Prague, 6 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- An upsurge in violence in Iraq is one of the topics being debated throughout the press today. U.S.-led forces are conducting a reinvigorated campaign in the so-called Sunni triangle in central Iraq and in the restive city of Al-Fallujah. Other topics include the strategy used by Tashkent's terrorists; prevailing misconceptions about Georgia's "Rose Revolution"; and what is really behind the Kremlin's hardened stance toward last week's NATO enlargement.
THE WASHINGTON POST
Recent violence between U.S.-led coalition troops and Shi'a militias mark "another turn for the worse in Iraq," says the Washington, D.C.-based daily. The confrontation with forces in the service of radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr may be costly, but "[for] months it has been evident that it will be impossible to stabilize Iraq under a transitional government, much less stage the democratic elections planned for next year, unless factional militias are disarmed and disbanded."
The paper says al-Sadr's Mahdi army is the most dangerous of these private militias. For weeks there has been a debate within the U.S.-led occupation over whether to confront al-Sadr and his forces. But by calling for more attacks on coalition troops on 4 April, Sadr now "may have ensured that a painful but necessary battle will go forward."
Coalition forces have thus far avoided major conflict with Iraq's majority Shi'a population, which "mostly welcomed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and has been tolerant of the subsequent occupation." But the announcement yesterday that an Iraqi judge has issued an arrest warrant for al-Sadr in connection with the murder of a moderate Iraqi cleric may have just upped the stakes. Al-Sadr is reportedly avoiding capture by taking refuge in a mosque, guarded by heavily armed troops.
The confrontation with al-Sadr, coupled with a crackdown in Al-Fallujah by U.S. Marines, marks "a return to more aggressive tactics," the paper says. "Such offensive operations have a cost, in Iraqi and American lives, and in new televised images of violence from Iraq. Yet the alternative -- to step back from confrontation with Iraq's extremists -- would invite even worse trouble."
An item in Central Asia's regional English-language daily says Uzbek officials are dismissive of allegations that last week's multiple bomb blasts and skirmishes with authorities were due to discontent with the prevailing regime. Several international human rights groups and regional political analysts have argued that the government's "rigid control over political and economic life in the country was a major factor in the militant attacks."
But officials in Tashkent "have flatly rejected any suggestion that the militant attacks were a reaction to government policies. [Instead], the government continued to insist that Uzbekistan has been targeted for destabilization by an international terrorist conspiracy."
Tashkent maintains that the prime suspects behind the violence are Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), both of which call for the establishment of a regionwide Islamic caliphate. Unlike the IMU, Hizb ut-Tahrir has no known history of involvement in violence. The paper notes, however, that a heretofore unknown group called Islamic Jihad has claimed responsibility through an e-mail message sent to the centrasia.ru website.
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH
"The Daily Telegraph's" Nigel Farndale says Russian President Vladimir Putin is pursuing some foreign policies that make him an "old-school hyprocrite" in the style of the Cold War era. Over a month ago, two special-forces officers were sent to Qatar to assassinate Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, the former separatist Chechen president, whom the Kremlin considered a terrorist. Yandarbiyev and several members of his family were blown up in their car as they were driving away from a mosque.
Two weeks later, the Kremlin sponsored the UN resolution condemning Israel for its targeted assassination of wheelchair-bound Shaykh Ahmad Yassin, Hamas's spiritual leader, outside a mosque.
So in supporting these contradictory policies, what was President Putin thinking of? Farndale asks. When he condemned Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policies, did he do so while acknowledging that it was all just "brinkmanship" and "harmless hypocrisy"? When the Qataris apprehended the two Russian assassins, the Kremlin immediately arrested a Qatari wrestler and his trainer who happened to be in Russia. Farndale says the result was a trade, adding sardonically that it was "a charming evocation of the days of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions, of spies being exchanged on bridges, of Cold War chess."
THE MOSCOW TIMES
Independent defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer discusses the Kremlin's toughening rhetoric in response to last week's NATO expansion to include seven former Soviet-bloc states and satellites -- Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. The Russian Foreign Ministry announced that it would consider taking action against new NATO bases in the three Baltic states. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said the Kremlin would reconsider its "nuclear doctrine" regarding the NATO presence now at its borders. And the State Duma passed a resolution formally denouncing the expansion.
"The heightened rhetoric might suggest that Russia and NATO are entering a new period of confrontation," says Felgenhauer. But actually, all the strong statements simply allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin to "play the role of [the] friend of the West and champion of our common values and interests."
