MANAMA, Bahrain -- One of the first questions to greet Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when he stopped here this week on a tour of the region was not exactly a friendly one.
"I don't know what you're reading in the local press," a reporter from Al Khaleej, one of the major English-language papers in the Gulf, asked the American general at his press conference. "But they are saying that 600 Iraqis have been killed in Fallujah and 1,200 injured in the last week.
"I don't know what the American people really know, but I fear that if things go on like this, America will lose credibility across the entire Arab world."
Gen. Myers answered quickly and seemingly without any qualifying thoughts.
"One thing you know," he said, "is that the U.S. military has used great care in the Arab world with regard to how to use power, in order to achieve the ends we have achieved today.
"Major combat is over, and we have seen over and over American troops putting themselves in danger to serve others. Fallujah is a good example. All the offensive operations against us there are being done by people who do not want a free and open Iraq. They're fighting from mosques and schools. When you wage war from a 'protected site,' under international law it loses its protected status -- but we have still protected these sites."
Then, going back to the original question, the chairman added, "We don't think anyone knows the number of casualties, but clearly what the coalition wants accomplished is what we want." Then he added quickly, "We are not reckless."
What is one to make of this?
First, if high-ranking American officials like Gen. Myers truly believe, as the president said almost a year ago, that major combat is over, no one has told the people of the Gulf region. The overwhelming feeling here is that Iraq is on the verge of civil war -- and that American tactics toward "the Arabs" in Fallujah are little less than war crimes.
(For four American military contractors killed there, they ask, the Americans should enter an Iraqi-style cycle of revenge and kill and wound nearly 2,000 people?)
And these countries -- Oman, Qatar and Bahrain -- are, on top of it all, the quintessence of moderate and pro-Western Arabs.
Second, people here, as across the region, see the reality of the fighting and the dying on television day after day -- particularly on the al Jazeera television network based in Qatar -- as Americans do not.
American networks in Iraq are, in many ways, kept away from the unpleasant sight of dead American bodies by our government and military. They have not, at least until now, been showing the real carnage -- and Iraqi dead are barely mentioned in the American media at all.
As one of the highest officials here in Bahrain (and one of the most pro-Western ones) told me this week as Iraq was being overtaken on multiple fronts with violence: "Before, people here did not know what was going on in the world. You would read it in the papers three days later. Now you see it on TV immediately, and it has created a great public opinion against the West."
Third, being in the area -- and not in the refined atmosphere of the Pentagon -- gives many of us a distinct feeling of unreality.
The war, seemingly without resolution on any horizon, is being waged only some hundreds of miles from here. Yet we watch American TV, where the prime item of interest in Washington is not the war but the hearings over what led to 9/11.
Those hearings tell us that the "system" and the "culture" of the FBI were at fault. But it seems from here to have been more a lack of "informed instinct" (my term) on the part of the Americans who designed this war based not on how Shiites or Sunnis react, but on how the automatons in their "war games" react.
Our military leaders use every bad word in the lexicon to destroy "enemies" like Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq -- "criminal," "killer," "hooligan," "murderer," "thug" -- never seeming to realize that a man like him has tens of thousands of family members alone and that Iraqis hold grudges not for hundreds, but quite literally for thousands of years.
When, last week, the White House called for him "dead or alive," the words sent a chill up the spines of many Arabs and many Westerners in the Gulf region. Then one of the commanding American generals in Iraq qualified such compassion by saying, "Kill him first" -- and the papers were full of wonder at what had become of the old America they thought they knew.
Invariably and inevitably, the recent assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, by the Israelis in Gaza is compared to these American intentions, and the costly siege of Fallujah is likened to the Israeli destruction of the Palestinian town of Jenin last year.
Toward the end of his press conference here, Gen. Myers asserted of the warfare engulfing Iraq: "The one thing it is not is any uprising by the Shia community -- or any other. This man named Sadr and his militia are causing some trouble in various cities -- he will be dealt with. West of Fallujah there are problems, but nothing shows that we're on the verge of a civil war. There are only those who don't want Iraq to be able to decide for itself."
That was certainly reassuring.
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