WASHINGTON - In a single, awful day in the Middle East on Wednesday, Israeli forces killed unarmed Palestinian protesters and Arab news reports claimed that a U.S. Army helicopter killed 40 people at a wedding party in Iraq.
Other than the calendar, there was no connection between the two events, and the facts of the second one are very much in dispute. American officials acknowledge that some 40 people died near Iraq's border with Syria but said American forces had attacked suspected foreign fighters, not a wedding party.
The way we are going is leading us toward the very thing we say we want to be against, which is (a) clash of civilizations.
Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt
In much of the Islamic world, however, three facts may help transform two mistakes into the "clash of civilizations" so desired by Osama bin Laden and other Islamic terrorists: Christian or Jewish troops killed Arabs, they used American-made weapons and the attacks were reported on television.
As a result, many ordinary Arabs are likely to see the events in Gaza and Iraq as one, helping fuel perceptions that Islam is under attack from the West, Middle East experts said.
The United States took the rare step Wednesday of not vetoing a United Nations Security Council vote condemning Israel's tactics in Gaza, and President Bush has said repeatedly that the "global war on terrorism" isn't a war against Muslims.
Nevertheless, the failure of the U.S. occupation to bring stability to Iraq, the Iraq prison abuse scandal and Bush's past support for Israel's tactics against Palestinians have led many Arabs to question that.
"The way we are going is leading us toward the very thing we say we want to be against, which is (a) clash of civilizations," said Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt and now president of the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
While surveys indicate that most Americans don't see such a conflict, "an increasing majority of Muslims are beginning to see the world as a clash between Muslim civilization and Western civilization," said Husain Haqqani of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
"Every incident of the use of force against Muslims, justified or unjustified, is interpreted as a manifestation of that clash," he said.
One result of U.S. actions, Haqqani said, is that "moderate voices are being less and less heard in the Muslim world."
Those moderate voices are the West's natural allies in the Muslim world, and the Islamic radicals' mortal enemies.
"It took Israel 55 years to create the hatred and enmity with the Arab world. But it took Bush one year to create the same level," said Imam Husham al Husainy of the Karbala Islamic Education Center in Dearborn, Mich.
Shibley Telhami, of the University of Maryland in College Park, said he's completing work on a new survey that underscores how far Arab confidence in the United States has fallen.
It's in single digits in countries such as Morocco and Jordan that are nominally friendly to the United States, Telhami said. In Saudi Arabia, nearly two-thirds of those asked in 2000 expressed confidence in the United States. Today, the figure is below 10 percent, he said.
At the least, this week's events have set back the Bush administration's efforts to undo the damage from weeks of revelations about U.S. abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison.
Those efforts included apologies from Bush and a trip by Secretary of State Colin Powell to Jordan, where he met Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia in an attempt to resuscitate Middle East peace talks.
"Whatever the U.S. has gained in the last few days on Abu Ghraib gets wiped out by this and people in the Muslim world just start arguing that a suicide bomber is a poor man's F-16," Haqqani said, referring to the U.S.-made attack jet used by Israel.
Several analysts and former officials with long experience in the Middle East said they couldn't remember a time when events in the region seemed more out of control and America's standing in the region seemed lower.
Bush's ability to criticize Israel, is limited by a perception in the Islamic world that U.S. forces have been heavy-handed in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, several analysts said. Increasingly, U.S. and Israeli policies are considered indistinguishable by many in the Middle East.
That's particularly true since Bush last month endorsed Sharon's position that Israel should keep some settlements in the West Bank and not have to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their former homes, said Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Brookings Institution, a moderate-liberal Washington policy organization.
The United States is seen "not just as Israel's closest ally, but Israel's partner," she said.
The president barely mentioned the Gaza violence in an address Tuesday to the leading pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. On Wednesday, Israeli officials expressed regret Wednesday for the Palestinian civilian casualties, but said the firing was intended as a warning because gunmen were in the crowd. Palestinian witnesses disputed that.
Bush gave a measured response. "Well, I continue to urge restraint," the president said. "It is essential that people respect innocent life in order for us to achieve peace."
Powell and other State Department officials have been more critical of Israel.
"I believe the activities of the Israeli defense forces in Gaza in recent days have caused a problem and have worsened the situation and I think made it more difficult for us to move forward and get back into the peace process," Powell said in unusually blunt rebuke. He added that he'd talked to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's chief of staff and Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom about the matter.
Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent William Douglas contributed to this report.
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