Thu, 10 Apr 2003

Megawati praises Iraqis for defending nation

Berni K. Moestafa, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

President Megawati Soekarnoputri praised on Wednesday the Iraqi people for their dedication to defending their nation against the U.S.-led invasion, and predicted the war would drag on for a long time.

Her comments, however, came after the U.S. military had further tightened its grip on Baghdad and as a sudden outburst of jubilation from the Iraqi capital's residents took the Americans by surprise.

"What we are looking at is not the political issues, rather we are seeing a nation dedicated to defending itself," Megawati said during a ceremony to mark the National Coding Agency's 57th anniversary.

Indonesia has strongly deplored the attack on Iraq, but fell short of condemning it when it was launched three weeks ago.

The coalition of U.S. and British troops met unexpectedly stiff resistance in the early days of the invasion.

Hopes for a speedy military campaign similar to the 1991 Gulf War faded amid reports of coalition casualties just days into the war.

Megawati said she had made a bet with National Intelligence Agency (BIN) chief A.M. Hendropriyono, a retired general with ample battle experience, over how long the war would last.

"I said it (the war) will be long, so I guess I have almost won," the President told the gathering. "I think the war will take a long time, let's see."

Her comments reflect the general mood here of antipathy toward the invading coalition forces.

Protesters from a wide variety of backgrounds took part in nationwide antiwar demonstrations long before the invasion began.

However, street-to-street fighting in the densely populated city of Baghdad has so far been avoided, helping to reduce the risk of a prolonged military campaign.

The U.S. military's push deep into the Iraqi capital last week came amid warnings from analysts that the most difficult phase of the war had begun.

On Wednesday, however, the war appeared to have taken a turn few had expected.

In a scene the coalition forces had hoped to see early in the war but which never materialized, thousands of Iraqis displayed their anger toward Saddam Hussein, whose whereabouts remain a mystery.

Residents of Baghdad took to the streets to celebrate what they believed was the imminent fall of Saddam's government.

In the center of the capital, a crowd toppled a giant statue of Saddam with the help of U.S. marines.

This unexpected development has raised hopes for a quick end to the war and the beginning of aid efforts to relive civilian suffering.

Analysts had warned that the coalition forces might get bogged down in Iraq, with the people resisting military occupation with or without Saddam to lead them.

Reuters quoted a senior U.S. commander as saying that central Baghdad was secured. "The end of the combat phase is days away. There may be more combat in the north, but in Baghdad and the south the end of the combat phase is days away," said Gen. Buford Blount, commander of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division.

But despite this growing optimism, political analysts said anti-American sentiment was likely to linger.

President Megawati expressed disappointment on Monday with what she saw as the diminishing role of the United Nations in international affairs, and over what she called the return of "jungle law".

And last week Vice President Hamzah Haz called U.S. President George W. Bush the "king of terrorists".