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Arabs want Baghdad to resist, but also want suffering to end

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CAIRO, Egypt (Reuters) -- Arabs called on Iraqis to fight on Saturday after reports U.S. troops had entered Baghdad, but were torn between wanting Iraqi resistance and fearing more harm to civilians caught up in the battle.

"I hope the Iraqis stick it out just to humiliate the Americans and force a debate about whether the Iraqi people really wanted their so-called help anyway," said Mohammed, a 25-year-old graduate student in Beirut.

"But in another way I hope it's over quickly, otherwise so many Iraqis will die and America will win anyway. Either way Iraq loses."

Sultan al-Sultan, a 39-year-old government employee in Saudi Arabia said: "I think that the battle in Baghdad will be the most difficult for the Americans. And I fear that the civilian death toll will multiply in this battle."

The United States said its troops thrust toward central Baghdad for the first time on Saturday, meeting only sporadic resistance and taking the battle to topple President Saddam Hussein into his battered capital.

But a Reuters correspondent who drove freely around the city saw no sign of U.S. forces, and Iraq's information minister said Baghdad was firmly under Iraqi control.

Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf also said Iraq had recaptured Baghdad's international airport, seized by U.S. troops on Friday. The U.S. military dismissed his claim as "groundless."

Profound mistrust

Such conflicting accounts of events on the ground have been common during the 17-day-old war, and many questioned by Reuters in Arab cities doubted the U.S. claim to have entered Baghdad.

"This is a lie. Even reports that they had taken the airport are a lie. They have not taken any city except Umm Qasr, and even there, their control is shaky," a senior official at Egypt's Justice Ministry said in Cairo.

"I feel like Baghdad has fallen and I'm prepared for it, but at the same time I don't trust those embedded reporters," Mohammed said in Beirut. "Each new piece of news contradicts the last. Someone must be lying. Or maybe they all are."

Aref al-Samei, a university student in Yemen, said Iraqi resistance, which has been the pride of millions of Arabs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf, must go on. "The Americans are liars. The resistance will continue even if they enter Baghdad."

"May God grant President Saddam victory," said Sayed Abdel-Sattar Raje, a 50-year-old unemployed Cairene, as he sat reading a newspaper on a bench by the Nile.

Others hoped for Saddam's downfall, even while opposing the U.S.-led invasion to topple him over alleged banned weapons.

"I think the real war has started now. I hope the Iraqis inflict losses on the Americans and that the Americans and the government of Saddam Hussein both leave Iraq, because they are all evil," Ahmad al-Tuwaijri, a 25-year-old student in Saudi Arabia said.

Saudi Arabia's Arab News said in an editorial the next two or three days would show how quickly Baghdad would fall.

"But if Basra is anything to go by, it will not be a drawn-out affair... Iraqi resistance is collapsing in slow motion, more with a whimper than with a bang -- and the information minister's bravura propaganda performances cannot disguise that stark fact," the English-language daily said.

Most placed more emphasis on the Iraqis putting up a good fight than the outcome of a battle few suggest Saddam will win.

"After these battles and the Iraqi resistance, there is no doubt that the Iraqis will fight until the last soldier," Naji al-Hutam, a Yemeni taxi driver said.

"There is no exit for the Iraqi president or Iraqi forces except resistance and battle, no matter how long it takes."

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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