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Arabs Surprised

2003 will most certainly be remembered as the year Saddam Hussein's dictatorship in Iraq was forcefully brought to an end. After years of effort by the international community to get the Iraqi leader to comply with U.N. resolutions requiring full disclosure of Iraq's weapons systems, the United States led a coalition to bring a quick end to the Iraqi regime.

There was never any question in the minds of Arab world leaders and political analysts that the U.S.-led military action in Iraq would end the regime of Saddam Hussein.

What was surprising to most was the speed with which coalition forces were able to defeat the Iraqi army. And there was shock among Iraqis and many in the Arab world when coalition forces seemingly took Baghdad without a fight.

The war to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein began March 21, with what was called a "shock and awe campaign." Coalition forces unleashed a barrage of 500 missiles on Iraq in the first 24 hours of the war.

Simultaneously, the ground war got under way with more than a 150,000 American and British troops entering southern Iraq from Kuwait.

Fourteen days later, on April 4, U.S. troops seized Baghdad International Airport.

While Iraqi leaders continued giving assurances Iraq was winning the war, American tanks were rolling into the center of the Iraqi capital.

On April 9, the world watched as Iraqis, with the help of U.S. Marines, toppled a giant statute of Saddam Hussein in the heart of Baghdad. North of the Iraqi capital, coalition forces secured key cities including Mosul and Kirkuk.

On May 1, less than a month and a half after the war began, President Bush declared that major combat operations were over.

A U.S.-appointed Coalition Provisional Authority was established to oversee the reconstruction and security of Iraq.

On May 13, a mass grave was discovered near Baghdad that contained the bodies of as many as 15,000 people missing since a Shi'ite Muslim uprising following the first Gulf war in 1991.

Many Iraqis were euphoric over the demise of the brutal Iraqi regime and its ruling Ba'ath party.

But the euphoria would not last long. Iraqis began complaining about a lack of security. The murder rate in Baghdad jumped 30 times its average. Many Iraqis had no electricity or running water.

By July, Iraqis began asking why coalition forces had been unable to locate any of the weapons of mass destruction that President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair had cited as the reason for going to war with Iraq.

It was a question being asked throughout the Arab world, according to political analyst and professor Mohammed al-Musfr who teaches at Qatar University. He says what Arab support that existed before the war has since all but evaporated.

"Before the war, [the invasion] was welcomed by some people in the street, but after the invasion, after the occupation of the forces in Iraq, the people totally changed their mind," explained Professor al-Musfr. And also they changed their attitude toward the United States because they believe it was based on false information that what was threatening the region and threatening the people of Iraq. I could say more than 80 percent of the people changed their mind toward the United States."

As the summer wore on, militants and Saddam loyalists began increasing their attacks, not only against coalition forces but also against anyone believed to be siding with the coalition.

In August, more than 20 people were killed when a suicide car bomber attacked the United Nations in Baghdad. In the weeks following that attack, several Iraqi police stations, at least three hotels and the International Red Cross were also struck by suicide car bombers. Dozens of people were killed and hundreds of others were wounded in the attacks. And at least three U.S. helicopters were brought down by ground fire from insurgents.

By the end of October, more American troops had been killed in Iraq as the result of militant attacks than had died during major combat operations. U.S. military officials in Iraq ended the year with a prediction of more attacks in the months ahead.

In early November, the United Nations asked the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council to come up with a timetable for elections, a target of June 2004 was established.

According to the head of the al-Quds Center for Political Studies in Jordan, Uraib el-Rantawi, holding elections in Iraq will be critical if the United States is to turn the tide of rising anti-Americanism throughout the region. Mr. el-Rantawi explained why: "To shift the power to the Iraqis themselves. To lay the ground for the election in Iraq. To put a timetable for the American withdrawal from Iraq. To deal with the Iraqi people in a suitable manner, not as an occupation force.

Mr. el-Rantawi credits the U.S. defeat of the Iraqi regime for convincing Iran to agree to tougher inspections of its nuclear program, which Washington has accused of being a cover to build nuclear weapons. He also believes Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi reached his decision in December to dismantle his country's weapons of mass destruction as the result of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Mr. el-Rantawi says regardless of the political differences they may have with the United States, Iraq's neighbors want to see political stability return to Iraq. He says countries like Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Kuwait are concerned that political chaos or worse, civil war in Iraq, could spill over into their countries.

And, according to the head of the economics department at Cairo University, Abdel Khalek Gouda, the future of Iraq's economy hinges on establishing a cohesive political system.

"What it needs is to conceive a workable political system that would insure, first of all in terms of stability, keeping the country together because there is a danger of splinter parts of Iraq moving in different directions," said Professor Gouda. "So, if Iraq manages to set their racial and ethnic differences aside and bring their act together and reach a constitution that leads to a workable political system, then that lays the foundation for a potentially strong Iraq from an economic point of view."

But Mr. Gouda says transforming Iraq's economy will be a difficult and lengthy process. He says the Iraqi people, for decades, have only known how to function under a corrupt dictatorship.

That dictator, Saddam Hussein, was taken into custody in the last month of 2003. He was found hiding in a dirt hole December 13 at a farmhouse near his hometown, Tikrit.

And while many Iraqis may not like U.S. forces occupying their country, 2003 ended with celebrations in the streets in most parts of Iraq and expressions of deep appreciation for the capture of the man Iraqis blame for brutally killing of tens of thousands of their fellow citizens.