Among the topics discussed in some of the major newspapers today are widespread protests in Iraq, which have resulted in numerous deaths in Baghdad and Al-Najaf, and disturbances in several other Iraqi cities yesterday. There is also comment on the apparent flare-up of Islamic militancy in the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, and political reform in the Arab world.
A commentary by Robert Fisk in the British “Independent" titled "A Bloody Day in Iraq" says that, "to the horror of the occupying powers in Iraq," the country's ever bloodier insurgency spilled into the majority Shi'a Muslim community yesterday.
In Al-Najaf, Spanish and other Western soldiers fought gunmen, with the loss of at least 22 lives on both sides. The protests in the holy city and elsewhere in Iraq followed the arrest of an aide to Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical young Shi'a cleric often critical of the U.S.-led coalition.
Fisk writes: "That the latest bloodbath should have occurred in Najaf -- one of the holiest shrines in Islam -- was as dangerous as it was painfully symbolic. Even as bullets skittered past them, protesters held up pictures of the imams Ali and Hussein whose epic martyrdom is being mourned in every Shi'a home. That it should be Spanish troops who were engaged in the battle, only weeks from being withdrawn from Iraq by Spain's new Socialist government, was a final irony."
Fisk says the demonstrations had their roots in the decision a week ago of L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. civil administrator, to close al-Sadr's weekly newspaper "Al-Hawzah" in Baghdad for "inciting violence against coalition forces."
He writes: "It now seems that his decision to shut down the paper -- its circulation of 10,000 was hardly going to arouse Shi'as to attack Western troops -- has incited violence on a far greater scale than Mr. Bremer could have imagined."
Yet, says Fisk, Bremer managed to say "all the wrong things" when he warned that street violence will not be tolerated. Fisk goes on: "The trouble is that Mr. Bremer has said all this before, but about Sunni insurgents, and his warnings almost always increase the anger of his antagonists and bring no end to violence. Mr. Sadr, of course, has his own reasons to find political satisfaction in this bloodshed."
The British commentator goes on to say that al-Sadr stands in the shadow of his clerical superior, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and that al-Sadr has for months been trying to present himself as the putative leader of the Shi'a community.
"The Anglo-American occupying powers have long suspected that Mr. Sadr wanted just such a confrontation to rally support for his minority movement, although why they should have arrested Mustafa Yacoubi, an aide to Mr. Sadr, remains a political mystery. Mr. Bremer, it seems, has now helped to bring that confrontation about," Fisk wrote.
THE WASHINGTON POST
A commentary in "The Washington Post" by Anthony Shadid and Sewell Chan deals with the same theme.
The commentary says that by unleashing mass demonstrations and attacks in Baghdad and southern Iraq yesterday, a young, militant cleric has realized the greatest fear of the U.S.-led administration since the occupation of Iraq began a year ago: a Shi'a Muslim uprising.
The commentary continues: "Fighting with U.S. troops raged into the night in a Baghdad slum, and hospitals reportedly took in dozens of casualties. But even before sunset, there was a sense across the capital that a yearlong test of wills between the American occupation and supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr had turned decisive, and its implications reverberated through Iraq."
The commentary continues: "The unrest signaled that the U.S. military faces armed opposition on two fronts: in scarred Sunni towns such as Fallujah and, as of [4 April], in a Shi'a-dominated region of the country that had remained largely acquiescent, if uneasy about the U.S. role. If put down forcefully, a Shi'a uprising -- infused with religious imagery, and symbols drawn from Iraq's colonial past and the current Palestinian conflict -- could achieve a momentum of its own."
It says that during the last year, al-Sadr -- who is a 30-year-old junior cleric with his own militia -- has appealed to poor and disenfranchised Shi'a, the majority of Iraq's population, with a relentless anti-occupation message.
Hours into yesterday’s violence, al-Sadr publicly called for an end to the protests, and it was unclear whether his followers would persist in a fight with an overwhelmingly more powerful U.S. military. But the calculus of Iraq's politics had already appeared to shift.
