Anger and indignation rippled across the Arab world at the photos and the reaction was almost unanimous.

What people saw, they said, was the true image of the occupation, debasement of an occupied people, contempt for Islam, sadism and racism.

Lebanon's top Shia Muslim cleric, Ayat Allah Muhammad Hussain Fadl Allah, said that Washington will fail to whitewash its "abhorrent image in the Middle East" after the scandal.

"Fire rages in the hearts of these Americans and hatred spews from their mouths. What their hearts hide is even greater," Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammad Mahdi Akif said.

"The pictures reinforce the sense of racism and decadence, of what Americans have done to American-Indians - the cruelty, savagery and complete disrespect for human life," said Muhammad al-Sayad Said of Egypt's al-Ahram Centre for Political Studies.

"The pictures reinforce the sense of racism and decadence, of what Americans have done to American-Indians - the cruelty, savagery and complete disrespect for human life"

Muhammad al-Sayad Said,
al-Ahram Centre

Arabs across the political spectrum feel whatever President George Bush's administration does to try to make amends will not erase a bitter and enduring legacy.

The images of uniformed women and male soldiers cheerfully brutalising prisoners in the most humiliating manner will linger for decades.

'Human dignity trampled'

"In Islam, sodomy is something that cannot be tolerated; sexual abuse is a gross assault, the gravest form of degradation and a violation of the Quran. There is nothing worse," said Abd al-Bari Atwan, editor al-Quds Al Arabi daily.

"The Americans trampled on anything called human dignity. They are reviving the culture of slavery," he said.

No one is likely to rejoice more than Usama bin Ladin at the outrage and uproar caused by the images, with one chilling photo showing a female soldier dragging a naked man on a dog's leash.

Analysts say that bin Ladin stands
to gain from the US abuses

These abuses, analysts say, will be seized on by the leader of al-Qaida as triumphant confirmation that America has launched a "crusade" in Iraq to destroy Muslim dignity and identity.

"This is the best recruiting campaign for bin Ladin and al-Qaida," Atwan said. "Honestly, this by itself could instigate a holy war against the Americans."

"This will justify for Muslims the attacks against Americans and Westerners inside the Arab and Muslim world and outside."

Pro-Western Arabs who placed faith in Washington and its stated intention to advance democracy in the Middle East feel betrayed and demoralised.

"Any human being if he has any humanity in him will be sad, outraged and depressed at these images," said Saudi scholar Sami Angawi. "It will add oil to the fire. Bin Ladin will exploit it."

US hypocrisy

Arabs said the scandal made a mockery of yearly US reports on countries violating human rights and using torture.

The disturbing images, played over and over again on Arab satellite channels and splashed over newspapers, dealt a new blow to Washington not only politically but to its moral model of democracy in the eyes of Arabs and the world, analysts said.

"Arab leaders are not shocked, this is normal for what they themselves do to their people"

Arab commentator

Anger at Washington, long perceived as an ally of Israel and a backer of autocratic Arab rulers, reached boiling point over the US war on Iraq, and Bush's endorsement of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to retain parts of the West Bank.

Bin Laden has called for holy war to end the "blatant US occupation", saying America has "utter contempt for Islam" and that the conflict is religious and between the West and Islam.

Arab governments reticent

Adding to popular Arab outrage is the near uniform silence of their leaders, few of whom even alluded to the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, notorious for torture under Saddam Hussein.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Mahir said Washington should punish those found guilty but President Hosni Mubarak has not mentioned the abuse. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud
al-Faisal said it was "the result of the occupation".

Egypt's Mubarak has often been
criticised over human rights

Analysts say this near-silence is unsurprising given Arab leaders' own record of torture of tens of thousands of their political dissidents from Egypt to Algeria.

"There is an Arab proverb that says: 'If your house is made of glass you don't throw stones at others'," said one Gulf commentator. "Arab leaders are not shocked, this is normal for what they themselves do to their people."

Stung by the photographs, Bush pledged to punish the soldiers and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld offered his "deepest apology". The first of seven US soldiers charged faces a public court martial in Baghdad this month.

But many Arabs said anything short of a drastic shift in US policy and the sacking of Rumsfeld would not be enough to appease indignation, and even then there were no guarantees.

"When an official in Europe or the United States has an affair he will be forced to resign. Imagine with this indecent assault on Iraqis and Islam, nobody is resigning. Neither Bush nor Rumsfeld are being forced to resign," Atwan said.