"Truly, he is the glittering jewel in the Arab crown," said Munjed Madnami, a grizzled honey seller dressed in a stained tunic and red-checkered head cloth. "If I was 20 years younger, and had my teeth, I would find a rifle and rush to become a martyr for God and Saddam."

Such hyperbole may be dangerous for moderate Arab governments such as Jordan's, which increasingly are being condemned by their people for tacitly supporting the U.S. invasion in the hope that it will rid the region of its most destabilizing figure.

At the outset of the conflict, protesters across the Arab world clamored for peace. Now the angry mobs tote posters bearing Hussein's stern likeness while clamoring for jihad, Islamic holy war, against the United States and Britain.

"Our hearts, our blood - we pledge to you, Saddam!" roared demonstrators who burst from Amman's mosques after prayer services Friday, the Muslim day of worship. Similar refrains were heard in Cairo, Egypt, and other Arab capitals.

"Without doubt, Saddam occupies the high moral ground across the Arab world," said Mustafa Hamarneh, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. "People are inspired by what they see as heroic resistance to the invasion. And there's no doubt that countries like Jordan and Egypt are facing a real crisis from their own people."

From the perspective of popular opinion, Hamarneh said, "Saddam today holds a much stronger position in the hearts and minds [of Arabs] than he did" on the day the war began.

"That's the war Saddam is winning and winning in a big way - the war for hearts and minds," he said. "His former image was as a thug and despot, but the war is making him a hero and rallying figure."

Outside Iraq, Hussein's only fervent following before the war was among Palestinians, who lionized him for firing Scud missiles at Israel during the 1991 gulf war. But now his praises gush from the lips of Arabs from nearly every walk of life.

"People are excited by Saddam, he seems powerful, even glamorous," said a hairdresser to Amman's upper crust.

Saleem Farah, 38, is a software engineer educated in the United States who is generally uninterested in politics. But he has become a news junkie, closely following the war on Arabic-language stations and CNN - and cheering every coalition setback.

"It's hard to express, but Saddam has given stature to Arabs," he said. "He's brilliant and lacking in fear. Of course, he may be killed in the end. But he's like your General Custer, making a last stand with smoking pistol and flashing sword, the enemy dead lying all around. It fills us with awe and pride."

But other Arabs feel the opposite of pride, although not for reasons Americans might expect.

"I'm so ashamed that Arabs are doing nothing for Saddam; we sit around beating our breasts and crying tears but doing nothing to rescue Saddam," said Rahim Ibraham al-Sadeq, who sells sandwiches in the souk.

Still, some Arabs believe Hussein's popularity may be merely a flash in the pan. "We are not stupid people. Deep down we know Saddam for what he is - a killer, a faithless tyrant who worships only himself," said Assad Juleeli, a cobbler. "Arabs are loving Saddam because he makes a good show of defying America. But I don't believe Americans are the real enemy."

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