The dramatic television footage showing the arrest of Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein, by U.S. forces near his hometown of Tikrit last Saturday helped raise the level of anti-Americanism. In the Middle East, every American move is closely watched, scrutinized and analyzed with mounting suspicion.
There is no debate as to the ruthlessness of Saddam, nor is there room to question his direct responsibility for the death of more than a million Iraqi and Iranian soldiers, killed during the meaningless eight-year war he initiated with his neighbor to the east.
Nor are there any questions about his responsibility over the invasion on his southern neighbor, tiny oil-rich Kuwait, in 1990, and the thousands of deaths that ensued as a result of that invasion, war and the backlash it produced. Likewise, there is no hesitation regarding the hundred of thousands of Shiite, Kurds and other Iraqi political opponents he ordered killed, gassed, beheaded, hanged, tortured and eliminated in the most horrid of ways.
The man is more than guilty, if that is possible, and deserves to be punished accordingly. However, the footage that aired on television screens around the world, including in the Arab world, showing him as a disheveled homeless tramp being inspected for lice by an American medic, has infuriated a great number of people in the Arab world, including many who harbor no sympathy for the former Iraqi tyrant.
The Middle East Media Research Institute carried translations from some newspapers in the region reflecting the current feeling in the area: Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, a Saudi Arabian-based pan-Arab newspaper, commented, "Saddam's arrest is an insult to Arab honor."
That feeling was echoed across the rest of the Arab world. Ibrahim Nafi, the editor of the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram, commented: "The sight of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein at the time of his arrest... is painful and shocking. No Arab would wish this upon the Arab president of Iraq, one of the most important Arab countries."
Abdallah Nasser Al-Fawzan wrote in the Saudi daily Al-Watan: "... In all seriousness, I feel a powerful desire to now pen a long, warm eulogy for Saddam's two sons Uday and Qusay, who joined many of the victims of their father, the false 'Knight of Knights,' who succeeded in deceiving them as well. Because they thought... that their father would not surrender to the Americans, whatever the cost, and that it would be shameful and humiliating if they did so, they resisted the Americans, to their deaths."
Also in Saudi Arabia, al-Watan adds: "We all saw the pictures... Saddam was miserable, and I, as an Arab, felt humiliation."
Although as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated at a news conference at the Pentagon on Tuesday, "it is terribly important that people see what he (Saddam) is," that footage of Saddam may well come back to haunt the administration. A parallel can be made with the "Mission Accomplished" banner on board the USS Abraham Lincoln when President George W. Bush landed on the carrier to proclaim an end to major combat operations last May 1st.
Even moderates in the Arab world have taken offense to the degree of degradation shown to an Arab leader, murderous and despicable as he may be. The image they see is not just Saddam being subjugated to humiliation, but that of the entire Arab world.
In retrospect, it would have sufficed to show the scruffy tyrant of Baghdad under arrest and frightened, as he was. Even better, would have been to show him being detained by Iraqi troops. That would have sent a much stronger message to the Arab world and to those trying to impede Iraq's difficult and painful transition towards democracy.
As Nafi, the editor of Al-Ahram in Cairo, noted, "many Iraqis hoped that his rule would be ended by the Iraqis." That would have taken both the United States and Iraq a couple of steps forward.