RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – The fall of Baghdad provoked shock and disbelief among Arabs, who expressed hope that other oppressive regimes would crumble but also disappointment that Saddam Hussein did not put up a better fight against America.
"Why did he fall that way? Why so fast?" asked Yemeni homemaker Umm Ahmed, tears streaming down her face. "He's a coward. Now I feel sorry for his people."
Arabs clustered at TV sets in shop windows, coffee shops, kitchens and offices to watch the astounding pictures of U.S. troops overwhelming an Arab capital for the first time ever. Feeling betrayed and misled, some turned off their sets in disgust when jubilant crowds in Baghdad celebrated the arrival of U.S. troops.
"We discovered that all what the [Iraqi] information minister was saying was all lies," said Ali Hassan, a government employee in Cairo, Egypt. "Now no one believes Al-Jazeera anymore."
In a live report from Baghdad, correspondent Shaker Hamed of Abu Dhabi Television said: "We are all in shock. How did things come to such an end? How did U.S. tanks enter the center of the city? Where is the resistance? This collapse is puzzling. Was it the result of the collapse of communications between the commanders? Between the political leadership? How come Baghdad falls so easily."
The shock came after weeks of hearing Saddam's government pledge a "great victory" or fight to the death against "infidel invaders."
"We Arabs are clever only at talking," Haitham Baghdadi, 45, said bitterly in Damascus, Syria. "Where are the Iraqi weapons? Where are the Iraqi soldiers?"
Behind the disbelief lay a worry over the prospect of an American occupation of an Arab nation.
However, Tannous Basil, a 47-year-old cardiologist in Sidon, Lebanon, said Saddam's regime was a "dictatorship and had to go."
"I don't like the idea of having the Americans here, but we asked for it," he said. "Why don't we see the Americans going to Finland, for example? They come here because our area is filled with dictatorships like Saddam's."
Tarek al-Absi, a Yemeni university professor, was hopeful Saddam's end presaged more democracy in the region.
"This is a message for the Arab regimes, and could be the beginning of transformation in the Arab region," al-Absi said. "Without the honest help of the Western nations, the reforms will not take place in these countries."
From Kuwait, which was occupied by Saddam's forces before the 1991 Gulf War, came one of the few statements of unadulterated support. Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, Kuwait's deputy prime minister and foreign minister, said, "Joy fills our hearts as we see our Iraqi brothers ... express their jubilation at victory."
In comments carried by state-owned Kuwait Television, he praised "the huge sacrifices made by the coalition" to free Iraqis.
But for most Arabs, the overwhelming emotions were those of distaste and worry.
Three men having tea and smoking in a coffee shop in Riyadh were unsettled as they watched television, even though they said they were against Saddam and felt sorry for the long-suffering Iraqis.
"I can't say that I'm happy about what's going on because these are non-Muslim forces that have gone in and I hope they will not stay," said Mohammed al-Sakkaf, a 58-year-old businessman.
Another of the three, Walid Abdul-Rahman, said he was disturbed by the sight of U.S. troops lounging in Saddam's palaces or draping the U.S. flag around the head of a Saddam statue. "Liberation is nobler than that," he said. "They should not be so provocative."
In Jordan, hotel receptionist Wissam Fakhoury, 28, expressed disgust at the Baghdad crowds.
"I spit on them," he said. "Do those crowds who are saluting the Americans believe that the United States will let them live better?" Fakhoury said. Americans "will loot their oil and control their resources, leaving them nothing."
Bahraini physician Hassan Fakhro, 62, said he was saddened because even if Saddam "was a dictator, he represented some kind of Arab national resistance to the foreign invaders -- the Americans and the British."
After an anti-war march in Khartoum, Sudan, lawyer Ali al-Sayed said U.S. troops should not misinterpret the relief as an invitation to stay.
"Those people under oppression will not have any national feeling, so they will be happy to see someone removing a dictator and liberating them," al-Sayed said. "But the moment they feel free and liberated, they will not tolerate a foreign presence."
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, an uncomfortable U.S. ally in the war, said the quickest way to achieve stability now would be for U.S. troops to withdraw. "Iraqis must take control over of their country as fast as possible," Mubarak told Egypt's official news agency, MENA.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud, looking upset at a news conference, called for a quick end to Iraq's "occupation." In a rare departure from diplomacy, Saud responded to a question about Arab anger toward the United States with: "I don't want to talk about anger if you don't mind today."