Prague, 17 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Interim reports released yesterday by the U.S. commission investigating the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 say there is little or no evidence that Iraq's Saddam Hussein was involved with Al-Qaeda in the planning of the strikes. Several news dailies today discuss the reports' findings in light of the U.S. administration's claims to the contrary as it presented its case for going to war in Iraq. We also take a look today at media coverage in times of conflict; Chechnya's likely new Moscow-approved leader; and the trial of Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovskii.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
The U.S. commission investigating the 11 September 2001 terrorist strikes released a pair of interim reports yesterday, and an editorial in "The New York Times" says its findings could not be more clear. The paper says there "was never any evidence of a link between Iraq and Al-Qaeda" nor a connection "between Saddam Hussein and September 11."
And now, U.S. President George W. Bush "should apologize to the American people, who were led to believe something different" in the run-up to war in Iraq.
"Of all the ways Mr. Bush persuaded Americans to back the invasion of Iraq last year, the most plainly dishonest was his effort to link his war of choice with the battle against terrorists," says the paper. It "should have known all along that there was no link between Iraq and Al-Qaeda. No serious intelligence analyst believed the connection existed," and the evidence suggests the White House was aware of this.
And yet nevertheless, the Bush administration sought to convince the American public that there was a link between Baghdad and 11 September, both before the invasion of Iraq and in numerous statements since.
"This is not just a matter of the president's diminishing credibility," the paper says. The war in Iraq "has diverted military and intelligence resources from places like Afghanistan," where Al-Qaeda forces are known to be, possibly including Osama bin Laden.
The paper says two disturbing conclusions are now possible: "Either Mr. Bush knew he was not telling the truth, or he has a capacity for politically motivated self-deception that is terrifying in the post-9/11 world."
THE WASHINGTON POST
"We have no credible evidence that Iraq and Al-Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States." So states a preliminary report released yesterday by the commission investigating the 11 September attacks.
But "The Washington Post" calls this pronouncement "a single passing point that is no kind of revelation at all." The paper says: "Administration foes seized on this sentence to claim that Vice President [Dick] Cheney has been lying, as recently as this week, about a purported relationship between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda."
The real importance of the new reports, the paper says, "lies not in the clarification of any supposed Iraq link but in the new details" that clarify aspects of the attacks themselves.
We now know that Al-Qaeda relies mainly on a fund-raising network that was established over a long period of time. Osama bin Laden was directly involved in planning the attacks and selecting its targets. And there were internal divisions within Al-Qaeda that at times threatened to undermine the operation, as there was disagreement over whether or not it should be executed.
The paper goes on to note that the report states captured Al-Qaeda operatives have "adamantly denied" a connection with Baghdad. "Indeed," says the paper, "there is no evidence of operational support for the group by Iraq." And yet, the paper says, the commission "has not denied there were contacts over a protracted period."
But Cheney "has not always been careful to distinguish between Iraqi ties to Al-Qaeda and supposed support for the attacks." His remarks this week that there were "long-established ties" between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein "overstate" the "rather tentative ties" between the two, as well as foster the false perception of a link between Iraq and the 2001 attacks.
THE BOSTON GLOBE
An editorial says Iraq's political and religious leaders have "sagely" decided to make a deal with Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shi'a cleric whose militia battled U.S.-led forces in Al-Kufah and Al-Najaf for much of May. Al-Sadr announced last week that he would establish a political party to take part in UN-monitored elections scheduled for January.
The attempts by Shi'a leaders to persuade al-Sadr to achieve his goals through peaceful means "represent a pragmatic Iraqi solution to what will become an Iraqi problem" after the scheduled 30 June handover of power, "The Boston Globe" says.
"The move to co-opt al-Sadr by allowing him to compete at the ballot box for a share of power may not succeed," says the paper. "The penchant for violence he has demonstrated might not be susceptible to electoral therapy."
However, the Shi'a leaders' method could not be worse than chief U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer's "disastrous" plan to arrest al-Sadr for his suspected role in the slaying last year of a moderate Shi'a cleric. Bremer "provoked" al-Sadr after he shut down one of his newspapers "for doing what [Bremer] had been encouraging Iraqis to do –- exercise free speech."
