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Arab Protesters Focus Ire on U.S.
NEIL MacFARQUHAR . NY Times . 6 april 2002

On a day of protests across the Muslim world, Egyptian riot police on Friday tried to disperse a group of demonstrators in Cairo.

AMMAN, Jordan, April 5 — Protesters breached the walls of the American Embassy in the tiny Persian Gulf island kingdom of Bahrain today, smashing windows and burning vehicles before retreating under a hail of tear gas and rubber bullets shot by policemen aided by American marines.

There were protests across the Muslim world, underscoring the risks facing moderate governments in Muslim countries as the Israeli offensive drags on.

Officials in those countries say the result could be to undermine American goals in the region, like challenging the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein and pursuing terrorism suspects.

Bahrain, for example, is the home port of the United States Fifth Fleet, so any threat to the stability of the country could also threaten a vital American interest.

The demonstration in Manama, Bahrain, was the fiercest of the protests. It appears to have been fueled by local anger after the American ambassador, Ronald Neumann, attended a model United Nations program at a school earlier this week.

A student asked the assembly to stand to observe a moment of silence for the Palestinians, the State Department said. At the end of the moment, Mr. Neumann suggested that they remain standing for the Israeli victims of suicide bombings.

An abridged account of the incident, making it appear that the ambassador was paying respect only to the Israelis, ricocheted across the region.

The episode was viewed as emblematic of the United States pursuing a biased, one-sided approach to the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

So far the moderate governments have been able to navigate the roiling waters between the mood on their streets and their relationship with Washington. But all of them are hoping desperately that President Bush's commitment to increased involvement will bring a measure of relief.

Jordan's prime minister, Ali Abu al-Ragheb, noting that his country had experienced about 200 demonstrations in the last week, warned that protests ending in chaos could harm the country.

"We are confident that our interior situation is stable and that our people are aware that Jordan's stability is important," he said in an interview on Jordanian television. "A strong Jordan is more capable of supporting its brothers in Palestine."

American officials say the growing intensity of protests helped prompt Mr. Bush to announce a new plan to try to forge a cease-fire.

Despite attempts by governments to ban or at least limit such marches, there were protests today in Cairo, Beirut, Amman, Tunis and even Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

Abdel Qader Abdel Khazem, an Amman prayer leader who whipped up a crowd before a violent demonstration today, captured the gist of the problem facing Arab governments.

"O Arab leaders," he intoned, "your people are boiling like water in a pot. You have to take them on your side against your enemy before they turn against you."

In today's march in normally sleepy Bahrain, where protests began a week ago, 2,000 to 3,000 people gathered outside the embassy walls and started throwing stones, said Eliza Koch, a State Department spokeswoman.

About 20 of them managed to get over the walls, smashing windows and burning two or three vehicles before being driven out, she said. The embassy was closed today, the Muslim day of prayer, and also is closed on Saturdays.

The marines assigned to guard the embassy were forced to use tear gas, a State Department official said, after which the crowd largely dispersed. Local reports said the police had then fired repeated rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets to keep the protesters from regrouping and again charging into the smoke-filled compound.

The episode involving Mr. Neumann upset officials across the Arab Middle East. One Bahraini newspaper suggested that he apologize publicly.

Ms. Koch of the State Department said, "We fully support Ambassador Ronald Neumann in his judgment and in his defense of a principle."

Throughout the region, though, there is a growing sense that the United States should be considered as much a threat to Arab interests as the Israelis.

"America is becoming equally the enemy in the minds of so many people," said Taher Masri, a former Jordanian prime minister.

Indeed, President Bush's remarks on the Middle East on Thursday, despite agreeing with many demands of the Palestinian people, did little to calm the angry public mood, because Arabs felt that he had denigrated the besieged Palestinian leader, Yasir Arafat.

In Amman, a sudden change to brilliant spring weather after days of chilly rain and fog brought out protesters by the thousands.

"Our late king said we live in democracy and we should make our own decisions — our decision is to be against Bush," shouted Mr. Abdel Khazem, the prayer leader at Qaluti Mosque, a handsome square limestone structure with a brilliant white dome that sits a little over half a mile from the Israeli Embassy.

"Mr. Bush was telling us what is a martyr yesterday," he said, referring to the president's remarks on Thursday that suicide bombers should be considered murderers. "God forbids Bush from telling us who is a martyr."

He added: "Bush was telling us yesterday that he is sending to the Arab countries his foreign minister. Do you think the Arab countries are your ranch, you dog?"

After the sermon ended, the commanders of hundreds of police officers wearing helmets and carrying riot shields warned the worshipers and others gathered in the neighborhood to remain calm.

The Interior Ministry reiterated a ban on all marches the night before.

"We understand your feelings," the police commander said through a megaphone. "We don't want sedition. Please stay where you are and shout the slogans you want and don't move."

The crowd in the middle-class neighborhood was mixed at that point: mostly angry young men, but with a fringe of young families with children in strollers. They had arrived with balloons in the colors of the Palestinian flag, which they released skyward.

After milling around briefly, thousands of young men surged toward the line of police officers blocking the route to the embassy, and mayhem ensued.

The police fired salvo after salvo of tear gas and roared into the crowd, backed up by a water cannon. Choking, gagging protesters escaped by scrambling across the well-clipped lawns and flower gardens of the neighborhood, often clambering onto roofs, where they hurled stones and plastic garden furniture down at the police.

The police responded by shattering the glass front doors of apartment buildings with their truncheons and charging in, beating every protester in their path and arresting scores.

"This is a farce!" screamed Fida Muhammad, a 23-year-old student.

"That is all Arab armies are good for — beating women, not the Jews. They have always been like that. We need an Arab army to protect us too and to fight, not to kill us and protect the Arab leaders."