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Saddam's popularity sinking among his Arab neighbors

Iraqi leader is now viewed as dangerous and arrogant

CAIRO, Egypt — It's not unusual to see Saddam Hussein's portrait at Arab demonstrations. But one, waved at an anti-war rally in Cairo, was different. The caption read, "We love Iraq, but not" — then an image of the Iraqi leader's face to finish the thought.

As a U.S. attack on Iraq appears more certain every day, Arabs appear to be cooling toward Saddam — though by no means warming to the prospect of war, or to what is seen as U.S. meddling.

Saddam was once applauded as a hero who stood up to the United States when no other Arab leader would. Today, Arabs increasingly portray him as a reckless despot who is not doing enough to save his people or his neighbors from a conflagration, and who has taken the region to war twice before.

Earlier this year, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi described Saddam as "insane" for invading Kuwait in 1990 and setting off the 1991 Gulf War.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been quoted as saying he's not sure Saddam understands the wisdom of advice to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors.

Ordinary Arabs have other ways of expressing their disillusionment.

The latest issue of the Saudi-owned weekly magazine Al-Majalla reports that 500 Egyptians whose parents had named them Saddam have sought to have their names legally changed in recent months.

"We saw Saddam then as a leader who loves Arab nationalism and then I had my son and named him Saddam," the magazine quoted the father of a 15-year-old as saying. "We were surprised by his invasion of Kuwait and the destruction of Arab solidarity, and he is the one behind our division now and the war that threatens the Iraqi people."

The president of the United Arab Emirates may have sensed the popular mood when he went public last week with a call on Saddam to step down, an idea Arab leaders reportedly had debated for weeks in private.

The UAE proposal found few takers among Arab leaders, perhaps because there were no guarantees they wouldn't be next to be asked to leave. On the streets, though, many embraced the Saddam exit scenario.

Hosam Hamad al-Sharbagy, a 33-year-old book shop owner in the Yemeni capital, San'a, said if Saddam went into exile, "it would be the only good thing he has done in his lifetime."

Democracy activist Ahmed Bishara, who as a Kuwaiti has long had reason to dislike Saddam, sees the mood shift among other Arabs as overdue.

"At one point people thought (Saddam) had something to offer in military terms, as a superpower in the region. People who have banked on him have been disappointed," Bishara said. "They have seen how arrogant and inflexible, and dangerous to his own people Saddam has been."

Today, some Arabs like Bishara look forward to Saddam's fall, even if the price is war. But just a few years ago, the Iraqi leader's popularity was on the rise. A campaign against U.N. trade sanctions, which have crippled the Iraqi economy, was in full swing. Delegations of writers, students, singers and movie stars flew to Baghdad from Cairo, Amman, Damascus and Beirut to pose next to Saddam, embraced as the symbol of the embattled Iraqi people.

Saddam has tried to link himself to other suffering Arabs. The Iraqi leader, who earned the cheers of Palestinians for firing 39 Scud missiles at Israel during the Gulf War, has more recently been distributing money to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers.

"Saddam's propaganda is better than the U.S. propaganda," said Gehad Auda, a political scientist at Egypt's Helwan University who notes some Arabs still see Saddam as their champion.

In recent days, demonstrators in Yemen have marched with his picture and chanted: "Long live Saddam Hussein!"

Sami Awad, a 25-year-old manning a militia checkpoint in Lebanon's Ein el-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, doesn't separate Iraq's leader from its people.

"As a Palestinian I stand by President Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi people because they are on the side of the Palestinian people. If Saddam leaves power America will appoint a military ruler in his place."