Arab Leaders, Unlike Much of Public, Uneasy About Hezbollah

By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, July 24, 2006

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia, July 23 -- The war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon has created widespread public support for the militant Shiite group among people across the Arab world, but leaders appear uneasy about the conflict and fear it could boost the influence of Hezbollah's patron Iran, analysts say.

Thousands of Egyptians and Jordanians have protested the Israeli assault, now in its second week, and hundreds of Saudis have signed petitions demanding a cease-fire. Many in the region have praised Hezbollah for its willingness to fight Israel.

But analysts say the governments of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt want a weakened and disarmed Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that sparked the Israeli assault by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers on July 12. Leaders have criticized Hezbollah, which has since fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, for the cross-border raid and blamed it for provoking the massive Israeli offensive.

Adding to the tension is the widespread concern in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan -- all U.S. allies -- about Iran's growing regional influence, analysts said.

"There are two things that are wrong here: Hezbollah is armed, and its allegiance is to Iran. This doesn't help stability in Lebanon, and it makes it worse that Iran is trying to put Hezbollah in its sphere of influence, which extends from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon," said Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi writer and an adviser to the Saudi Embassy in Washington.

Jordan's King Abdullah, whose country hosts more than 1 million Iraqi refugees, the majority of them Shiites, has often warned about the ascendancy of Shiite dominance in the region. Iran and Iraq are predominantly Shiite, as is Hezbollah.

Abdullah "wants to stop the spread of Shiite influence in the region. He thinks Hezbollah's decisions are made in Tehran, and that Hezbollah's actions were timed so as to distract from international pressure on Iran's nuclear program," said Riyadh Mansour, international affairs editor at Addustour newspaper in Jordan.

While rebuking Hezbollah, most Arab governments hope the United States, through Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, can persuade its ally Israel to cease hostilities, analysts say, because each day the assault continues, they lose popularity and the respect of their people.

"Arab governments want Rice to come and impose a cease-fire because their citizens are watching Lebanese people being killed and injured on television every night, and Arab governments feel deep embarrassment," said Abdel-Monem Said Aly, director of the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

Photos of Lebanese toddlers killed by Israeli missile strikes and lying dead amid the rubble have been on the front pages of daily papers across the region, and activists have circulated dozens of e-mails with graphic photos of Lebanese civilians and children killed or wounded in the strikes. Satellite stations al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya have broadcast blanket coverage of the crisis.

The ongoing conflict has exposed the weakness and powerlessness of Arab governments, said Khalid al-Dakhil, assistant professor of political sociology at King Saud University in Riyadh. "They can't fight, and they can't bring peace. Not only can they not stand up to Israel or the United States; they're not even able to get a cease-fire."

As Israel has continued its attacks on Lebanon's infrastructure, and Hezbollah has fought back, support for the Shiite militia has spiked across the region, turning its leader, Hasan Nasrallah, into an Arab hero. In demonstrations in Cairo and Amman, Jordan, protesters carried giant posters of Nasrallah and burned Israeli and U.S. flags. They also criticized their governments for not supporting Hezbollah.

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