WASHINGTON – Once again, pictures are speaking louder than words in the Arab world.

The startling image of an imprisoned Saddam Hussein in only his white briefs is certain to roil the already raw emotions in Iraq and throughout the Middle East, scholars and analysts warned on Friday.

“Culturally, this is highly repulsive and highly offensive to Arabs and Muslims,” said Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle East studies and international affairs at New York’s Sarah Lawrence College.

And together with the still-vivid images of U.S. military personnel abusing Iraqi prisoners, some of them piled naked into human pyramids, Gerges said the incidents would reverberate throughout the Arab world – not as isolated incidents but rather as ongoing attempts by the United States to humiliate Muslims.

“Let’s put it this way,” he said: “These images do not serve American interests.”

Stirring the latest international flap are photos of the deposed Iraqi president published Friday in The Sun in Britain and the New York Post, a pair of tabloids owned by media magnate Rupert Murdoch.

The front page of The Post used the headline “Butcher of Sagdad” with the picture of Saddam in his underwear.

The Sun, according to an accompanying article in The Post, said “it received the pictures from a source in the U.S. military who hoped the release of the pitiful pictures will deal a body blow to the lingering Iraqi insurgency.”

Analysts, however, say the pictures will surely have just the opposite effect.

“This is not the way to win hearts and minds,” said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute.

“I’m stunned at the irresponsibility of those who leaked them out and the irresponsibility of those who published them,” he said. “We’ve now lost more of the very fragile high ground we’ve attempted to occupy in this situation.”

In Britain, the Muslim community was shocked by the pictures in The Sun, the country’s largest newspaper.

“This was motivated by utter stupidity,” said Azzam Tamimi, director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought in London.

He agreed that rather than weakening the Iraqi resistance, the photos would galvanize the insurgents and boost their recruiting efforts.

“Once you have humiliated people,” he said, “they will only turn against you in greater numbers.”

Nadim Shehadi, acting director of the Middle East program at the Royal Institute for Strategic Studies, said the photos of Saddam, particularly in the wake of the Abu Ghraib abuses, would have adverse cumulative repercussions throughout the Middle East.

“It is an image very much contrary to what the United States wants to project,” he said. “Instead of getting across the image of liberators, they are humiliators – and these are definitely humiliating photos.”

U.S. standing in the Muslim world has been further tarnished in recent days by a report in Newsweek magazine, since retracted, that U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay had flushed a Quran down a toilet in an attempt to rattle prisoners captured in the war against terrorism.

Not only will the new Saddam pictures be widely viewed among Muslims as “highly unseemly,” Gerges said, but also as humiliating tactics by the United States to “push its agenda forward.”

At the Pentagon, officials did not dispute the authenticity of the photos and pledged a full-scale inquiry to determine why, when and how the photos were taken.

Asked if there could be a legitimate reason for them, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said, “I can’t imagine one.”

At the very least, the pictures appear on their face to be violations of Defense Department and International Red Cross policies concerning the treatment of prisoners and, perhaps, the Geneva Conventions as well.

“This could have serious impact,” acknowledged deputy White House press secretary Trent Duffy. “There will be a thorough investigation.”

Whatever the finding, Gerges suggested that the U.S. image has already been further tarnished abroad, as it was with the Abu Ghraib prisoner photos and the retracted Quran report in Newsweek.

“At this stage, what can you do?” he asked.

Pressed on the issue during a brief question-and-answer session with reporters in the Oval Office, President Bush said he didn’t believe the photos of Saddam would stoke the insurgency in Iraq or the waves of anti-Americanism already sweeping the Middle East.

“I don’t think a photo inspires murders,” Bush said. “I think they’re inspired by an ideology that is so barbaric and backwards that it’s hard for many in the Western world to comprehend how they think.”

On her way to Jordan on the first leg of a three-nation visit to the Middle East, first lady Laura Bush acknowledged just before the latest pictures surfaced that the United States has image problems in the region, which she hoped to address during her trip.

“We don’t think we have every answer. … We’re not trying to answer every question for them,” Mrs. Bush said. “But we also do have a history, certainly a very fluid history, a very prosperous history, a country where many, many cultures, people from all parts of the world live together in peace and respecting the rights of each other.

“In those ways,” she added, “we’re a very good example.”

To polish America’s image abroad, the president has named his longtime communications adviser, Karen Hughes, who was at his side during last fall’s re-election campaign, as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. But he has not yet sent her nomination to the Senate for confirmation, and she’s not expected to start work for another few months.

Already, she faces a tough job, getting tougher.

“If Karen Hughes were there, I suspect the first thing she’d do is have a fit over how much more difficult her job has now become,” Zogby said, “because somebody blatantly insensitive and stupid got these pictures out of the prison, and somebody equally blatantly stupid published them.”

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