Prague, 3 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Media speculation is rife over the widespread violence yesterday directed at Shi'a Muslims celebrating the Ashura holy festival, which commemorates the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Imam Hussein, and is the most holy day in the Shi'a calendar. Twin bomb blasts in Baghdad and Karbala killed at least 271 people in Iraq. More than 25 Shi'a pilgrims were also killed yesterday in an attack in Quetta near the Afghan-Pakistani border. Opinion varies widely on both the identity of the perpetrators and the motive for the attacks. The possibilities for democracy in Iraq and the sacking of Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov are also under discussion in the press today.
THE FINANCIAL TIMES
A "Financial Times" editorial discusses the twin bombings yesterday in Baghdad and Karbala, which targeted Shi'a Muslims celebrating the Ashura holy festival. The paper says the most likely perpetrators of the attack would be "followers of the ultra-sectarian Wahhabi creed followed in Saudi Arabia and espoused by Osama bin Laden."
Wahhabi influence in Iraq "has grown in opposition to the U.S.-led occupation, and articulates a morbid fear of the Shi'a sect, which it regards as heretical and idolatrous," the paper says.
The Wahhabists and sympathizers with bin Laden's Al-Qaeda may be trying to prevent any transfer of power to Iraq's Shi'a majority, the "Financial Times" says. Amping up the violence in the country would also serve to "turn Iraqi anger against the [U.S.-led] occupiers and their allies for failing to provide security." The paper notes that U.S. troops were attacked with stones by an angry crowd in the wake of yesterday's bombings.
But Sunni and Shi'a leaders are resisting provocation and jointly condemned the attacks yesterday. While the new Iraqi interim constitution "postpones rather than resolves" the debate on many important issues, the spirit of compromise that characterized the agreement "must be extended and institutionalized to have any chance of resisting the many more outrageous attacks that will surely be sent to test it."
Writing in Britain's "Independent," Robert Fisk expresses doubt over allegations that Sunni Muslims were responsible for yesterday's twin attacks in Iraq. He asks: "If a violent Sunni movement wished to evict the Americans from Iraq -- and there is indeed a resistance movement fighting very cruelly to do just that -- why would it want to turn the Shi'a population of Iraq, 60 percent of Iraqis, against them? The last thing such a resistance would want is to have the majority of Iraqis against it."
Other speculation has focused on the possibility that the bombings were carried out by Al-Qaeda. American sources have alleged that the perpetrators were not Iraqis but foreigners. But Fisk says this will remain mere conjecture until the U.S. authorities release more information to back up their claims. The U.S. press have "dutifully" repeated these allegations. But a skeptical Fisk says, "The Iraqi police keep announcing that they have found the bombers' passports." So, he asks, "Can we have the numbers?"
THE WASHINGTON POST
Writing in "The Washington Post," columnist Jim Hoagland says yesterday's twin attacks in Iraq and another targeting Shi'a pilgrims in Quetta near the Afghan-Pakistan border mark "another day of religiously inspired atrocities." And these latest murders "should shake from their fantasies the Islamic political leaders and religious authorities who deny that a war for control of Islam is raging around them. The war will claim many more lives if Muslim society does not face up to the cancerous growth feeding on Islam and lead -- not join, but lead -- the fight against that cancer."
Hoagland says the Arab summit scheduled for the end of March in Tunis will be a key opportunity for Muslim leaders to recognize the nature of this struggle. In the past few days, he says, Islam's "peacemakers and killers have each sketched out their paths to the future."
Iraq "is now the center of this epochal conflict," writes Hoagland. "Scarcely 24 hours after the Governing Council finished its deliberations [on an interim constitution], suicide bombings and other explosions devastated Shiite religious shrines in Baghdad and Karbala and killed at least 143 people."
He says neither U.S. authorities nor Muslim leaders from across the region can avoid "treating this struggle as a religious civil war, one that will be won or lost within Islam."
Writing in the London-based "Times," Simon Jenkins says the idea that the West can, "by force of arms, bring stability, democracy and freedom" to other nations is "massive in its presumption." And yet all the deceptions in the run-up to war in Iraq "are forgotten since Iraq is seen as progressing towards stable democracy." Apparently, he says, the ends justify the means.
"The idea that over the next year Iraq will blossom into Western-style democracy through free elections is fantasy," writes Jenkins. "So is any hope of civil, religious and gender freedoms in a united federal state." An invading force "cannot impose institutions and values which have taken decades, if not centuries, to develop elsewhere."
Jenkins predicts instead that a temporary form of democracy "will merely serve as a transition to Shi'a theocracy Iran-style, while Sunnis and Kurds break loose." He says, "Instability is inevitable without a strong central power." And Iraq's Kurds and their peshmerga units "seem certain to secede." The "most likely outcome for post-coalition Iraq is a country split in three, none of them a democracy."
He says after almost a year under "absolute coalition control, Iraq's public and private sectors are barely back to their condition under Saddam, when they were under sanctions and on a war footing. The coalition's performance has been truly abysmal."
The "sole remaining justification" for the mission in Iraq is that the Ba'athist autocracy "really will be replaced by stability and democracy." But Jenkins says, "I cannot see how this is going to happen."
THE MOSCOW TIMES
Columnist Yulia Latynina of Russia's "Novaya Gazeta" says Russian President Vladimir Putin's dismissal of his prime minister last week "was a great PR [public relations] move." In dissolving his cabinet, Putin fulfilled three ambitions, she says.
First, the sacking was popular with the electorate. Outgoing Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov became a scapegoat as "the root of all evil in the government."
A second target was the Western audience, she says. Incoming Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov used to work for the Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations. She says the "clear signal being sent to the West and to the business community is that this is a man who knows his stuff and is close to the oligarchs."
Finally, a message was sent to the "St. Petersburg wing [of] the Russian elite," who were notably not informed of the decision ahead of time, that Putin did not approve of their "greed" -- and that he was looking for balance in his administration.
Latynina says the PR effect was "magnificent." But even the best PR cannot hide deep-rooted political problems. Kasyanov "has a lot to answer for," she says, but he was "not responsible for a single major domestic or international mishap." The president and his inner circle are the ones who make the real decisions in Moscow, she says. "[And] no one has dismissed them."