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Middle East Experts: Overall Impact on Region of US-Led Invasion of Iraq Mostly Negative - 2004-03-18

The political impact of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq one year ago is still being felt throughout the Arab world. There have been some tentative moves toward guarded political change, and some countries have begun cooperating with the international community in the fight against terror and the struggle to contain proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. VOA's Greg LaMotte in Cairo looks at some of the developments in the region in the year since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and talks to analysts about their impact.

Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a massive crackdown on terrorists and has announced its first municipal elections.

Libya unexpectedly revealed its program to build weapons of mass destruction and declared it will fully cooperate with international inspectors to dismantle it.

Iran has increased its cooperation with U.N. nuclear inspectors.

Syria has recently had rare public demonstrations for greater freedom and democracy, and Damascus has made overtures toward Israel to re-start peace negotiations that broke down four years ago.

Egypt has assumed a greater role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. For the first time in two years, Israel's foreign minister was welcomed to Cairo this month for talks on the U.S. backed "road map" for peace.

All these developments have occurred since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq one year ago. Still, many Arab political analysts say the overall impact on the region has been mostly negative.

According to Iran expert and lecturer at Cairo University, Amal Hamada, the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan has had a negative effect on the internal politics of Iran. She says conservatives have effectively used the issue to all but eliminate the pro-reform movement in the Islamic republic.

"I think the presence of American military on the borders of Iran, the eastern and western borders of Iran, has been of a negative effect on Iran domestically, because this presence has been forcing different political forces in Iran to take a harder position," she said. "And, it has brought to the domestic agenda of the Iranian politics the issue of the relationship with the West in general, and with the USA in particular, and this has been a very red-line issue. It has been an issue frequently used to eliminate forces. So, I think, it has been a very bad effect."

Some analysts say Arab governments are using the increased terrorism threat to take a hard-line position against their own citizens. One of them, Mohammed al-Musfir, a political science professor at Qatar University, says governments are tightening their grip on their people in the name of fighting terrorist groups like al-Qaida. As a result, he says, there has been an increase in political violence.

The head of the political science department at Lebanese-American University in Beirut, Sami Baroudi, agrees that the overall impact of the U.S.-led invasion on the region has been seen as negative, but he says some seeds of democracy have been planted.

"I think, the only positive thing we can speak of is that some of the small sheikdoms in the Gulf have become a little bit more vocal in supporting democracies," he said. "So, we can say that some of the small states that now feel protected by the U.S. presence, they're sort of cooperating more with U.S. proposals for reforming political systems. But, as far as major players, I think they still feel like they did before: they resent U.S. presence in the region."

Professor Baroudi defined the major players as being Iran, Syria, Egypt and, to some extent, Turkey.

Analysts and government officials in the Middle East also say the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has seriously hurt the U.S. image in the region. Recent public opinion polls taken in Jordan, for instance, indicate that the overwhelming majority of Jordanians describe themselves as being anti-American.

Mr. Baroudi says there is every reason to believe the same is true in most of the Arab world.