Assassination angers Arab world

Death of Hamas' Yassin brings reprisal warnings

March 23, 2004|By Evan Osnos | Evan Osnos,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CAIRO, Egypt - The Arab world exploded in anger yesterday over Israel's killing of Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin, as political leaders, Muslim fundamentalists and citizens dismissed any hope of peace and warned of violent reprisals.

In the largest Arab demonstrations since the invasion of Iraq a year ago, protests unfolded from Egypt to Yemen to Iraq, with demonstrators denouncing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his allies in the Bush administration.

"They think that by killing Yassin the violence will stop," said Cairo University law student Wessam Talaat Mahmoud, one of thousands who rallied on campuses across Egypt. "It will double. They have incited feelings against them all over the Arab world."

Arab and European governments condemned the helicopter attack that killed the cleric and seven others outside a Gaza mosque at dawn yesterday.

"What peace process, when the situation is on fire?" said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who had been pushing Israelis and Palestinians to find a resolution to the 42-month-old Palestinian uprising.

While Israel hailed the death of one of the Palestinians' most influential advocates of suicide bombings, Arabs reacted with a rage that underscored how Yassin's stature had risen in recent years with the growing profile of Hamas. Dying at Israeli hands catapulted the paraplegic cleric into a position of unique symbolic power across the Arab world, analysts said.

"You can say without question that Ahmed Yassin is more important than Yasser Arafat right now," said Syrian political scientist Imad Fawzi Shuaibi, a professor at Damascus University.

"The warfare will expand in different ways and different places," said Rami Khouri, editor of The Daily Star in Lebanon. "You are going to see a lot more support for Hamas around the region."

Muslim fundamentalist groups used the incident to release criticism of the Sharon government, the Bush administration and Arab governments that some Arabs blame for failing to protect Palestinians.

"There can be no life for the Americans and Zionists in the region," Mohammed Mahdi Akef, leader of the Middle East's oldest and largest Islamist movement, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, told Al Jazeera television. "We will not rest until Israelis are expelled from the region."

Yassin's killing also could deal a blow to Arab reformers by shifting the region's attention exclusively to the Israeli-Palestinian problem as Arab governments were preparing to debate a reform agenda at a summit next week in Tunisia.

One of the few places in the Arab world where the reaction was relatively muted was Iraq. In the northern city of Mosul, about 500 university students shouted anti-U.S. slogans and burned American and Israeli flags, but Baghdad was largely quiet.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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