Arab leaders' stance is muted as they wonder: are we next?

As messages of congratulation for the capture of Saddam Hussein flowed to Washington - even from opponents of the war in Iraq like Germany and France - the muted response from Arab governments spoke louder than words.

Leaders in Egypt and neighbouring countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria were largely silent in the hours after news of the former Iraqi leader's seizure filled television screens.

Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, said the arrest was 'a major development', falling short of calling it a good one, and added it should hasten the timetable for coalition troops to return power to the Iraqis.

Only oil-rich Kuwait, which Hussein invaded in 1990, and Iran, which he attacked in 1980, sparking an eight-year war, hailed his capture.

In all, there was little indication from the palaces and houses of power around the Middle East that a dictator who killed tens of thousands and wreaked havoc for the region might finally face justice.

'I think they are in shock,' said Hisham Kassem, a political analyst in Cairo. 'None of them wanted to see the stabilisation of a democratic Iraq. Now they will have to ask the question: 'Who among us is next?''


Many Arab governments had long wished Hussein would go. Some even went as far as to publicly call for him to step down. But there will be little joy in this region that the US has won a major victory in its effort to bring democracy to Iraq, analysts said while delegates met in Afghanistan to hammer out the first post-Taleban constitution.

Both events took place less than six weeks after US President George W. Bush called for greater democracy among Arab governments.

'Saddam Hussein may be a psychopath, but when it comes to governance, every other regime in the region runs the same kind of dictatorship he did,' Mr Kassem said. 'The Arab governments are in deep trouble now, and they know it.'

In contrast to the official silence, news of Hussein's capture was the talk of Arab streets, with crowds gathered around television sets in tea shops, and doormen glued to radios outside office buildings.


But if the US government thinks it won a major public-relations victory among the Arab people, it must think again.

Emotions ranged from joy to disbelief to hostility over the sight of a disoriented Hussein in the hands of his American captors.


'We are happy Saddam was captured but disappointed in the way America entered Iraq,' one observer said. 'The US has become the big shark of the world, eating all the little fish.'

Makhmud Faiz, a Palestinian shop worker, said: 'Saddam helped the Palestinians when he attacked Israel, so we like him for that, and for standing up to the US. 'Every Arab is sad he has been captured.'