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Amid sympathy, conspiracy theories

Some in Arab world see lesson in Columbia shuttle disaster.
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Against a backdrop of a possible war in Iraq, the Arab world is giving a mixed reaction to America’s loss of the space shuttle Columbia. Both condolences and conspiracy theories are the topic of discussion in Arab-language media and on the streets of the Middle East.

As the United States gears up for a possible attack on Baghdad, animosity toward Washington is widely felt in the Middle East.

For many here in Damascus, that bitterness was expressed in several apparent ironies surrounding the shuttle disaster.

The vapor trails of the disintegrating Columbia were first seen over Palestine, Texas, a name that evokes the Palestinian struggle against Israel’s occupation of parts of the West Bank. And on board the shuttle with six American astronauts was Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut — and a decorated air force colonel who piloted a fighter jet that bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981.

With a war looming and Middle East tensions rising, conspiracy theorists seized on a connection between the shuttle tragedy and events in the region.

“You never know,” said one Damascus shopkeeper, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

An article in Asharq Al-Awsat, the Saudi-backed, pan-Arabic daily, fueled that sentiment. “American Palestine has been made famous by the crash of Columbia,” the paper wrote in its Monday edition. “Iraq will be happy about the death of the Israeli astronaut who bombed its nuclear reactor.”

Live coverage
After news of the shuttle disaster broke Saturday afternoon in the Middle East, most in the Arab world tuned into Al-Jazeera, the only 24-hour Arab-language newscaster.

A frequent critic of U.S. policy in the region, the satellite channel provided live coverage of events as they unfolded in the United States, bringing in space experts to its studios in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar to comment on the implications of the shuttle loss.

Elsewhere in the region, Washington’s opponents used the occasion to aim verbal attacks at America. Lebanon-based Hizballah militants, who the United States blames for bombing a U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut and kidnapping U.S. citizens, said the shuttle disaster proved the United States is not an invincible deity.

“What happened yesterday is a message to all humanity, and especially Arab, Muslim and Third World people, a message to those who thought in the past few years that America was a god that couldn’t be defeated or defied,” said Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, speaking to thousands of people at a graduation ceremony.

“America, which threatens the whole earth with war, with millions of men and aircraft carriers, and nuclear weapons ... stood by in awe, unable to do a thing, as its space shuttle blew up in the sky and plummeted to earth. … America, like it or not, gave in to the will of God Almighty.”

The Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hizballah waged a guerrilla war against Israel’s 22-year occupation of south Lebanon. Of U.S. plans to topple Iraq’s leadership, Nasrallah accused Washington of plotting to dominate the Middle East.

Sympathy on the streets
Amid the rhetoric and conspiracy theories, most in the region offered condolences to Americans, regardless of how their country is viewed in the Middle East.

In Baghdad, Iraq’s main newspapers reported the shuttle crash on their front pages — but below reports on Saddam’s regular meetings with military leaders.

No official government statement was released, but Bushra al-Samarai, a member of the Iraqi National Assembly said Iraqis sent their condolences to the American public.

“We are people who love other people,” al-Samarai said. “We respect [American] feelings and share their sadness over this tragic incident.”

National Assembly speaker Gen. Ghalib Jassim also voiced sympathy for the space shuttle tragedy, but with a reminder that Iraq feels under siege from the same stricken America.

“We are friends for the American people,” said Jassim, a graduate of the State University of New York at Buffalo. “We don’t have anything against the American people as people. The problem is between us and the American administration.”

The news of the loss of the Columbia on Saturday appeared almost immediately over Iraq’s Al-Shabab (Youth) television, a station owned by Saddam’s son Odai. It switched to live coverage of the fast-developing news carried by Al-Jazeera.

Despite references in the Arab media to a “Zionist” astronaut onboard Columbia, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat promptly offered condolences to Israeli President Moshe Katsav, as well as the American people.

NBC’s Charlene Gubash in Cairo, Reuters and The Associate Press contributed to this report.