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Iraq seen through a ‘bowl of mud’

As Washington presses on with plans to topple Saddam Hussein, citizens of Qatar can’t help but notice the pivotal role their country is poised to play in a war against Iraq. But they do it in private.
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In this mitten-shaped Persian Gulf state, Qataris appear to be going about business as usual. The oil and gas that fuels the country’s economy keeps flowing. Free-spending sheikhs and their veiled wives still pack the capital’s ritzy shopping malls. Yet as Washington presses on with plans to topple Saddam Hussein, Qataris can’t help but notice the pivotal role their country is poised to play in a war against Iraq. But the government isn’t talking much about it. And Qataris who ask questions do so in private.

IN QATAR, THE government’s parallel policies can be perplexing.

On one hand, Qatar’s emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani is allowing one of his army bases to be transformed into a wartime headquarters for the American military.

On the other hand, Qatar has pursued close ties with Iraq and has never called publicly for the ouster of Saddam.

The country’s religious leaders sometimes paint the U.S. presence in the region as imperialist, while Qataris owe their high standard of living to the billion-dollar investments made by U.S. oil and gas companies in Qatar.

Al-Jazeera, the groundbreaking, pan-Arabic satellite channel funded by Sheikh Hamad, regularly blasts U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf, but it scarcely mentions the emir’s open arms strategy toward Washington. “We’re confused,” said one Qatari professional, who like others interviewed spoke only on condition of anonymity.

With a war with Iraq looming and many Qataris skeptical of U.S. intentions in the region, he said Qataris are finding it difficult to reconcile their leader’s varied tones.

“Right now, our life is like a bowl of water and sand. The sand should sink to the bottom and leave the water crystal clear. But somebody has lit a fire under the bowl and it is boiling. We can’t see through the mud.”

THE SHEIKH’S VIEW “Qataris have every reason to be confused,” said Rachel Bronson, director of Middle Eastern studies for the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “Sheikh Hamad is playing both sides of the coin, and he’s actually doing it quite well. It’s part of a very interesting survival technique.”

Bronson suggested that Hamad’s overtures to Iraq might make it easier to open up his air bases to the United States — allowing the emir to show an even hand and keep dissent from fomenting among his subjects. “Mud” may be exactly what Hamad, a maverick in the conservative gulf region, wants his subjects to see.

And what Sheikh Hamad wants, Sheikh Hamad gets. This small emirate, roughly the size of Connecticut, has a population of just 150,000. The country’s vast oil and gas reserves give citizens a standard of living rare in this region and equal to some in Western Europe.

The sheikh and his family control all the country’s large businesses. His relatives occupy top positions in all the ministries. Many Qataris wonder what the government is doing. But they don’t ask questions.

“There will just be trouble,” the professional said.

OCCASIONAL TARGET Hamad’s seven-year reign, launched when he toppled his vacationing father in a bloodless 1995 coup, has been heralded as an island of progress in a region known for closed societies ruled by petrol-fueled authoritarian regimes. Though he maintains absolute control of the country, the sheikh introduced municipal elections in 1999. A Qatari constitution is expected by 2004.

The Qatari media don’t criticize the government or the U.S. forces directly. Occasionally, however, a dissenting view targets the United States.

In a recent article, Yousef Al-Qaradawi, a respected Muslim religious leader close to the royal family, was quoted as reminding Qataris about President Bush’s ill-chosen reference to a “crusade” against terrorism in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The White House quickly withdrew the remark, condemned by many in the Muslim world as evoking the Christian crusades against Islam.

Qaradawi resurrected the comment last week in al-Watan, a daily newspaper. “George Bush said the invasion of Afghanistan was a crusade. And he wasn’t wrong. He was right,” he said.

A PRACTICAL VIEW Many Qataris say they are say they have reservations about their government’s open courtship of Washington, but they say they live in a tough neighborhood that requires a practical approach to geopolitics.

InsertArt(2009341)By allowing some 4,000 U.S. troops — and a mobile wartime command center — into Qatar, the government has clearly taken a long-term view of ties with Washington, and a short-term outlook on its relationship with Saddam.

“We are a small country,” said one former senior Qatari official who asked not to be named. “We need a powerful ally.”

Qatar is well within range of Saddam’s missiles, a threat noted by the Pentagon when it spent millions of dollars upgrading Qatar’s Al-Udeid airbase for use during a war with Iraq. Multi-faceted bunkers and hangars are designed to throw off radar and protect troops from chemical and biological weapons.

Yet in Doha, the oil-rich Qatari capital where there appear to be as many expensive sports cars as there are residents, Qataris say the hazards posed by Saddam are hardly felt.

“I don’t care,” Mohammed, a 32-year-old banker, said when asked about the looming war with Iraq. “We’ve gotten used to the tension in the region.”

For others, however, the presence of U.S. forces in Qatar could come at the expense of other relationships in the region. One Qatari man said he was unconvinced the intense U.S. military interest in his country represents a long-term U.S. policy, and a lasting friendship with Qatar.

“If Saddam is ousted, then what?” he asked. “Saddam is an Arab. Whether we like him or not, he is part of us. We like the United States, but in the end it is not part of us.”’s Preston Mendenhall is on assignment in the Persian Gulf.