In Break With Bush, Iraqi Leader Assails Israel

Published: July 19, 2006

BAGHDAD, Iraq, July 19 - Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq on Wednesday forcefully denounced the Israeli attacks on Lebanon, marking a sharp break with President Bush's position and highlighting the growing power of a Shiite Muslim identity across the Middle East.

(Gold9472: I don't know if I trust this PM. He was probably put there. Regardless... the statement about the "growing power of Shiite Muslim identity across the Middle East" struck a nerve for some reason. If the Iraqi PM is sincere, which I doubt, but if he is sincere, then of course he should denouce what Israel is doing. It has nothing to do with being a Shiite. I oppose what Israel's doing. Does that make me a Shiite? Seems like a bit of propaganda to me.)

"The Israeli attacks and airstrikes are completely destroying Lebanon's infrastructure," Mr. Maliki said at an afternoon news conference inside the fortified Green Zone, which houses the American embassy and the seat of the Iraqi government. "I condemn these aggressions and call on the Arab League foreign ministers' meeting in Cairo to take quick action to stop these aggressions. We call on the world to take quick stands to stop the Israeli aggression."

The American Embassy did not answer a reporter's request for a response.

The comments by Mr. Maliki, a Shiite Arab whose party has close ties to Iran, were noticeably stronger than those made by Sunni Arab governments in recent days. Those governments have refused to take an unequivocal stand on Lebanon, reflecting their concern about the growing influence of Iran, which has a Shiite majority and has been accused by Israel of providing weapons to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group.

The ambivalence of those governments has angered many Sunni Arabs in those countries, despite the centuries of enmity between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam.

Like many other people around the region, Ahmed Mekky, 40, an Egyptian lawyer and a Sunni Arab, says he supports Hezbollah because it is doing what he said the Arab leadership has been frightened to do for too long - standing up to Israel and the United States. "We are praying that God would make Hezbollah victorious," Mr. Mekky said as he stood beside a newspaper kiosk in downtown Cairo on Wednesday. "All the Arab governments are asleep."

Perhaps more so than at any time since Iraq's occupation of Kuwait in 1990, the bloodletting between Hezbollah and Israel has highlighted the huge divide among many Arab countries, and between many people and their leaders.

Sunni Arab leaders in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf Countries have complained that since the rise of a Shiite majority governing Iraq, and with Iran pressing ahead with its nuclear program, Tehran stands to emerge as the regional power. Unlike the other countries, Iran has only a tiny minority of Arabs, with Persians making up a slight majority. (Azeris are the second-largest ethnic group there.)

Some Sunni leaders see in Hezbollah a dangerous beachhead for Iranian influence in the region. And they have criticized Hezbollah for staging the raid into Israel and capture of two Israeli soldiers last week that prompted Israel's attack on Lebanon.

But the longer the conflict drags on, the more these leaders are finding their credibility called into question. The longer satellite television shows images of civilians killed and maimed by Israeli bombs, the more these leaders face hostility from their own people. The longer Hezbollah fires rockets into Israeli cities and towns, killing and wounding Israelis, the longer these leaders have to face questions about why they do not take similar action.

"People know that the Arab governments are impotent and are always looking for excuses to justify their failure to do anything," said Adnan Abu-Odeh, a former adviser to the late King Hussein of Jordan. "In fact, historically, this episode is another example of how Israel embarrasses the moderate regimes in the region."

Prime Minister Maliki's comments in Baghdad came in response to a reporter's question about whether the Iraqi government had plans to evacuate Iraqis from Lebanon. After lashing out at Israel, Mr. Maliki said he had asked the Iraqi embassy in Beirut to help evacuate Iraqis stranded by the Israeli campaign.

His stance is noteworthy because it is a significant split with American policy toward Israel. It has been the Americans' hope that Iraq would become President Bush's staunchest ally among Arab nations. The Americans arranged a series of elections that ended up putting Shiite parties in power, and the White House helped boost Mr. Maliki by pushing last spring for the ouster of the prime minister at the time, Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Mr. Maliki relies on the presence of 134,000 American troops in Iraq to stave off the insurgency led by Sunni Arabs, who ruled over the majority Shiite Arabs for decades.

The resentment of the Iraqi government toward Israel calls into question one of the rationales among some conservatives for the American invasion of Iraq - that an American-backed democratic state here would inevitably become an ally of Israel and, by doing so, catalyze a change of attitude across the rest of the Arab world.

