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Hopeless In Gaza 

Britain's reputation is sinking along with America's

The graves of British soldiers lie smashed in Gaza, the ground defiled, the broken headstones smeared with crude swastikas and pasted with pictures of tortured Iraqi prisoners. "Revenge!" screams one message, glued across the name of one British soldier killed in the First World War fighting for Palestine.

These may be the deeds of a few hotheads, but they have the approval of many. Interviewed on the street, one Palestinian spoke for the crowd. "The British get what they deserve," he said, angrily. "They are the lapdogs of the American fascists!"

"Fascists" and "Nazis" are epithets bandied freely around the Arab world and parts of Europe regarding American actions in Iraq. Comparisons with the Gestapo and the French Resistance in World War Two abound. The brutality of the German forces was legendary: attacks on troops by French "terrorists" were followed by harsh massacres of civilians by the German army and secret police. But the spirit of many French people remained unbroken, and their hatred of the occupiers was quenched only by the passage of time and the sincere apologies by later generations of Germans for the heinous acts of their predecessors.

It's easy for world opinion to draw parallels in Iraq. In retaliation for the brutal murder of four American security guards in Fallujah, American troops killed between 300 and 600 Iraqis by bombing and shelling the town. Many of the dead were certainly fighters eager to kill Americans, but we know, and the world knows, that a great number were women and children. One comparison that will shock Americans, but is commonly made in other parts of the world, compares suicide bombers with American air force pilots. What is the difference, people ask, between a suicide bomber who kills dozens of civilians in a market place and an American flyer who kills dozens of civilians with his bombs? Answer: The American lives to bomb again.

Waves of anti-American hatred are fueled also by mass arrests and detentions, where individual Iraqis disappear into the so-called "justice" system, sometimes never to reappear. The Red Cross estimates that between 70% and 90% of detainees arrested by American troops are swept up by mistake, but find themselves hooded and mistreated along with the rest.

Britain, the old colonial power of the Arab world, gets tarred with this same brush of brutality. Photographs of British troops abusing prisoners are broadcast in tandem with the American examples. At the time of writing, new evidence is emerging that these British photos, embedded in the minds of Moslems worldwide, are pathetic fakes by some sick jokers in the military. These images may have been staged in a barracks in Preston, Lancashire. The rifle and boots in the photos are not the correct Iraq issue. The truck is a type that's not in service in the desert.

The motivation for this cruel and tragic hoax may simply be monetary gain. A tabloid newspaper made a big splash with the original story, and undoubtedly paid cash for the photos. At this point nobody knows if the photos are genuine, but in some ways it doesn't matter. The Arab world is certainly not making the distinction.

There is considerable evidence that prisoners are treated much better in British custody, although abuses still exist. While the brutality seems endemic in American ranks, it's more isolated in British barracks. At least, this is the fervent national wish, evidenced by rather feeble claims in the British media that "we're not as bad as the Americans."

But Britain's reputation is heavily besmirched by reports from Amnesty International that UK troops have killed innocent Iraqis who presented no apparent threat. Civilians are always going to be the innocent victims of war, but there is evidence that at least 12 and as many as 37 Iraqi civilians have been unlawfully killed by British troops.

Prime Minister Blair has apologized for the brutality of British forces, but he knows his credibility as a peacemaker in the Middle East is blown. His promises to Palestinians that he could influence American policy, so heavily biased towards Israel, are in tatters. Bush and Sharon's recent public statements about Gaza and the West Bank humiliated America's closest ally, who was left mouthing platitudes about the "road map" for peace that nobody believed -- probably not even Blair himself.

A majority of the British public wants their troops out of Iraq by the end of June. The national hope that Britain could exert some civilizing influence over America in Iraq and Palestine has gone the way of all other fruitless optimism.

For the first time, Tony Blair is talking openly of resigning. His approval ratings in the polls have slumped to 32% and falling. His departure may bring a change of policy and mood in Britain, but no new hope in Gaza. Nobody's going back to the cemetery to put flowers on the graves of British soldiers.

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