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Qatar's Public Opinion Divided Over Possible War Against  Iraq - 2003-03-13

While diplomats attempt what may be the final effort to peacefully resolve the standoff over Iraq, anxieties are rising in the Gulf region. Correspondent Scott Bobb reports on the mixed feelings in Qatar, which is a base for the U.S.-led command of any military operation against Iraq.

Despite the threat of a war just a few hundred kilometers from here, life in Qatar goes on normally. A cultural festival of music and art from around the world is in its second week. And crowds of people come out every night to listen to the music and stroll along Doha's serene seafront.

The families are diverse. They come from Qatar, other Middle Eastern countries, Asia, Africa, and Europe.

An office worker from Jordan named Bilad says despite worry over possible war in the region, people here do not feel a great threat.

"No, I think in Qatar, no," he said. "Maybe in Jordan, maybe in Kuwait. Qatar, it's very far away from Iraq."

Nevertheless, people closely monitor the news about Iraq and many still hope a way will be found to avoid another war in the region. A professor at the University of Qatar, Mohammad Al-Musfir, notes, however, there is not much optimism.

"The people are trembling and afraid of any war against Iraq," he said. "They are listening hour by hour to the news and they are praying God to save the world from any kind of war in this part of the world."

According to professor Al-Musfir, if war does break out, business and foreign investment in the region will be hurt, and oil prices will rise, causing a world recession. He also fears the violence could spread to other countries in the region. And he believes that popular anger could destabilize Arab governments that are considered friends of the United States.

"This will create a problem, chaos and a disaster for the Middle East as a whole," says professor Al-Musfir. "And this is not good for the democratic countries. It's not good for the industrial countries as well."

Others, however, disagree. The director of the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University, Hassan Al-Ansari, notes that during the war 12 years ago to end Iraq's occupation of Kuwait, many people expressed similar fears. He recalls that although many in what is called the Arab street were angry, the predictions of regionalized instability turned out to be wrong.

"The Arab regimes demonstrated in the past they were capable to deal with the Arab street," he said. "We might see some demonstrations here and there, but they will not, in my judgment, be in a position to threaten the Arab regimes in general."

For professor Al-Ansari, the current crisis is due in part to the fact that following the Gulf war, Arab governments failed to deal with Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction. He says those who now call for more time to allow Iraq to dismantle its weapons programs are interested primarily in political survival.

"These people who are asking for more time, I think they are more interested to maintain the status quo than to deal directly with the issue of Iraq and what is the future of Iraq," he said.

There is a certain sense of fatalism here, and of resignation. For, although the prospect of war is widely condemned and the worries over its consequences are widespread, some see it as unavoidable and say they hope only that it will be quick and spare innocent Iraqis as much as possible.