Support for Hezbollah Growing in Mideast

Rising Arab anger over the Israeli offensive against Hezbollah appears to have pushed conservative rulers in the region to refocus their criticism away from the Shiite guerrillas and onto Israel.

The most dramatic turn has come from Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally whose king initially rebuked Hezbollah for carrying out "uncalculated adventures" with a cross-border raid that captured two Israeli soldiers. This week, however, King Abdullah warned that "if the option of peace fails as a result of Israeli arrogance, then the only option remaining will be war."

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, an important mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict for the last 25 years, now mixes his condemnation of Hezbollah's move with sharp criticism of Israel's response.

It was "disproportionate, to say the least," Mubarak said in remarks posted Friday on Time magazine's Web site. "Israel's response demonstrated a collective punishment against the Palestinians and the Lebanese. The bloodshed and the destruction caused by the Israelis went way too far."

Much of the initial reaction among Sunni Arab rulers was fueled by a dislike of Hezbollah and wariness of the guerrillas' Iranian backers, but that has been swept aside by a flood public anger at Israel.

Popular opinion in favor of Hezbollah has swelled as newspapers and television stations have shown graphic pictures of the suffering amid climbing civilian casualties.

"Arab states are still worried, especially about Iran and Iraq ... but right now we are talking about the destruction of Lebanon," said Hassan al-Ansari, head of the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University. "When people see all the stuff going on they cannot sit idle."

The rhetoric also has focused on the United States and its support for Israel. Media reports have emphasized that Israel is striking Lebanon with U.S.-made warplanes and guided bombs.

During Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to the region, her statement that the conflict represented the growing pains of a "new Middle East" helped rally Arabs against Israel.

"The Zionist-American plan aims at dismantling resistance and redrawing the map under the banner of a new Middle East where the supreme hegemony is for Israel only," said Mohammed Habib, deputy leader of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. "All sects (of Islam) are in need of unity to deter the enemy."

Even Jordan's mainstream Al-Arab al Yawm newspaper carried a column saying that what Rice really meant was a Middle East free from all kinds of resistance.

Arab governments also have difficulty condemning Hezbollah without appearing to be condoning Israel's response.

"The problem is, Hezbollah is not an army. It is part of the Lebanese community," al-Ansari said.

Some shifts in position have been more subtle than Saudi Arabia's.

Jordan initially accused unspecified forces of dragging Lebanon into conflict. Its government has recently focused on the rising civilian casualties, which King Abdullah II said were a result of Israel's "aggression."

Mubarak remained critical of Hezbollah, saying "some forces are provoking conflict ... to achieve their private interests." But at the same time he chastised the turn the fight has taken.

"Israel will lose a lot ... from the continuation of the military operation, which is concentrating, sadly, on civilian targets," the Egyptian leader said.

Fatma Hassan Al Sayegh, a history professor at United Arab Emirates University, said Arab governments have had to back away from their initial stance as Hezbollah showed resilience and won support from the public.

Many around the Arab world seem to have put aside Shiite-Sunni animosities to concentrate on Israel.

"Oh Sunni! Oh Shiite! Let's fight the Jews!" a crowd chanted outside Cairo's Istiqama Mosque on Friday. "The Jews and the Americans are killing our brothers in Lebanon."

The protesters carried photos of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah alongside those of Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose Arab nationalist policies helped lead to the 1967 Mideast War.

Al-Ansari suggested the shift could be a response to what many believe has been a disproportionate Israeli reaction to Hezbollah.

"The Arab governments, they look at it from a rational point of view — they know it's going to be a big mess at their doors and they have to deal with it," he said. "From the beginning they made their positions clear (but) nobody was expecting the reaction by the Israelis this way."

Shafika Matter, in Amman, Jordan, and Omar Sinan and Maggie Michael in Cairo, Egypt, contributed to this report.

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