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Letter from Damascus: The Syrian street

By BETH POTTER

DAMASCUS, Syria, April 2 (UPI) -- On a street near the university, posters in every store window show pictures of U.S. President George W. Bush, his expressions mirrored by chimpanzee pictures. If Bush is scratching his forehead, so is the chimpanzee. If his mouth is open, so is the chimp's.

The display reflects Syrian anger at recent Bush administration charges that Damascus has sent night-vision goggles and other military equipment to Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

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Maybe Syria will be next on the list as the United States tries to take over the Middle East, says Eyad Shahin, a hamburger outlet owner. "Bush is crazy," Shahin says as he counts change from the cash register. "There's no way the government would send night-vision goggles to Iraq."

The government has also issued denials. Information minister Adnan Umrah Tuesday said statements made by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were "unfounded," adding that the United States is striking out at Syria because Washington was in "a state of human, military and political confusion caused by the failure of the United States aggression on Iraq."

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But Syrian "volunteers" are being allowed to cross the border into Iraq to help in the fight to keep the country safe from invaders, Shahin says.

His words mirror the same mixture of fear, anger and defiance that fills the Syrian media in recent days. Syrian television shows the United States as an evil aggressor. On al Jazeera TV, which broadcasts across the Arab world, images introducing the hourly newscast show an injured baby screaming in pain, a British soldier looking menacingly at the TV camera, and missile fire lighting the night sky over Baghdad.

Iraqis said to be injured by American and British soldiers are shown over and over during the newscast.

"War is always bad, but now children are being killed," says a woman shopping in the covered market, or souk, in the old town. "Americans are doing the killing, not Iraqis." She declines to give her name, hurrying away after warning of "police" listening to every word.

Americans are trying to change the map of the Middle East, says Kareem Haan, a liaison between Kurds in Syria and the government. "Syria has an interest in what will happen, so it is forced to help its neighbor, Iraq," Haan says. "But in the near future, I think Syria has to join the coalition fighting against Iraq."

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Many Syrians on the street say they hate America. But faced with a reporter speaking English, Ghassan Suliaman, 34, a mobile phone dealer, says, "We're mad at the American government, not at you. You're safe here."

And Damascus feels safe. From the bustling downtown, it's hard to picture war going on the other side of the border, 350 miles away. Arabic music blasts from speakers set up on the sidewalk in front of open-air CD shops. Four teenaged girls in headscarfs and long skirts giggle and whisper together at an ice cream shop. Movie theaters are showing Minority Report with Tom Cruise, a Jackie Chan movie and a cartoon for the kids.

But as daylight draws to an end and muezzins sound the call to prayer, the mood changes. The streets empty quickly as people rush home to their families and their television sets to see news of the war against their neighbor, Iraq.

"Americans are bad. They make problems everywhere -- in Afghanistan, quarreling with Germany and France, and now in Iraq," says Olga Haifah, a Jordanian who recently moved to Damascus with her husband and 5-year-old daughter. "When will it end?"

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