Ultimately, the Russian military and decision makers "accept that they can do nothing to halt NATO expansion and the Western domination of Europe, but this doesn't mean they have to like it," he adds.
Felgenhauer says the "handful of fighter jets deployed in the Baltics presents no threat to Russian national security. Then again, there is no pressing military need to station the fighters there." The deployment "smacks of provocation, and in this sense Moscow's reaction was to be expected," he says.
"The Russian military and the defense industry would hate to lose NATO as an enemy," says Felgenhauer. "Everyone knows very well that the alliance will not attack, but the potential of such an attack is enough to allow a lot of people to embezzle a lot of money earmarked for defense spending."
Thus NATO and the Kremlin seem destined to remain "not friends, but not exactly enemies."
Commentator David Shanks says that while the leader of Georgia's breakaway republic of Adjaria, Aslan Abashidze, may be "a tinpot dictator" who runs the province "as his personal fiefdom," Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili "is not above criticism either."
The stipulation that a party had to poll 7 percent of the national vote in elections late last month to win a seat in parliament "has since left Saakashvili running a country that has virtually no opposition. Indeed, he has said he does not really see the point of opposition," Shanks says. So "after an election validated by the Council of Europe and the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe], post-communist Georgia is destined for near one-party rule again."
Abashidze accuses Saakashvili’s National Movement party of buying votes and intimidating rival parties into closing their regional party offices. He said the short registration period, sometimes as little as a week, left many unable or unwilling to vote.
"[Whatever] Abashidze's faults, he is a popularly elected leader," Shanks says. Abashidze's rule has made for "a slightly better lot for his poor people, stability and relative peace for the past 13 years, in contrast to the rest of Georgia, which has been at war with its two other autonomous republics, Abkhazia and South Ossetia."
But Abashidze might now be "losing it" under the strain of the confrontation with Tbilisi. He remains convinced that Georgia stands ready to invade his small autonomous republic, and accuses Tbilisi of amassing troops at Poti. Shanks says a visit to the town, however, revealed no evidence of a military buildup, and that Poti remains "a sleepy town indeed."
"The Guardian" argues that it is becoming "harder than ever to accept the official U.S. claim that violence in Iraq is 'the exception and not the rule.' Alarmingly also for the first time, U.S. forces were simultaneously attacking both Sunni and Shi'a communities in or near Baghdad." And none of the new military actions "even pretends to be concerned with winning hearts or minds."
In Washington "the despair is now open and bipartisan," says the paper. Both Democrats and Republicans are now concerned that Iraq could be teetering on the edge of a civil war. And "The Guardian" says, "However much the U.S. administration may have brought this crisis upon its own head, by an unwise war executed with a reckless disregard for the consequences, it is a crisis affecting all Iraqis and the surrounding region for which the rest of the world must now take responsibility."
"The key problem is how to establish a new international voice and presence in Iraq, capable of providing much-needed help in security and economic and humanitarian aid, which will not be discredited by association with the occupation so far."
Hopes are now centering on UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who arrived in Baghdad on 4 April. The U.S. hopes Brahimi will be able to formulate a plan that will gain wide acceptance among Iraqis. But "The Guardian" says, "If this merely means using the UN to provide cover for the continued presence of coalition forces after the projected 'transfer of power' at the end of June, while the U.S. remains in de facto control, it is not going to work."
Instead, a completely new paradigm must be created for international involvement in Iraq.
Writing in France's "Le Monde," Alain Deletroz of the International Crisis Group in Brussels remarks that the terrorist attacks in Tashkent differed in tactics from those in New York in 2001 and Madrid in March.
Instead of targeting a metro station during peak hours or a busy central market, the Uzbek attackers carefully took aim at police officers. Unlike the attacks in Spain and the United States, they did not try to maximize the number of civilian casualties but sought to target one of the most hated symbols of the regime of President Islam Karimov. Nor did they target such symbols of the West as bars or luxury hotels.
In taking on one of the most corrupt and savagely repressive police forces in the former Soviet bloc, Deletroz says the Uzbek terrorists were sure to strike a sympathetic chord among a population that is accustomed to experiencing daily abuses of power.
The Uzbek president has created a situation in which no legitimate challengers to the state can survive. Thus, the field of opposition has been narrowed to include only those groups formed in secret that can then recruit a disenfranchised youth that faces a future without political or economic opportunities.