Diplomats fear fallout after abuse reports

Treatment of Iraqi men plays on `most sensitive things for Arabs,' one says

Crisis In Iraq

May 01, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Arab television broadcast photos of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners before an audience estimated at tens of millions yesterday, stoking what diplomats and regional specialists predicted would be heightened anger and cynicism toward the United States.

The sight of a female soldier taunting a naked male prisoner and scenes of male prisoners allegedly forced into sexual poses with one another "are playing on the most sensitive things for Arabs," said an Arab diplomat in Washington, noting the region's traditional, conservative attitude toward masculinity and personal modesty and a taboo about homosexuality.

For America's already poor image in the Arab world, "it's going to have serious ramifications, reinforcing the fears, resentment and distrust of the United States," said Shibley Telhami, a Middle East specialist who holds the Anwar Sadat chair at the University of Maryland.

"The danger of this anger is that it can be manipulated by al-Qaida and by radical Islamists," who are eager to foment hatred toward the United States, said Mary Jane Deeb, a Middle East specialist and professor of international relations at American University.

The images, first broadcast Wednesday night by CBS' 60 Minutes II in the United States, were rebroadcast throughout the Middle East yesterday by the satellite channels al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya. Both channels, which claim editorial independence, have previously drawn angry criticism from the Bush administration and the U.S. military in Iraq for what American officials claim is biased and distorted coverage of the US.-led occupation.

Government-owned or controlled media in countries friendly to the United States were considered unlikely to give the story the same prominence, partly because it would draw embarrassing attention to their close ties to Washington, analysts and diplomats said.

Coverage in the print media yesterday was sparse, but more was expected today.

While governments in the region are usually slow to respond to such news stories, the Arab League, headquartered in Cairo, Egypt, condemned what it called "this mistreatment and humiliation, which is contrary to human rights and to international conventions."

Arab cultures place a high value on honor, and Arab populations are extremely sensitive to examples of humiliation, particularly at the hands of Western occupiers. "Humiliation is the driving force of the majority of the resentment in the region," said Telhami.

Even pictures of fully clothed prisoners taken into custody by Americans could arouse such feelings, he said. To have the prisoners photographed naked in front of women, and in poses suggesting sexual abuse "is an ultimate insult," he said.

Homosexuality, a diplomat said, "is the worst thing that you can even talk about, not to mention do."

"To Arabs and Muslims, the humiliation and dishonor are going to be felt and reverberate throughout the region," said Deeb, and possibly draw new young recruits for radical movements.

Regardless of whether the detainees were physically harmed, "it's not so much the pain, but the psychological, moral and cultural insult that's going to be felt more," she said.

One Arab journalist, who spoke on condition that he not be identified, detected among some in the region a grudging respect for the fact that the alleged abuses were exposed by the American media.

But analysts balanced this against the likelihood that the United States, whose officials criticize other governments for their lack of democracy and failure to observe human rights, is made to look hypocritical.

"There's a sense that the United States spends a lot of time preaching and is in no position to preach," said Jon Alterman, who directs the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

No one suggested yesterday that this incident could compare with Saddam Hussein's decades-long brutal reign in Iraq. But one Arab official, who said he was personally "elated" at Hussein's fall, said some of the techniques exposed by CBS, including the reported threat of electrocution, "are similar to what was used by Saddam's regime."

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