Al-Sadr "is now being ushered down the path of peaceful politics," the paper says, and the Americans "should not complain." U.S. President George W. Bush "has said he wants Iraqis to become sovereign in their own country, and their handling of the al-Sadr problem shows they are beginning to do exactly that."
An item in today's edition discusses Russian President Vladimir Putin's apparent choice to replace the former Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, who was assassinated on 9 May.
Chechen Interior Minister Alu Alkhanov sat with Putin as he announced at the Kremlin that he would campaign for Chechnya's top post, joining eight other registered candidates. However, the Chicago daily says Alkhanov's public link to Putin "makes him the instant front-runner."
Similarly, when Putin hand-picked Kadyrov to lead the war-torn breakaway republic in 2003, "his election was ensured." Kadyrov "won more than 80 percent of the vote in an election widely seen as tainted by intimidation and fraud."
Chechnya's next presidential election is scheduled for late August. And its result "will be vital to the Kremlin's strategy of managing the restive republic through carefully selected proxies," who the paper says "can exert Moscow's will while carrying the nominal legitimacy of local support."
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE
An item by "The Washington Post's" Philip Kennicott discusses a new documentary by an Egyptian-U.S. filmmaker, "Control Room," which looks into the differences between Arab and U.S. media in their perceptions of the Iraq war.
Jehane Noujaim was with Western journalists at the U.S. Central Command media center in Doha, Qatar, when a statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled from its pedestal as the U.S. Army occupied Baghdad in 2003. As the statue fell, she said, the Westerners cheered.
"Things were different at Al-Jazeera, the Arab television network, where the mood was morbid," Kennicott says. Noujaim said the Arab journalists shared in a sense of embarrassment over the fall of Baghdad, despite their dislike for Saddam Hussein.
Noujaim's film has become "a conduit for images of war and conflict that don't easily make it to U.S. TV screens," Kennicott says. The film "doesn't linger over them, but shows scenes of American soldiers shouting obscenities and striking Iraqi prisoners, graphic footage of civilian wounded and bitter harangues from Iraqis who have lost homes or family members."
And it is these images that "have been the stock in trade of Al-Jazeera's coverage," in Iraq, throughout the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in the war in Afghanistan. They "have helped make Al-Jazeera synonymous with 'anti-American' among the network's critics."
Kennicott says the "choice of what to show, and what not to show, becomes the central issue facing both Western media and Al-Jazeera." And "Control Room" questions the mainstream media's decisions on self-censorship and objectivity.
By bringing these images to a U.S. public that does not watch Al-Jazeera, Kennicott says Noujaim's documentary raises "a question that has been gathering enormous momentum since the emergence of photographs of prisoner abuse at [Abu Ghurayb] prison: Why haven't we seen this?"
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH
As the high-profile trial of Russia's richest man and a business associate gets under way in Moscow, observers both in Russia and abroad question whether the two men will receive a fair trial or whether the Kremlin has already determined their guilt.
Many in Russia and abroad believe Khodorkovskii's arrest on tax-evasion and fraud charges was politically motivated, in response to his support for opposition parties and civic groups. Both men were denied bail yesterday, as the court decreed that they should remain in custody throughout the proceedings.
Some see Khodorkovskii "as a champion of democracy who made Yukos a model of transparency." But the truth "is more complex," the paper says.
Nevertheless, he is a victim of Kremlin caprices. The rule of law that Russian President Vladimir Putin espouses "is, in the case of the oligarchs, highly arbitrary." The paper says, "In a normal democracy, businessmen should be free to support political parties and lobby MPs." But Putin "has decided [that] the criterion for pursuing alleged criminal action should be defiance of him and his policies." It is clear "that Mr. Putin loathes the defendant."
It may be possible to strike a deal "that would prevent the destruction of Yukos and the incarceration of Mr. [Khodorkovskii]."
But the paper says this "is a highly politicized case governed by deals rather than due judicial process." The era of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin may have been "reviled for its chaos, but it had more of the breath of freedom than Mr. Putin's constricted form of democracy."