Prague, 19 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Developments in Iraq continue to be the focus of much media debate today as U.S.-led forces confront resistance to the occupation. Afghanistan's slow slide into instability is also addressed, as is the situation in the Middle East following the 17 April assassination of Hamas leader Abd al-Aziz al-Rantisi.
THE WASHINGTON POST
U.S. forces are amassed outside the Iraqi Shi'a holy city of Al-Najaf, preparing for the possibility of a decisive battle with supporters of radical militia leader and Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. But Mideast studies Professor Vali Nasr of the Naval Postgraduate School warns that while opposing al-Sadr's influence in Iraq is important, it could turn into a Pyrrhic victory. Nasr says, "Violating the sanctity of Najaf [could] inflame Shiite opinion across the Middle East and change the tenor of Shiite politics." It could turn more Shi'as against the U.S.-led occupation and undermine the authority of Shi'a Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Al-Sistani "has been a moderating influence on Iraqi Shiites, a force for normalization of Iraq's politics, for state building and for the orderly transition of sovereignty," says Nasr. Although the cleric refuses meet directly with U.S. officials and opposes U.S.-led attempts to draw up an Iraqi constitution, " he remains a potential "force for positive change in Iraq."
Nasr writes: "It is crucial that U.S. policymakers take stock of Sistani's importance and the positive role that he can play in helping America realize its goals in Iraq and the broader region." Washington must look to strengthen al-Sistani's position and avoid "radicalizing Shiite politics, increasing Sistani's room to maneuver and making sure that he is able to maintain his legitimacy by delivering on the demands of his community." If al-Sistani is unable to deliver, "his brand of politics will give way to one that looks to confrontation rather than negotiation."
LOS ANGELES TIMES
Alissa Rubin writes from Baghdad, saying there is now a sense that "the ground is giving way" beneath the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. Following fierce urban street battles in Al-Fallujah and amid reports of extensive civilian casualties, Rubin says "[the] loathing many Fallujah residents have for foreigners [has] spread. More and more Iraqis who once resented -- but tolerated -- Americans now refuse to even talk to them."
U.S. military advances in Al-Fallujah "are pushing many Iraqis to choose sides between the occupation force and other Iraqis. Enduring religious animosities have been put aside as the more radical Sunnis and Shiites join to fight a new common enemy: the United States."
She writes: "Just three weeks ago, travel was easy outside Baghdad. There were risky stretches, but military convoys could pass. [Now] the roads out of the capital are so dangerous that few foreigners venture outside city limits."
To some, violence against Western civilians "is viewed as retribution for the violence in Fallujah. Whether that is true or not, belief that Americans behaved as barbarians and that thousands of Iraqi civilians are dead is widespread. According to Arab custom and especially tribal tradition, they should be avenged.
"No one knows for sure what really happened in Fallujah," Rubin says. And all those involved "have an interest in presenting the events in a manner that maximizes their advantage."
THE NEW YORK TIMES
An editorial in New York's leading daily today welcomes the suggestion that the United Nations will begin taking the "political lead" in Iraq, starting with the formation of an interim authority to take over power from the U.S.-led coalition on the scheduled transfer date of 30 June.
But any successful transition of power will require a new Security Council resolution, the paper says. And agreeing on the text will be difficult. Even in the best-case scenario -- and even if European allies of the United States step-up their military contributions - the situation in Iraq "will remain perilous at best, and large numbers of U.S. troops will be needed to keep the peace indefinitely." The paper adds that a new resolution must "define the relationship between those forces and the interim body."
But before any progress can be made, occupation forces "will have to end the current Sunni and Shi'a uprisings. No new governing body, with or without UN blessing, will be able to withstand this sort of challenge to its authority.
"[Simply] adding the United Nations to the mix at this late date is no cure," says "The New York Times." "But this approach is by far the most promising available at present. The alternatives -- abandoning Iraq to chaos or maintaining an outright U.S. occupation until a stable Iraqi government can somehow be created -- are unacceptable."
THE WASHINGTON POST
Intensifying fighting in Iraq has sparked hopes that U.S.-led coalition forces will soon be able to share the military burden will more allies, perhaps by eventually involving NATO forces. But in an editorial today "The Washington Post" says, meanwhile, NATO's peacekeeping operation in Afghanistan "is not progressing well." The paper says: "NATO's European members have failed to contribute sufficient troops to extend the peacekeeping presence much outside the capital, and the resulting power vacuum has been filled by warlords."
