First, Amer Ahmed recalled, came the television pictures of Iraqi fighters resisting U.S. soldiers in the sleepy port of Umm Qasr, unlikely Arab heroes pinning down the invaders as soon as their boots stepped onto Iraqi sand.

Then, only days later, Ahmed watched from his home in Amman as Baghdad fell. American troops were practically joyriding through the storied Arab capital, with no one to challenge them. The dream of Arab champions putting up a fight against the superpower was shattered.

"In Baghdad, the Iraqis had weapons. They had an army. If you fought only with your hands, you could last two weeks. They didn't fight," said Ahmed, 37, a Jordanian architect, shaking his head. "It's humiliating."

Humiliation is the word being used across the Arab world these days to describe the war in Iraq, in particular the dramatic collapse of Baghdad's defenses. The dismay is shared not only by anti-American radicals, but also by those who have felt kinship with the West.

The latter include people like Ahmed, who spent three years studying architecture at the University of Texas and is raising his two young daughters to speak English. "It's not whether you were pro- or anti-America," he said. "Baghdad was a symbol. It was suddenly gone."

The despair is likely to stiffen Arab objections to any new Middle East peace deal that is seen as selling short Palestinian interests and promoting Israel's further integration into the region, analysts said. The humbling of Arabs by the United States could also make them less receptive to Bush administration efforts to sponsor democracy in the Middle East.

But optimists like Mustafa B. Hamarneh of the University of Jordan's Center for Strategic Studies say Iraqis themselves may have the final word. If they succeed in replacing the government of the ousted president, Saddam Hussein, with a stable and democratic government, it could remove the sting of Baghdad's defeat. Already, Hamarneh said, Iraqis have demonstrated they are less demoralized than their Arab neighbors, getting the civil service up and running again, avoiding the much-predicted bloodletting between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and, at times, cheering U.S. troops.

The most vital issue of the war for many Arabs was not Hussein, who had forfeited much of his standing in the region when his army invaded Kuwait in 1990, or weapons of mass destruction, which the Bush administration cited as its principal reason for invading Iraq. Instead, Arabs were desperate to be masters of their own history.

As it turned out, they were not. And so, many of them have already begun to speak of the Iraq war in the same terms as they speak of British and French mandate rule after World War I, the establishment of Israel in 1948, Israel's six-day victory over its Arab neighbors in the 1967 war and the capture of Beirut during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon: all instances of Arab defeats.

"It is the history of setbacks that molded the Arab attitude toward events in Baghdad," said Adnan Abu Odeh, a Jordanian political commentator and former adviser to the late King Hussein.

The unexpected resistance in Umm Qasr during the first week of the war started to erase the image of Arab impotence. Over the following days, Arabs' spirits rose further with the capture of several U.S. soldiers during an ambush against a unit of the Army's 507th Maintenance Company near Nasiriyah and the downing of an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter south of Baghdad.

Viewers across the Middle East watched these developments on Arabic-language television stations, which lauded the Iraqis for "heroic resistance." The stubborn opposition in southern Iraq put the lie to U.S. statements that its forces had secured the port and nearby Faw peninsula, according to Arab analysts. In turn, this made many Arabs even more inclined to accept Iraqi claims later in the war that Hussein's vaunted Republican Guards were routing U.S. troops on the approaches to Baghdad. They entertained the hope that the capital could hang on for months.

Western television reporters, embedded with the U.S. troops, noted the American stumbles as the war began. But they also followed the troops' later progress northward across the desert and over the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, while military analysts expounded on the impact that the massive aerial bombardment was likely having on Iraq's ability to marshal its forces.

By contrast, Arab television stations focused more heavily on civilian casualties. More attention was also paid to isolated examples of Iraqi resistance. On the eve of Baghdad's fall, as U.S. troops demonstrated their ability to move through the capital, some Arab stations excitedly covered the Iraqi capture of a single abandoned U.S. tank. "People fed themselves spontaneously on that resistance. It was a kind of catharsis for the humiliation of setbacks over the last 50 years," said Abu Odeh. "It was a catharsis cut short by the fall of Baghdad."

