Strong opposition to the war in Iraq among regional populations was primarily a result of deep skepticism of U.S. intentions and serious concerns about the war's likely consequences. Most people in the region believed before the war that America was actively following a policy of undermining Muslim nations; this is a broad assumption in Middle East. Similarly, few thought that the United States was genuinely seeking democracy, peace or development in the region. On the contrary, most believed that Washington really wanted only to control Iraq's oil and to protect Israel. At the same time, many in the region feared that the war would produce more terrorism and (whatever the outcome in Iraq) less democracy in their own countries, where governments unwilling to defy America would be forced to crack down on anti-war sentiment and impose new controls to limit dissent.
Many if not most people in the region are still in shock after the rapid U.S. victory in Iraq. Still, their instincts have not changed and they remain suspicious of Washington. Media reporting has heightened these suspicions, emphasizing, for example, that U.S. military forces moved first to secure Iraq's oil fields and only later to protect hospitals, museums and other humanitarian or cultural sites from looting. Most are also concerned that the war in Iraq was merely the opening move in a larger strategy; they ask themselves which country will be next. Syria has received considerable attention in this context.
There are also many challenges within Iraq. Washington did not adequately understand the extent of factionalism in Iraq or the ability of each of Iraq's neighbors to influence particular factions. All of Iraq's neighbors have vital interests in the country and the will and capability to advance them. This is, however, more complex that some in America seem to believe. For example, Iraq's Shi'ites are very devout, but they are not "controlled" as a group from Tehran. Some Shi'ite groups are linked to Iran, but Iraqi Shi'ites are Arabs, not Persians, and they see themselves as Iraqis, not Iranians.
At the same time, Saddam Hussein destroyed all viable political alternatives within Iraq, meaning that only religious groups can mobilize the Iraqi people. Though these groups are deeply divided, there are by default the major political forces in the country. It will take considerable time to build a civil society in Iraq and any elections held within the next few months would be much to the advantage of powerful religious leaders with anti-American sentiments. It is important to remember in thinking about elections in Iraq that proportions of various groups within the population are much less significant than which groups are organized and mobilized to vote.
Finally, Americans must understand that the entire Arab world views the U.S. through the prism of Arab-Israeli conflict. There is an opportunity for America to change regional perceptions of the U.S. through the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but Washington will face many obstacles. Because of these obstacles, the peace process can only be successful if it is a real priority for the Bush Administration--at a time when the administration must deal with many other important issues.
Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park, and is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.