Prague, 13 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Following a week of violence between the U.S.-led coalition forces and various Sunni and Shi'a factions in Iraq, much press commentary remains focused on the growing resistance facing occupation forces. Comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam are becoming more common, and some observers are questioning how, and to whom, Washington will transfer power in Iraq on 30 June. Other commentary today focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is scheduled to arrive in Washington for talks tomorrow.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
"The New York Times" columnist Paul Krugman remarks that the U.S. administration keeps describing insurgent forces in Iraq as a small group of radicals who oppose the Anglo-American occupation, even as those on the scene "[describe] a rebellion with widespread support." Krugman says U.S. President George W. Bush and his advisers today seem "more divorced from reality than ever."
He writes: "Again and again, administration officials have insisted that some particular evildoer is causing all our problems. Last July they confidently predicted an end to the insurgency after Saddam's sons were killed. In December, they predicted an end to the insurgency after capturing Saddam [Hussein] himself." Six weeks ago the White House was insisting that Al-Qaeda was behind the insurgency, and Al-Qaeda's Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was the source of the problems in Iraq.
But Krugman says the "obvious point that we're facing widespread religious and nationalist resentment in Iraq, which is exploited but not caused by the bad guy du jour, never seems to sink in."
He asks: "When will we learn that we're not going to end the mess in Iraq by getting bad guys? There are always new bad guys to take their place." The best the United States "can realistically hope for now is to turn power over to relatively moderate Iraqis with a real base of popular support," most likely a widely respected Islamic cleric.
The main "architects of the war [have] been wrong about everything so far," he says. "[And] if we keep following their advice, Iraq really will turn into another Vietnam."
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE
In a contribution to "The Wall Street Journal Europe," Walid Phares and Robert Rabil, both Mideast studies professors at Florida Atlantic University, attempt to explain the psychological appeal of radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Al-Sadr is vehemently anti-American and his followers are heading up much of the Shi'a resistance to the U.S.-led occupation.
Phares and Rabil say: "Decades of brutal rule under Saddam Hussein have eroded much of the Iraqi 'national' identity that was shaped in the 20th century. Since his fall, ethnic identity has played a much stronger role than ever it did in the history of modern Iraq," as each community fights for influence in Iraq's emerging post-Hussein government.
And the devolution of a collective national identity "has confronted the Iraqis with a need to recreate one." Today, religious affiliation is "emerging as a powerful instrument for solidarity and as a source for a new national myth." But the authors say it is significant that Iraqis themselves did not overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein, which deprived them of a unifying, "national-resistance myth [upon] which a new identity could be constructed."
With this in mind, they say, "religious solidarity could easily become the basis for many anti-Western Iraqis to create a new identity based on fighting the coalition. This explains the appeal of Muqtada al-Sadr's movement to radical Iraqi Sunnis and shatters the view that Sunnis will not collaborate with insurgent Shi'as."
The danger for the Anglo-American occupation is that waging battle against coalition forces may become "synonymous" with a resurgent, unified national Iraqi pride.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
An editorial in "The New York Times" today says when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon holds talks with George W. Bush in Washington tomorrow, he is likely to present the U.S. president "with what is, on the face of it, an excellent idea -- the unilateral withdrawal of all Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip. But Mr. Sharon is likely to want to extract a price for that necessary move, and Mr. Bush did exactly the right thing yesterday by giving advance notice that he's not willing to pay it."
The paper says Sharon's idea of a unilateral withdrawal "is not really unilateral. In exchange, he wants the United States to give him a free hand in the West Bank. His plan includes dismantling some token settlements in that area and that would be it -- the end of the process, with Israel's security wall as the final border."
The White House cannot accept this plan, says "The New York Times." Ultimately, there must be a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian land dispute. And this "will never happen without Israeli withdrawal [from] most of its settlements. The United States cannot allow Mr. Sharon to maneuver it into sanctioning an indefinite Israeli occupation of the West Bank."
A withdrawal from Gaza is in Israel's own best security interests, says the paper -- but this must start the peace process, not be the end of it.