He added sadly, "We wonder now whether we'll ever be able to recover and be respected worldwide."

Information Minister Mohammed Saeed Sahhaf became the face of Iraqi defiance with his cool denials of reports that U.S. forces were at the city gates.

"He is the one that gave us a bit of hope, a bit of humor, with his total conviction that what he was saying was the truth," said Nabil Sawalha, a prominent Jordanian playwright and satirist, wearing a red-and-white checked kaffiyeh over his bald pate.

Sahhaf has become the latest object of Sawalha's barbs, figuring in a new skit. "All of our humor is based on our humiliation, because we have nothing else," the playwright said.

Sawalha could never be labeled anti-Western. Trained in Britain as a mechanical engineer, with an English wife and a son working in New York, he quips that 50 percent of him is 100 percent Western and 50 percent of him is 100 percent Arab. He has earned a following in the Arab world by lampooning the foibles of the region's leaders and was blacklisted at home by opponents of Jordan's peace treaty with Israel after he performed in Tel Aviv in 1995.

But he said Baghdad's capture inflamed the old wounds caused by the Arabs' experience with Israel.

"I thought history would not repeat itself," he said. "It's quite a horrible shock."

Even Sahhaf, he said, is a rerun of a famous Egyptian radio announcer who, during the 1967 war, kept reporting the fictional downing of Israeli aircraft after Israel had decimated the Arab air forces.

The Arabs' sense of grievance, however, predates Israel. Arab children are still taught about the Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916, under which British and French diplomats redrew the map of the Middle East, carving up the region into states. Arabs say this exercise left them divided and weak. Today, many Arabs say they can discern a similar initiative by the United States and Britain to colonize and reshape the region, beginning with Iraq. They jokingly call this effort Powell-Straw, a latter day Sykes-Picot arrangement named for Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

The U.S.-led military campaign is widely seen as a traditional colonial adventure, according to Hassan Krayem, a political scientist at the American University of Beirut. "Almost everyone wanted to see longer Iraqi resistance. Very few gave a sigh of relief when it ended, that at least this meant fewer civilian casualties," he said.

Mohamed Sayed Said, deputy director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said Baghdad's prominent place in history made its swift capitulation even more painful for Egyptians. In the Middle Ages, Baghdad was the seat of the Abassid caliphate, a powerful and at times progressive Muslim empire that held sway for 500 years.

"Iraq is the source of at least a quarter or a half of Arab culture. Iraq seems to be the embodiment of Arabism and Arab culture," Said said.

"Baghdad means a lot to Muslims and Arabs," said Abeer Bakel as she and two friends shared a window table at the Chili House in Amman's upscale Abdoun neighborhood. Wearing a traditional white Muslim head scarf that revealed only her oval face, the 22-year-old pharmacist said she blamed Iraqis for failing to mount a better defense.

"We expected more from the Iraqi people," she said. "In the days before Baghdad fell, nothing indicated it would happen this quickly. When they said Baghdad had fallen, I felt like I wanted to cry."

Labib Kamhawi, a Jordanian political analyst, watched much of the war on the television set in his spacious Amman office. During an interview this week, the BBC was playing in the background until, in apparent disgust with the news, he turned it off.

"Enough. Whatever we do, we lose," he said. "Failure after failure after failure. There must be something wrong with us after all these defeats. We always defeat ourselves. We should look inside to see why and have the guts and courage to say why."

Kamhawi said that intellectuals and activists across the region increasingly question why Arab societies have produced so many weak, despotic governments.

"Every time I talk about Iraq, I feel sad. I feel tired. I feel angry. I feel so drained on the inside," he said. "I feel so angry at Saddam Hussein, and I blame America equally."

He paused, suddenly choked up, before continuing.

"This is Iraq. This is Baghdad," he said. "This is one of the strong pillars of the Arab world."

Kamhawi went silent again.

"Let's not talk anymore," he said.