A growing number of Iraqi officials have stepped forward in recent days to condemn Israel. On Sunday, in a rare show of unity, the 275-member Parliament issued a statement calling the Israeli strikes an act of "criminal aggression." The militant Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, whose followers play a crucial role in the government, said last Friday that Iraqis would not "sit by with folded hands" while the violence in Lebanon raged. Mr. Sadr commands a powerful militia, the Mahdi Army.

So far, the most prominent Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has remained silent. But another Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad al-Husseini al-Baghdadi, of Najaf, in an Internet posting on Wednesday accused the "international arrogant forces, especially America" of igniting conflict between Shiite and Sunni Arabs in Iraq and provoking Israel to attack the Palestinian territories and Lebanon. The ayatollah has relatives in Lebanon.

An Iraq-born cleric now living in the Iranian holy city of Qum, Ayatollah Kazem al-Hussein al-Haeri//many ways to spell his name called in an Internet posting for Muslim warriors to support the "mujahedeen of Lebanon," saying that "the battle is all of Islam against all of the nonbelievers," according to a translation by the SITE Institute, which tracks Internet postings by Islamic militants. The ayatollah is Mr. Sadr's godfather.

In recent days, residents of some cities in the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq, including Kut and Basra, have taken to the streets to protest Israel's strikes.

The Israeli assault is bringing to the fore one of the unintended consequences of the American war here - the potential for what many analysts call a Shiite crescent stretching from Iran to Iraq to Lebanon. It is a phenomenon that could rewrite the political map of the Middle East, with Sunni Arab countries drawing together to oppose Shiite dominance. The lukewarm responses from Sunni countries during the Lebanon conflict, in contrast to the statements from Mr. Maliki and other Shiite leaders, are the latest manifestation of the divide.

Top Shiite politicians in Iraq have myriad connections to Iran. Many officials in Mr. Maliki's political group, the Islamic Dawa Party, fled into exile there to escape the brutal persecution of Saddam Hussein. Mr. Maliki also has other ties to pro-Hezbollah leaders in the region. He spent most of his 23 years in exile in Syria, where he ran the Damascus branch of the Dawa party. Syria supports Hezbollah and Hamas, the militant group that now leads the Palestinian government.

Outside of Iraq, popular criticism of those Arab leaders who have not stood with Hezbollah has been biting. Al Dustoor, an Egyptian opposition weekly newspaper, mocked President Hosni Mubarak in a headline comparing him to the Hezbollah leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. Mr. Nasrallah's son died in 1997 during the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. Mr. Mubarak has been accused of positioning his son, Gamal, to take over as president in six years.

The headline: "The difference between a leader who offers his son as a martyr and a leader who offers his son as a successor!" Also in Egypt, 75 prominent academics, political leaders and former government officials issued a statement declaring solidarity with Hezbollah, commending Mr. Nasrallah and criticizing Arab governments as "silent and impotent."

It is impossible, of course, to talk about one "Arab Street" because opinions are as varied as they would be in any multicultural, multinational, multireligious region. But it has gotten to the point where even some of those who are critical of Hezbollah for seizing the Israeli soldiers are calling for unity in standing up to Israel and the United States.

"What is certain is that Hezbollah's step and that taken by Hamas before it, lacks political wisdom," wrote the Saudi journalist Dawood al-Shiryan in the pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat. "But to insist on calling the resistance to account for this mistake now that Israel's violent response has been launched has created a political reality that is difficult to describe." Last month Hamas captured an Israeli soldier during a raid into Israel.

Should Hezbollah and Hamas emerge victorious, Mr. Shiryan argued, leaders of countries like Egypt and Jordan will be isolated from the leaders of those groups. And if they lose, Egypt and Jordan will bear part of the blame.

Even in Syria, which has offered strong verbal support for Hezbollah during this crisis and is accused of having helped arm and train it in the past, there is growing frustration that tough words are not followed by tough deeds. The Syrian authorities have cracked down recently on people who speak out against the government, so people who were asked about their views were afraid to be identified. But in recent conversations at a cafe in the center of town, many people expressed just that frustration.

"The Syrian leaders don't want war with Israel, but what's the use of supporting Hezbollah under the table?" a retired lawyer said. "For a long time our government has talked about its support for pan-Arab issues, but the Syrian people are tired of talk." Mahmoud Abdel Aziz, a cashier at a grocery store in the Cairo residential area of Zamalek, was watching the Egyptian satellite news when he expressed his own frustrations with Arab leaders.