THE WASHINGTON POST
In commentary published in "The Washington Post," Ramallah-based journalist Daoud Kuttab of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University says the U.S. administration should seize an important opportunity in the war on terrorism by intervening militarily to provide international supervision for elections in Palestine.
"Few anti-terrorism experts would disagree that solving the Israel-Palestine conflict can offer an important impetus for winning the global war on terrorism," Kuttab says. "Failure to resolve this conflict has been repeatedly stated as a source of irritation in the Arab, Islamic and most of the developing world.
"Every conceivable peace plan has faltered over one issue: the cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians." Ending this violence, he says, "is the fastest road to peace." But neither side has been able to end the bloodshed, and the "most obvious solution is clear: a neutral armed outside force." And surprisingly, neither side is adamantly opposed to this option.
The U.S. administration has made "important political progress by declaring a vision for peace in the Middle East based on an independent and viable Palestinian state alongside a safe and secure state of Israel, by 2005."
For this vision to become a reality, "an immediate end to the cycle of violence is crucial. Right-wing expansionist politics, hatred, anger and desire for revenge have fueled the fatal present cycle of violence. The intervention of an international military force to put an end to the violence and prepare for local and national elections would go a long way toward fulfilling this plan for a two-state solution."
THE WASHINGTON POST
A separate piece in "The Washington Post" by columnist Richard Cohen says for all the dissimilarities between the situation in Iraq and the Vietnam war, one stark similarity stands out. In Baghdad, as in Saigon, "We [the United States] don't know what the hell we're doing."
This is the most important lesson that can be gleaned from the mounting violence during "the debacle of the past two weeks," he says. The "sudden uprising" by the followers of radical Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr "took U.S. forces by surprise." Cohen suggests that the U.S.-led coalition ought to be quite concerned that al-Sadr "was able to organize an insurrection right under our noses and put up a more than credible fight."
Just as in Vietnam, he says, "we are feeling our way in the dark." For all its insistence that the majority of Iraqis support the U.S. presence, the coalition leadership must accept that "we will never know what is happening in Iraq [because it is] a different culture." These were some of "the hard truths of Vietnam."
It is the same in Iraq, he says. "We went to war for the wrong reasons, and with too few troops and too few allies. Just about every expectation turned out to be misplaced," says Cohen.
"The lesson of Vietnam," he says, "is that once you make the initial mistake, little you do afterward is right."
THE MOSCOW TIMES
Writing in the English-language "The Moscow Times," independent defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer insists that the situation in Iraq and that of Vietnam have little in common.
The Vietnam War was merely one front line among many during the Cold War that saw the United States battling the Soviet Union and its allies. As long as the Soviets were able to maintain the global balance of power, any war -- be it in Afghanistan, Vietnam, or Nicaragua -- "tended to develop into a quagmire."
But the situation today is very different, he says. "[The] scope of the fighting in Iraq cannot be compared to Vietnam. The United States lost more than 60,000 soldiers [in] Vietnam. U.S. casualties in Iraq number fewer than 500."
The nature of combat is also different, he says. "Today the United States has the capability and the technical superiority to fight and win colonial wars against numerically superior enemies."
But Felgenhauer acknowledges that "military superiority is not enough." He questions whether any U.S. administration would prove wiser or kinder rulers than the British colonialists of the last century.
A "Le Monde" editorial today says U.S. President George W. Bush is finding himself increasingly on the defensive, 6 1/2 months ahead of the 2 November presidential election.
Many are now questioning whether the U.S. administration knew enough about the plans of Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda to prevent the 11 September 2001 terror attacks on the United States.
A declassified 6 August 2001 presidential briefing has made clear that U.S. intelligence services suspected bin Laden of planning attacks within the United States.
Is this document proof enough that more could have been done?
No, the paper says. Administration officials have cited numerous bureaucratic and other difficulties that made it impossible to predict what would happen.
And if the presidential administration was fixated on other priorities, it was with good reason, the paper adds. Before 9/11, terrorism was overshadowed by issues like the development of an anti-missile shield and the geopolitical emergence of China, Russia, and even Iraq.
The administration failed to predict the emergence of a new threat because it was concentrated on potential risks from traditional quarters. This was its mistake, "Le Monde" says. But it adds that the lessons learned do not apply only to the United States.