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Reform may be loser in Mideast

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DAMASCUS, Syria — Moderate reformers across the Arab world say American support for Israel's battle with Hezbollah has put them on the defensive, tarring them by association and boosting Islamist parties.

The very people that the United States wanted to encourage to promote democracy from Bahrain to Casablanca instead feel trapped by a policy that they now ridicule more or less as "destroying the region in order to save it."

Indeed, many of those reformers who have been working for change in their own societies — often isolated, harassed by state security, or marginalized to begin with — say American policy either strangles nascent reform movements or props up repressive governments that remain Washington's best allies in the region.

"We are really afraid of this 'new Middle East,"' said Ali Abdulemam, a 28-year-old computer engineer who founded the most popular political Web site in Bahrain. "They talk about how they will reorganize the region in a different way, but they never talk about the people, they never mention what the people want. They are just giving more power to the systems that exist already."

His opinion is shared by reformers across the Arab world.

Fawaziah al-Bakr, who works to promote educational change and women's rights in Saudi Arabia, helped organize women to protest the Israeli attacks. "Nobody is talking about reform in Saudi Arabia," she said. "All we talk about is the war, what to do about the war. There is no question that the U.S. has lost morally because of the war. Even if you like the people and the culture of the United States, you can't defend it."

The statement by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during a fleeting stopover in Beirut last month — that the situation in Lebanon represents the birth pangs of a "new Middle East" — is being juxtaposed with the mounting carnage to rally popular opposition against all things American.

Members of Islamist political organizations consider American actions a godsend, putting their own repressive governments under pressure and distancing their capitals from Washington, reformers say.

The Americans "wanted to tarnish the Islamic resistance and opposition movements, but in reality they only served them," said Sobhe Salih, a 53-year-old lawyer in the Muslim Brotherhood, which was swept into the Egyptian parliament in last fall's election after capturing an unprecedented 20 percent of the seats. "They made them more appealing to the public, made them a beacon of hope for everyone who hates American policies."