BEIRUT (Reuters) - Some Arabs have misgivings about how U.S. forces summarily killed Osama bin Laden and disposed of his body in the ocean, even if many are far more preoccupied by the popular uprisings convulsing the Middle East.
Questions have multiplied since the White House said the al Qaeda leader was unarmed when U.S. helicopter-borne commandos shot and killed him on Monday at the fortified villa where he had been hiding in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad.
Bin Laden’s swift burial at sea, in what many Muslims say was a violation of Islamic custom, has also stirred anger.
“In Islam we don’t have this tradition of throwing the dead in the sea,” said Saudi journalist Asem al-Ghamdi, arguing that the burial was a deliberate distraction. “The discussion should be on whether they had a right to kill him without a trial.”
The revelation that bin Laden was unarmed contrasted with an earlier account from a U.S. security official that the al Qaeda leader “participated” in a firefight with his assailants.
Abu al-Abed, 45, a former Sunni insurgent who once fought U.S. forces in Iraq, was sure bin Laden’s death was unlawful.
“How come they killed a person who did not raise a weapon to fight or even to defend himself? What happened is murder. And this will increase the sympathy toward bin Laden,” he said.
Such perceptions could complicate U.S. efforts to mend ties with the Muslim world strained by the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 attacks.
Obama took office in 2009 pledging to forge new a relationship with the Arab and Moslem world, a stand that was initially greeted with enthusiasm.
But the mood soured when Washington backed down from confronting Israel over its settlement building in the West Bank and the derailing of the Israeli-Palestinian peace effort.
Its ambivalent reaction in the early days of the uprising against Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak also raised questions about the United States’ priorities in the Middle East.
Human rights campaigners are urging the United States and Pakistan to explain fully the circumstances in which the world’s most wanted man died.
“In the absence of those facts we cannot say anything meaningful about the legality or illegality of the action that has taken place,” said Ali Dayan Hasan, senior Pakistan researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
President Barack Obama declared firmly that “justice has been done” when he broke the news of bin Laden’s demise.
Hasan said no such determination could be made as long as the United States withheld the facts.
“We understand that they have video footage of the operation and we would ask them in the public interest and in the interests of justice to bring all the information in their possession into the public domain.”
On the streets of Cairo, many people were indignant at how the Americans had consigned bin Laden to a watery grave and some said his killers had acted no better than their victim.
“The way he was killed was bad,” said Ahmed Hussein, 27, a pizza waiter. “They should have arrested him and produced evidence of his crimes. We as Muslims are not certain it was he who hit the World Trade Center, or that he is a terrorist.”
Playwright Husayn al-Sawaf, 25, said: “The Americans behaved in the same way as Bin Laden, with treachery and baseness. They should have tried him in court. As for his burial, that’s not Islamic. He should have been buried in soil.”
Nevine Mohamed, a 26-year-old serving in a Cairo sweet shop, said the Americans could not have killed bin Laden any other way. “But the way they buried him was not humane. It’s forbidden (in Islam) and at the end of the day he is Muslim.”
In Israel, where security forces have frequently killed suspected Palestinian militants, few voiced qualms about the similar approach apparently adopted by the U.S. Navy Seals.
But commentators reflected that the political boost Obama could gain by getting bin Laden on his watch would spell trouble for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“When he arrives in Washington at the end of the month, he will find a completely different president than he had anticipated. Instead of a lame duck, he will find a black swan,” wrote Ben Caspit, a columnist for Israel’s Maariv newspaper.
“The assassination of bin Laden will have restored Obama’s self-confidence and will have shortened his patience for our kindergarten here in the Middle East,” he added.
“He will need to make an urgent gesture toward the Islamic world, which he tried to appease at the start of his term. Such gestures are usually made at Israel’s expense.”
Nahum Barnea, a political columnist for the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, took a similar view.
“The assassination has freed President Obama, temporarily at least, of the image of the wimp, chicken, Muslim-lover that the Republicans gave him,” he wrote.
“On the one hand, like most Israelis, he celebrated the victory of good over evil ... On the other, he realized that Obama’s political gain is going to make it more difficult for him (Netanyahu) in his dealings with the U.S. administration.”
Some Arabs also focused on the potential political advantage for Obama, who will seek re-election next year.
Amer al-Dalawi, 59, an Iraqi local radio employee, said U.S. forces could have killed bin Laden any time. “Why now? Because Obama needs enough votes to guarantee him another four years.”
Additional reporting by Isabel Coles in Cairo, Erika Solomon in Dubai, Asma Alsharif in Jeddah; Waleed Ibrahim and Aseel Kami in Baghdad, and Jeff Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Angus MacSwan