5 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Among the topics at issue in the major news dailies today were Israel's controversial plan to partially withdraw from the occupied territories, rising tensions between Tbilisi and the restive Georgian province of Adjaria, and allegations of prisoner abuse by Anglo-American coalition officials in Iraq. We also heard about the growing Iraqi penchant for conspiracy theories in a commentary by Salaam Pax, whose debut as the so-called "Baghdad Blogger" brought him worldwide fame as he chronicled the U.S.-led invasion of his country a little over a year ago.
An editorial in the London-based daily says recent events in Israeli politics have left observers "in frustrated suspense." Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's controversial disengagement plan, which calls for an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in return for permanently leaving over 7,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, was resoundingly defeated by Sharon's own Likud party in a 2 May referendum.
"The Daily Telegraph" says Sharon "correctly concluded" that negotiations with the Palestinian Authority would be futile while Yasser Arafat remained at its helm. In the "chaotic absence" of a valid interlocutor, the paper says it was "prudent" to draw up a plan "to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and erect a defensive barrier along the West Bank."
But last week's referendum failed, in part because the campaign for the plan "was not pursued with sufficient vigor." And given the high level of public support for disengagement, "it would have been better to have avoided a Likud referendum altogether. The danger now is that the prime minister will be held hostage by the right wing of his party."
The daily calls for a nationwide referendum on disengagement, as "there is little doubt that [Sharon] would win support for the plan in a popular vote." But now, "having badly misjudged the extent of his influence over Likud, Mr. Sharon appears to be heading towards a deeply unsatisfactory compromise." The paper suggests that a bolder plan is possible, and says Sharon should "face down the right-wingers by going over their heads to parliament and the general public."
CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
"Former Soviet states like Georgia still are easy tinderboxes for civil war and U.S.-Russia competition," the "Christian Science Monitor" observes. "They needn't be if Moscow and Washington keep cool heads."
Renegade Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze has been under increasing pressure to cede authority over his restive province to Tbilisi, and his days now "appear numbered." Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is impatient to launch economic reforms in his country, "and rid it of the gangs and corruption that have ruined it." But to do this "he needs control of [Adjaria's] port city of Batumi and its lucrative customs revenues."
Saakashvili has given Abashidze until 12 May to disband "unlawful" military contingents and come into line with the "constitutional framework" of Georgia, or face the prospect of being forcibly removed from power. Abashidze responded by blowing up the bridges connecting his province to the rest of Georgia to protect against an anticipated invasion by Tbilisi.
The "Monitor" says all this might have remained "minor news" to the rest of the world, except that Georgia is now on the route of a planned Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that will bring oil from the Caspian Sea to Western markets.
"Russia, meanwhile, may see its historic influence in the region ebb," the paper says. Moscow could do more to help Georgia's nascent democracy, "such as speeding up withdrawal of Russian troops and sending a signal to Abashidze to step aside." In exchange, Saakashvili could promise not to attack the province.
With a war next door in Chechnya, nobody needs civil war in Georgia."
"I tell you, it is never boring in Baghdad these days," writes Salam Pax from the Iraqi capital. Between the low-flying coalition helicopters overhead and the conspiracy theories being passed around on the ground, Pax says there is often "more excitement than a James Bond movie."
Being stuck in a taxi in one of Baghdad's daily traffic jams at an American checkpoint often prompts the driver to deliver "a thesis on the wicked ways of the coalition." Pax says, "I was informed, for example, that the real reason for the checkpoints is to plant explosives on our cars so that they blame Iraqis later when they go off."
But Pax says he is most outraged by mention of the word "jihad." He says it "totally confuses" the taxi drivers "when you remind them that the so-called jihadis are killing more of their innocent Muslim brothers than infidel invaders. That their actions are turning the streets into dangerous grounds for our families."
A so-called jihadi "hero" may "[kill] 65 Iraqi policemen and [hurt] more than 100 Iraqi civilians while injuring four infidel invaders," Pax says, pointing out that these are not very good odds.
As for the conduct of the Anglo-American occupation at these checkpoints, Pax says it is "amazing" that the Americans have not yet learned that it takes more than one Iraqi translator to efficiently process so many cars. Pax says, "You end up waiting for hours because some old guy in a battered car with three women doesn't want to get out of his car and have it sniffed by a dog." And he says he has yet to have a soldier smile at him as he walks by.
Nevertheless, says Pax, "[When] things are good, they are very good. The weather is fine, and when the sun sets we sit in an outdoor tea house listening to pro-Fallujah songs blasting from a car stereo while teenagers stand beside the car trying to look tough. If we get sick of that we go to a friend's newly opened mobile-phone accessory shop in Adhemiya, where he has to dodge demands for phone covers with pictures of Saddam on them."
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Writing from Tehran, columnist Nicholas Kristof says Iranian-U.S. relations are "headed for a crisis over Tehran's nuclear program, which appears to be so advanced that Iran could produce its first bomb by the end of next year."
He says the U.S. administration "is right to address this issue, but it needs to step very carefully to keep from inflaming Iranian nationalism and uniting the population behind the regime."
"Left to its own devices," Kristof says the predominantly youthful and largely pro-American Iranian public is likely to push for reform and reengagement with the world community on its own. The Islamic revolution "is headed for collapse, and there is a better chance of a strongly pro-American democratic government in Tehran in a decade than in Baghdad," he says.
The Iranian mullah's "best hope is that hard-liners in Washington will continue their inept diplomacy, creating a wave of Iranian nationalism that bolsters the regime -- as happened to a lesser degree after [U.S.] President [George W.] Bush put Iran in the axis of evil."
Kristof says the United States will need to lay out the evidence of Iran's nuclear program "on satellite television programs that are broadcast into Iran, emphasizing that the regime is squandering money on a nuclear weapons program that will further isolate Iranians and damage their economy."
"If a picture is worth a thousand words, the photographs of Iraqi prisoners being humiliated and abused at a U.S. military detention facility amount to a multi-volume work of anti-American propaganda."
In an editorial today, the daily says: "It would be hard to devise a set of images better calculated to undermine the American mission in Iraq, generate outrage in the Arab and Muslim world, or discredit the selfless work of countless brave American soldiers. If the Bush administration doesn't respond fully and decisively, these revelations may undo everything it has tried to accomplish in Iraq."
The U.S. administration now needs "to make plain to the world that it will hold itself and its soldiers to the highest standards of conduct." The U.S. investment in Iraq "is too great and too vital to let it be jeopardized by such grotesque aberrations."
The daily added, "The need to obtain information from prisoners can't justify what [an internal U.S. Army] report called 'sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses.' The U.S. government can't undo what was done, but it can move promptly and aggressively to punish those responsible and take action to make certain these crimes don't happen again."