Rift Over Saddam Widens; New Tensions Loom
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
As President Bush prepares to announce a new policy on Iraq, Sunni Arab governments in the region are growing anxious. They opposed the 2003 invasion but now fear that a quick pullout of U.S. troops would any add to the chaos in Iraq. They're also worried about Iran's growing influence over its neighbor.
In Egypt, the usually cautious President Hosni Mubarak has issued sharp criticisms of U.S. policy in recent days. He's also joined the widespread condemnation of the execution of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Cairo.
PETER KENYON: Sometimes it takes a bit of cajoling to get Egyptians to speak into a foreign journalist's microphone. But on a recent afternoon, people were only too happy to say what they thought about Iraq's decision to hang Saddam on the first day of the Muslim feast, Eidl-fitr.
Thirty-five-year-old Ali Hussein(ph) says if Iraq's Shiite leaders were trying to look Saddam bad, they accomplished just the opposite.
Mr. ALI HUSSEIN: (Through translator) It's an inhumane and an insult to all the Arabs and the Muslims, especially that this was on the day of the feast. It shouldn't have happened. He shouldn't have been executed on the day of the feast.
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KENYON: Sixty-year-old Monsour Mohammed(ph), in a green robe and white turban, was one of the many who seemed to have forgotten about the atrocities of Saddam and his allies during his decades in power. Mohammed said Saddam, quote, “lived and died as a hero.”
Mr. MONSOUR MOHAMMED: (Through translator) I cried because Saddam is a courageous military man. In the last war, had somebody stood by him, he wouldn't have been defeated.
KENYON: One reason Egyptians feel comfortable speaking out on the subject is that they're following the lead of their president. Hosni Mubarak called pictures of the execution revolting and barbaric, and implied that it was legitimate to question whether the Iraqi court that convicted Saddam was acting while under occupation.
It was one of a number of signs of tension in U.S.-Egyptian relations lately. During a recent visit by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Egypt, Mubarak gave an interview to an Israeli newspaper in which he was openly critical of U.S. policy in the region. The Mubarak government has also apparently turned a deaf ear to American and Iraqi request to shut down a pro-Sunni insurgent television channel being carried by Egypt's Nilesat Company. The Al Zahraa channel routinely airs propaganda videos showing insurgents carrying out attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces.
Lawrence Pintak, head of the Adham Center for Electronic Journalism at the American University in Cairo, says Egypt's refusal, thus far, to cut off the insurgent channel may be a small effort by the Egyptians to distance themselves from the Americans.
Dr. LAWRENCE PINTAK (Head of Adham Center for Electronic Journalism): It's interesting that the Egyptians would give space to an insurgent channel. And it's a reflection of the degree of frustration and defensiveness that we're beginning to see among the Sunni countries - the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Jordanians. All are suddenly in this cold war with Iran. And this is a manifestation of that cold war.
KENYON: A U.S. embassy spokesman in Cairo says Ambassador Frank Ricciardone personally raised the issue of the Al Zahraa channel with Egypt's information minister last month. And they're still waiting for a reply.
Lawrence Pintak says the information minister told him he didn't consider the ambassador's comment an official request, and that for the moment, the Egyptians are taking the position that Nilesat should honor its contract with the owners of Al Zahraa as if it's strictly a business matter.
Dr. PINTAK: It's clearly a lot more than just money. Everything in Egypt is political, and particularly when you're talking about media. Media is power in this region. Egypt was the leader of the Arab world, and to a certain degree, the Egyptians are trying to reassert that leadership of the Sunni world in opposition to the Iranians. And this would appear to be one of many manifestations that we're seeing.
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KENYON: Despite the condemnation of Saddam's execution, some on the streets of Cairo still believe Iraqis can build a country if they can find new leaders. Fifty-five-year-old Faisah Ahmed(ph) said she doesn't think Saddam's execution will necessarily make things worse in Iraq.
Mr. FAISAH AHMED: (Through translator) I don't think there's going to be much of a difference. And they will (unintelligible) if they get a good president.
KENYON: But from the halls of Sunni power - in Jordan, in Saudi Arabia, and in Egypt - the view is increasingly bleak when it comes to Iraq's future and the spread of Iranian power and influence.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo.
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