"The Washington Post" commentary says that for months, occupation authorities have been divided over how to respond to al-Sadr's challenge. "Since last summer, U.S. authorities had tried to persuade Iraq's more senior and moderate clergy to rein in al-Sadr, whom one senior official described at the time as 'a populist, a critic and a rabble-rouser.' "
It says that part of the reservation was motivated by the fear of a Shi'a backlash. Since the start of the occupation, the desire to maintain Shi'a support -- or at least acquiescence -- has served as one of the administration's key objectives.
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Writing in "The Washington Times," George Friedman looks at the political background to the strife with al-Sadr's followers.
"The United States basically cut a deal with the Shi'a -- and their Iranian sponsors -- back in September, when the guerrilla war being carried out by the Sunnis appeared to be completely out of hand. Had the Shi'a joined the insurrection, the U.S. position would have become untenable. The United States convinced the Shi'a not to rise, but there was a price: recognition of Shi'a domination of Iraq."
Friedman says it seemed to be a win-win-win situation. The United States bought peace in the area south of Baghdad where the Shi'a dominate; the Shi'a won domination of any future Iraqi government; and the Iranians got a Shi'a-dominated Iraq, which they felt would secure their western flank against their historical enemy. The losers were the Sunnis in Iraq, and the Saudi government, which now faces its worst nightmare -- cooperation between its Iranian enemy and the United States.
But Friedman says things are not so simple, and that the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, leader of the Iraqi Shi'a, is holding the cards: "His demand for early elections was not really about elections but rather a demand the U.S. lock in a Shi'a-dominated government and lock out the Sunnis."
"Ayatollah Sistani has an ace in the hole. He can let the transfer go forward and have the Shi'a-dominated government demand withdrawal of all or part of the U.S. troops. The U.S. figures he won't do that, because it will leave him facing the Sunnis alone. The ayatollah may figure it differently," Friedman wrote. "First, he may feel the Shi'a militias are strong enough now to face and beat the Sunnis, without U.S. help, especially if the Iranians lend a hand -- which they will. Second, the Shi'a may think the U.S. has been too cute by half."
Explaining this, Friedman continues to say the U.S. is now courting the Sunni leadership after the Shi'a thought they had locked in a deal of their own. American remorse over the deal cut with the Shi'a has found the U.S. "nibbling on the edges of the deal," trying to redefine it. The Ayatollah Sistani may be thinking a backtrack by the Americans could be in the offing.
The commentator says: "That brings us to a major crisis that will make the current soap opera in Washington pale into insignificance. What happens if, after June 30, the new internationally recognized government of Iraq thanks the United States for overthrowing Saddam, gives the U.S. commander a lovely gold watch and tells the Americans to go home?"
"Not only will the administration have invaded Iraq without being able to coherently explain its reasoning, but the result would be an Iranian-dominated, Shi'a government in Iraq," Friedman writes.
The U.S., says Friedman, would then have two choices. One would be to leave, with everyone asking what was the point of the exercise. The other would be to stay and face a conflict with the government it created. "The future is much more interesting than the past," as he puts it.
LOS ANGLES TIMES
In another article on Iraq, Tony Perry and Edmund Sanders in the "Los Angeles Times" look back at events in the past week in Al-Fallujah, where four American civilians were killed and their bodies mutilated.
They write that thousands of U.S. Marines have now surrounded the anti-American stronghold and begun moving in to retake control of the city and apprehend those responsible for last week's slayings of four U.S. security contractors.
They write: "The highly anticipated action, dubbed Operation Valiant Resolve, was expected to be one of the biggest military offensives since the fall of Saddam Hussein's government a year ago."
"All roads leading to this city of 300,000 were cut off and barricaded with tanks and concertina wire. Working through the cold and windy desert night, Marines set up camps for detainees and residents who might flee."
The authors continue: "The flare-up comes at a particularly bad time for the U.S.-led coalition, which is attempting to show that life in Iraq is improving as it prepares to hand over authority to an interim government at the end of June."
And they conclude by noting: "The recent violence has raised fresh questions about whether the new Iraqi security forces are prepared to take over responsibilities from U.S.-led coalition forces."
This week's issue of "The Economist" discusses mounting calls for political reform in the Arab world, in the wake of the Arab League summit canceled last week. Host nation Tunisia unilaterally canceled the meeting, allegedly because several participants objected to an agenda that included a pledge to "consolidate democratic processes, protect human rights, and enhance the role of women and civil society." But the magazine says the real surprise "lay in the fact that such reforms were on the agenda at all."
