Hussein's fall has Arab leaders `trapped'

Urge to hold onto power conflicts with calls for U.S. to let Iraqis vote

War In Iraq

April 13, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AMMAN, Jordan - As Iraq struggles to emerge from an oppressive regime and a traumatic war, its Arab neighbors appear suspended in a fearful uncertainty, not yet sure how to react to the defeat of Saddam Hussein.

Arab leaders are now clamoring for American forces to leave Iraq and let people there choose new leaders through free elections, even though the Arabs lead undemocratic governments and their people do not have that proposed option.

"The Arab regimes are trapped," said Mustafa B. Hamarneh, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. "They are structurally incapable of reform because reform means the end of their regimes."

This feeling, Hamarneh said, "adds to the state of confusion on the Arab street. Saddam could only be removed the way he was removed. It is shameful that we were not able to do it ourselves."

The immediate problem is that no one seems to know what the new Iraq will look like. Images of lawlessness and looting only add to an uneasy feeling that the postwar period will be anything but calm.

Before the war, many Arab leaders had to perform a delicate dance of appeasing the masses who were staunchly opposed to the war while coming down on the right side of an American victory most believed was inevitable.

Angry and sometimes violent protests that broke out in the Middle East as the war raged quieted after Baghdad fell.

"This whole situation has been so unpredictable that all we can hope for is a speedy return to normality," said Mohamad Adwan, Jordan's minister of information, adding that officials are trying to absorb the war's impact on the region.

Practically, Jordan needs a stable Iraq. Many Jordanians rely on trade with Iraq to make a living. And the trucks that have stopped moving across the desert since the war began had been bringing 5 million barrels of Iraqi oil - half of it free - to Jordan every year. Though the United States persuaded nations in the gulf region to make up the shortfall for the time being, without that oil, Jordan's shaky economy could collapse.

"We need them, and they need us," Adwan, said, talking as much about the past as the future. Jordan's population adds another layer of complexity. For one, there are 400,000 Iraqis living in Jordan. For another, nearly 60 percent of Jordan's population of 5.1 million is Palestinian, most of whom view the war in Iraq as an extension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the West Bank and Gaza.

Jordan's greatest concern was that the war would drag on. This could weaken King Abdullah II, who, while voicing placid objections to the U.S. incursion to appease his angry public, evicted some Iraqi diplomats and allowed U.S. Special Forces to stage in the far reaches of Jordan's western desert.

But the war did not go the way people on either side thought that it would. The Iraqi regime did not collapse in the opening days, as the U.S. military had predicted, but neither did it last long, as Arab leaders had feared.

That only added to the sense of emotional confusion. Arabs at first emboldened by the early and unexpected sluggishness of the campaign were crushed when American forces practically walked into Baghdad to cheering crowds.

"The people here are stunned and angry about the way things turned out, and by the speed of disintegration of the regime," Adwan said.

Hamarneh of the University of Jordan said that after watching U.S. and British troops struggle in southern Iraqi cities such as Basra, "many Arabs felt that a victory was possible, or at the very least, that the coalition forces would bleed."

The collapse of Baghdad, Hamarneh said, "is almost as significant as 1967" - when in six days Israel defeated Arab armies and took the Golan Heights from Syria, the Sinai from Egypt and the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan.

Hamarneh said that a prolonged American occupation of Iraq could radicalize Arabs throughout the region and end any chance at widespread reform, while a truly democratic Iraq might force change elsewhere.

"The Arab world is at an historic juncture," he said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.