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Anger, scepticism awaits Bush in Middle East

BEIRUT (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush's visit to the Middle East this week will evoke widespread hostility in a region where many view him as a war-monger pursuing U.S.-Israeli hegemony, not peace and democracy.

In the Arab street, Bush is seen as the man whose invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq to wage "war on terrorism" brought chaos to the region and more recruits to al Qaeda.

Palestinians attend a protest against the visit of U.S. President George W. Bush to Israel and the Palestinian territories, in Gaza January 8, 2008. Bush will start his visit to Israel on Wednesday. (REUTERS/Suhaib Salem)

Many identify him with U.S. abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq as well as the perceived injustices of the Guantanamo detention centre for alleged al Qaeda combatants.

They contrast his talk of democracy and human rights with his support for autocrats in Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, and with the U.S.-led boycott of Hamas after the armed Islamist group won Palestinian elections in 2006.

"The U.S. image remains abysmal in most Muslim countries in the Middle East and Asia," according to a poll on global attitudes by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center last year.

Few Arabs or Iranians think Bush can achieve progress toward peace during his first visit as president to Israel and the Palestinian territories -- and some doubt this is his goal.

"I have no belief that he will resolve anything," said Diaa Rashwan, analyst at Egypt's al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, questioning Bush's power and credibility.

"The American president had seven years to resolve problems in this area. He will come only to say goodbye," he said.

"Perhaps he still has this naive perception that coming here will correct his image, without making any real policy, and that people will forgive him. I don't think so."

Given that many Israelis regard Bush as the best friend they ever had in the White House, it is no surprise to find Arabs convinced the U.S. leader is an enemy of the Palestinians.

"The American administration is responsible for supporting the Israeli occupation and its violations of international law. These facts should not vanish from the memory of those who will receive President Bush," Syria's Tishreen daily said on Tuesday.

Bush is to meet Palestinian and Israeli leaders separately to bolster talks launched at the Annapolis conference he hosted in November. The aim is to reach agreement by the end of 2008 on creating a Palestinian state. But scepticism runs deep.


"I don't see a new vision. There is nothing you can build on from Annapolis," said Sulayman Awad Ibrahim, an analyst at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai. "If he wants to enter the history books in his last year, fine, but it did not work for Clinton."

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton raced to clinch a Middle East peace deal in 2000 in the twilight of his term, but failed.

Since Annapolis, to Palestinian alarm, Israel has disclosed plans to expand settlements in occupied land and conducted tough raids to try to quell rocket fire from Gaza-based militants.

Bush has called Israeli settlement expansion an "impediment" but has put no public pressure on the Jewish state to halt it.

"We cannot treat Bush's visit to the region as a peace move," said Abdel-Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper. "The man can create wars and failed states, but not peace. He is coming to prepare for another war."

Bush has sworn to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear bombs and has refused to rule out military action, even though U.S. intelligence services judged "with high confidence" last month that Tehran had "halted its nuclear weapons programme" in 2003.

The U.S. president will seek Arab support to help contain Iran when his tour takes him to Gulf countries and Egypt.

The influence of the Shi'ite-led Islamic Republic has grown on Bush's watch, largely because U.S. invasions removed two of its main foes, the Taleban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and installed a Shi'ite-dominated government in Baghdad.

"Iran has proven to be uncontainable," said Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University of Beirut. "Actually it has been able to contain the U.S. in Iraq and Lebanon. Wherever the U.S. has been confronted in the Middle East, it has shown a great inability to respond successfully."

Although Bush still emphasises the danger posed by Iran, the prospect of military action or tougher U.N. sanctions has receded since the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate appeared.

That meant Arab nations would be wary of joining any axis against Iran at Bush's urging, said an Iranian analyst, who asked not to be named. He said the Arabs also had to consider that a future U.S. president might seek rapprochement with Iran.

"Arabs would not want to find themselves out on a limb if the next administration was more conciliatory to Tehran."

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