"The Economist" says that, by and large, Arab countries today are ruled by "a tight circle of people linked by shared background and common interests, who have monopolized power for as long as anyone can remember." And "[not] a single Arab leader has ever been peacefully ousted at the ballot box."
But the prevailing regional leadership model is now being challenged. Arab countries today face "an unprecedented convergence of internal and external challenges that are likely to prompt sweeping change in the coming decade."
Their citizens "have taken [to] declaring that the lack of democracy is the real root of their troubles." Opposition groups are now calling for "a strikingly similar set of changes," including "constitutional reforms to enshrine the separation of powers, free elections, free speech, freedom to form parties, administrative transparency and respect for fixed terms of office."
Such calls have resulted in little real reform. "Yet governments cannot for long ignore the mounting pressures," "The Economist" says. Arab leaders "cannot forever avoid a reckoning with their own people."
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Last week's NATO expansion to include seven new member states has given the acceding nations a "guarantee that they will never again face domination or other foreign threats alone." The expansion has also given Europe a land link to Turkey. But "The Washington Times" says it has not, however, settled "questions regarding the coherence, mission and capabilities of the alliance in the wake of the Cold War."
The paper says that NATO must "remain a disciplined strategic alliance, not merely a collection of democratic nations." It says the plan to create a rapid-reaction force by 2006 "will allow it to more effectively counter today's asymmetrical threats," such as those arising from non-state actors.
The planned force of up to 20,000 troops "will be deployable anywhere in the world in as little as a week." However, NATO "must soberly acknowledge its limitations." The failure of NATO peacekeepers to control interethnic violence in Kosovo late last month "reflects poorly on the alliance. If NATO forces are to be taken seriously, they must at least be able to control murderous mobs." The alliance must also adequately address Russian security concerns stemming from the fact that NATO now sits on its borders.
But overall, says the paper, last week's expansion "helps redeem a dark chapter in history."
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Following last week's round of deadly bombings and skirmishes with authorities that left at least 47 people dead in and around Tashkent, "The New York Times" says Uzbekistan "has been quick to portray itself as the latest American ally to be targeted for retaliation by international terrorism."
But this is only partly true, the paper says. President Islam Karimov -- whom the paper calls Uzbekistan's "ruthless dictator" -- uses his alliance with Washington in the war on terrorism as a "cover for repression that only foments further terror, of the homegrown variety."
The paper advises that, "Rather than look the other way at what many expect will be another wave of repression in response to last week's violence, Washington should push the government in Tashkent to keep its promises of democratic reform. This would protect Uzbekistan's people and America's credibility in the region."
Later this month, the State Department will decide whether Karimov has fulfilled his 2002 pledge to open up the Uzbek political system to allow real multiparty elections, an independent judiciary, and a free press.
Such reforms were part of an agreement with Washington in exchange for millions in aid. But the United States needs to hold Karimov to this commitment, the paper says. "Not doing so would make a mockery of its avowed mission to spread democracy in the region."
An editorial in France's leading daily discusses President Jacques Chirac's 3 April visit to Moscow. Following Russian President Vladimir Putin's landslide re-election late last month, the paper says Chirac was one of the first heads of state to personally congratulate him.
"Russian capitalism is not compatible with authoritarian political trends."
This "eagerness" to engage the Kremlin leader is understandable, says "Le Monde." Russia still has considerable global influence even if it did lose much of its superpower status following the Soviet collapse. Toward Europe, Russia pursues an "ambiguous" foreign policy. While sometimes leaning toward cooperation and integration, at other junctures Moscow exacerbates tensions by adopting a posture that verges on the confrontational. Many European leaders are therefore often unsure of Putin's true intentions.
It is worrying that these same leaders, whether through naivete or ignorance, bestow respectability on the Russian leader, who is now leading his country on a path toward authoritarianism rather than pursuing continued democratic reform. The Kremlin head presides over an arbitrary judicial system, de facto state control of the media, growing influence by the security services and violations of human rights -- and not just in Chechnya, the paper says.
Putin is undoubtedly pursuing economic reform in his country, says "Le Monde." But Russian capitalism is not compatible with authoritarian political trends.