CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ Arab governments and newspapers fiercely criticized the U.S. air strikes on Baghdad today and thousands of protesters in Arab capitals shouted angry slogans against the United States.

Throughout the Arab world, the message was that the unleashing of missiles at the heart of Baghdad would do more harm to the Iraqi people than to President Saddam Hussein.

On Arab streets, demonstrators condemned the attacks as an attempt by President Clinton to squirm out of the scandal over his sexual relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

``For Monica's sake, Iraqi children are dying,'' read a sign waved during a protest at Cairo's al-Azhar mosque, one of the most famous in the Arab world.

Syrian Parliament Speaker Abdul-Kader Qaddoura said the U.S. strikes ``increased the suffering and pain'' of Iraq's people, ``particularly its children and civilians.''

``(We) condemn and denounce this attack and call on the international community to condemn and halt it immediately,'' he told Parliament.

Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, president of the United Arab Emirates, expressed his ``great concern over the military action against Iraq and its repercussions on the Iraqi people.''

In the Egyptian capital, hundreds of worshipers gathered at Cairo's al-Azhar mosque to shout demands for Arabs to defend Iraq against the American onslaught.

``Leaders of the country, let us go to holy war,'' the protesters chanted. The crowd of demonstrators briefly broke through a cordon of police surrounding the mosque before being shoved back onto the Al-Azhar grounds.

Sheik Mohamed Tantawi, leader of Al-Azhar, also urged solidarity with the Iraqis. ``Stand by the Iraqi people or we will be hit by God's damnation,'' he preached.

Inside the mosque, there were shouts urging attacks on American interests and belittling comments about Clinton's motive for the repeated missile strikes on Iraq.

``Iraq is suffering because of an American whore and a big baby boy,'' said Mohammed Hassan, 20, a medical student.

Similar protests were staged in the capitals of Lebanon, Jordan and Yemen, where 15,000 people people marched through the streets of San`a shouting, ``America is the enemy of the Muslims.''

In the West Bank, Palestininans rallied against Clinton for the second straight day, shouting ``Death to America!''

In non-Arab Iran, demonstrators at Tehran's Palestine Square called for international intervention to stop ``the massacre of innocent people'' in Iraq _ traditionally an enemy of the Iranians.

In Lebanon's capital Beirut, about 2,500 people staged a sit-in outside U.N. headquarters. The protesters waved Iraqi flags and shouted, ``Beloved Iraq, strike Tel Aviv,'' the Israeli coastal city.

The Egyptian-based Arab League called an emergency meeting Sunday to discuss the situation in Iraq.

Its secretary-general, Esmat Abdel-Meguid, blamed the attack on last week's report by U.N. chief weapons inspector Richard Butler, saying he ``intended to provoke Iraq and not be neutral'' in assessing Iraq's weapons programs.

In countries closely allied to the United States _ such as Egypt and Jordan _ massive security forces were deployed today to prevent demonstrations from turning violent.

About 300 police ringed a demonstration of 30-40 people at a mosque near the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. In the Jordanian capital of Amman, about 500 demonstrators were surrounded by an equal number of police.

At Amman's University of Jordan mosque, the protesters called for an Arab revolt against the United States.

``Saddam ... if you want commandos we are ready'' and ``Syria, Jordan, Iraq _ revolt and make Clinton go to hell'' were among slogans chanted.

Eight Arab states _ including heavyweights Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria _ warned Baghdad mid-November that it would be ``held responsible for any consequences'' of not cooperating with U.N. officials.

But this time not one Arab government has expressed support for the airstrikes _ which were also condemned by the world's largest Muslim group, the 52-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference based in Saudi Arabia.

In Lebanon, Ghassan Tweini, publisher of the leading daily An-Nahar, called the attacks a misguided attempt to oust Saddam.

``Leave it to the Iraqis, not the Americans, not the Turks nor the Kurds nor the Israelis ... to decide the fate of the Iraqi regime and Saddam Hussein,'' Tweini wrote today.

The main exception to a united Arab front was Kuwait, whose invasion by Iraq in 1990 led to the following year's Gulf War and eight years of trade sanctions on Iraq.

Sheik Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti foreign minister and deputy prime minister, told the daily Al-Rai Al-Amm that ``we are not part'' of the crisis between Iraqi and the United Nations.

Fouad al-Hashem, columnist for the Al-Watan daily in Kuwait, wrote today that he hoped the bodies of Saddam, his sons and wife and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz ``will be hanging naked from street lights all over Baghdad'' by the time the U.S. attacks end.