This power vacuum has led to a "dramatic resurgence in the opium trade," which now comprises close to two-fifths of Afghanistan's total economic output. "Unless NATO's peacekeepers and the American military contingent grow more assertive, the drug monster will destroy all hope of stabilizing the country."
The paper says for successful nation-building to occur, "[you] have to build institutions and overcome habits of lawlessness, factionalism and corruption that are self-reinforcing. But building legitimate institutions becomes almost impossible if illegitimate ones are earning millions of dollars."
Eradicating opium crops is a "risky strategy." The paper says the best tactic is "to go after the warlords themselves and to choke off their export routes." Much of Afghanistan today "appears to be descending into the instability of its past. To halt that descent, NATO's states must fill the power vacuum that has allowed the drug trade to spring up by sending more peacekeepers. Money won't do it."
The London-based "The Independent" calls the targeted assassination over the weekend of Hamas leader Abd al-Aziz al-Rantisi proof of "Israel's determination to impose its own order on Palestine." The paper says Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was "emboldened" by Washington's support for his controversial plan to withdraw from Gaza in exchange for maintaining Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Sharon has now "acted quickly to secure his advantage on the ground."
The security rationale for what the paper calls "these illegal killings" is that Hamas "must not be allowed to fill a power vacuum in Gaza when Israel pulls out next year. But it is more likely that Mr. Sharon is motivated by political concerns: he wants to bolster his hard-line credentials before his evacuation plan is voted on by 200,000 Likud party members next month."
The plan to withdraw from Gaza "is a substitute for negotiation," the paper says. "Sharon believes that he can impose peace on the Palestinians by removing the army and 7,500 Jewish settlers in Gaza, [partitioning] the West Bank to prevent the emergence of a viable Palestinian state, and retreating behind a security fence."
The paper calls on the international community -- and the United Kingdom and Europe in particular -- to "send a powerful sign that international law must be upheld" by supporting a second UN resolution this week condemning targeted assassinations.
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH
Writing in the British "The Daily Telegraph," Barbara Amiel says, had Hamas leader Abd al-Aziz al-Rantisi lived, "[he] would have kept the Israeli body count high." She says targeted killings are a form of counterterrorism, adding that there is "a moral distinction between counter-terrorism and terrorism, best described as the distinction between acts of war and war crimes." The deaths of Rantisi and his predecessor, Ahmad Yassin, were a blow to Hamas's operations in the West Bank.
Amiel says, "Moral indignation over the deaths of Yassin and Rantissi remains impossible to fathom." She calls it "hypocrisy" to view them as anything other than "murderers in cold blood."
The Palestinian cause "is an honorable one, but Hamas and similar groups, such as Hizbollah, Islamic Jihad or [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat's al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, have no interest in an honorable two-state solution."
LE MONDE DIPLOMATIQUE
This month's "Le Monde Diplomatique" revisits the implications of the 11 March train bombings in Spain, calling them a direct consequence "of the Iraq war and the confrontation between Al-Qaeda and the United States and its allies." Commentator Ignacio Ramonet says the bombs were "a terrible reminder that a year after the offensive against Baghdad the world seems a more unstable, violent and dangerous place. Contrary to the promises of [U.S.] President George Bush, the preventive war in Iraq has not reduced the intensity of Islamic terrorism. Far from it." Instead, he says, "[the] waves are spreading," and have now reached the European Union.
Regarding the electoral ouster of Spain's ruling Popular Party within days after the attacks, Ramonet asks whether we should now begin discussing what author Paul Virillo calls "emotion-led democracies." It seems "beyond doubt that the emotional reaction to the tragedy [weighed] heavily on people when they cast their votes three days later." Jose Maria Aznar's Popular Party "attempted to turn this wave of emotion to its advantage by manipulating information, concealing evidence suggesting that Islamists were to blame and insisting on blaming its preferred enemy, the Basque organization ETA."
One of the "morals" of the story is that people "are extremely sensitive to attempts at manipulating the media. In Spain and elsewhere people do not like to be misled."
The Popular Party "had gone too far in exploiting its control of information. [Presumably] it thought that, with the media hypnosis created by the bombings, one more lie would pass unnoticed. But when Spaniards rose in protest, the government fell."