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Western Press Review: Iraq Gains Sovereignty Ahead Of Deadline, And Serbia's New Reformist President

  • Khatya Chhor

A review of press commentary and analysis today finds much discussion of yesterday's surprise handover of sovereignty to Iraq, two days before the scheduled transfer deadline on 30 June. While most observers welcome the transfer as a step toward returning national self-determination to Iraqi hands, many question whether yesterday's move was merely symbolic, since insecurity and violence continue to reign and access to basic services such as electricity remains sporadic. Many are asking what can be expected to change as the new Iraqi interim government accedes to power. Other commentary looks at 27 June elections in Serbia, in which a pro-EU democratic reformist candidate, Boris Tadic, won the presidency.

THE NEW YORK TIMES

Yesterday's transfer of power from the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to Iraq's new prime minister, Iyad Allawi, was "a hollow and uncertain victory," says an editorial in today's "The New York Times." "[This] is not the sort of outcome the [United States] envisioned when we sent our forces to liberate Iraq last year," the paper says.

Conducting the transfer two days earlier than the scheduled 30 June date was a sensible security precaution, but it also serves to underscore how arbitrary was the original date for the handover.

"Rather than being timed to coincide with a growing capacity of the new Iraqi authorities to take on the challenges of running the country and preparing it for democratic elections, the June date was fixed upon [to] ensure at least the appearance of progress as the American presidential campaign got under way."

The paper says nobody, not even officials in the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, "can seriously believe that Dr. Allawi and his cabinet are now in any position to run Iraq and prepare it for democratic elections."

Iraq's violent insurgency continues, and "the primary military responsibility for fighting the insurgency remains as much in American hands as it did yesterday.

"It is thus ludicrous for administration officials to suggest that America's occupation of Iraq has now somehow ended. It has merely moved to a new stage."

Iraqis themselves remain skeptical, and are waiting to see whether the Allawi government "can bring electricity to their homes and order to their streets."

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE

The Paris-based daily welcomes the 28 June transfer of power from the U.S.-led coalition to an interim Iraqi government, but cautions that "it's too early to celebrate."

The "grand term 'sovereignty' does not quite describe what the interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has received," says the paper. Officially, "an Iraqi government is once again the formal political authority in the country." But in reality, today's interim administration "was not selected by the Iraqis any more than the useless Governing Council was, and it is just as dependent for its survival on the United States and the 160,000 foreign troops in Iraq."

And violent insurgents "are certain to test the new administration with a lot more of the same."

The paper urges France, Germany, and other one-time U.S. allies "to set aside their enormous distaste for Bush and the Iraq war and to commit themselves to helping secure Iraq for the interim government."

"Alas, the Bush administration's incompetence and arrogance through most of this adventure have so turned most of the world against Washington that many European politicians will still prefer to limit their support to platitudes and photo-ops."

Iraq does have a chance, the paper says. It has "a real middle class, it has real resources, and the vast majority of people really want peace. [If] Allawi can now demonstrate that he can wield authority, and if Iraqi police forces now show a willingness to fight for an Iraqi government, then perhaps this will prove to have been a moment to celebrate."

THE IRISH TIMES

"The secretive way in which formal sovereignty was transferred to Iraqis by the U.S.-led occupation authorities in Baghdad yesterday starkly [reveals] the difficulties faced by the incoming interim government," says the Dublin-based daily.

Holding the ceremony two days early was intended to thwart a possible attack, but the new interim government's "weakness and dependence on a continuing U.S. presence is underlined either way."

Iraq is "in a real mess politically, administratively and in security terms 15 months on from the war. Progress made by the occupation forces in the economic and educational spheres is outweighed by the failure to restore elementary facilities such as water, electricity, roads and everyday security in many parts of the country."

"Fundamental policy mistakes have been made [notably] by dismantling the Saddamite state and military forces in their entirety last year without any real strategy for alternative nation-building. This has created popular resentment and caused much of the resistance, notwithstanding Iraqi relief about Saddam's overthrow and now this transfer."

The new Iraqi government still "cannot make long-term policy changes pending general elections planned for January next." Nevertheless, it does have more support than its predecessor, the Iraqi Governing Council.

The European Union and NATO, for their part, "are convinced a stable, united and -- if possible -- democratic Iraq must be created as an alternative to conflict and destabilization in the Middle East." And it is very much "in their interests to do what they can to ensure such an outcome."

INDEPENDENT

The U.S. and U.K. authorities "can hardly have wanted their occupation of Iraq to end as it did: almost furtively, [with] just a dozen people and the television cameras to bear witness," says the London-based daily. Anglo-American powers "would surely have preferred a full-dress ceremony, [and] a triumphal parade for the liberators as they bade farewell to Baghdad."

But this "was not an occasion for boasting or public rejoicing."

"For, notwithstanding the nobility of their professed aspirations, the U.S. and British have handed over administration of a country that is beset by violence and profoundly volatile. Their promises to bring freedom and stability have not been met. Even optimists concede that for [every] terrorist and foreign fighter who may now be operating in Iraq, there are hundreds of thousands of ordinary people driven to violence by anger, frustration and the multiple dangers that surround them.

"Inability to bequeath safety to Iraq is the biggest and most shaming failure of the occupation."

The paper says only if the return of sovereignty "is seen to mean what it says is there the slightest chance that the spread of insurgency will be halted. Anything else will breed cynicism and more violence."

NATO's decision to help train Iraqi security forces must be "implemented without delay. Not only will this hasten the time when Iraq can defend its own security, it will also demonstrate the good faith of those abroad who wish a sovereign Iraq well."

THE DAILY TELEGRAPH

Iraqis "are to be congratulated for assuming responsibility for running their country after 14 months of occupation." This change in who governs their country "will be welcome, both to Iraqis, who hated the stigma of foreign control, and to the United States and Britain, whose domination has become increasingly resented." And yet the "daunting task" that now faces Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and his cabinet "can be summed up in one word: security."

Attacks and assassinations "have discouraged foreign investment, slowed the recovery of the oil industry and undermined confidence in the government."

Yet Allawi's request for NATO to provide training and technical assistance to Iraq's nascent security forces "has hardly received an enthusiastic response," the paper says.

"In the meantime, the burden of keeping the peace will continue to fall on the 125,000-strong American force, assisted, notably, by Britain and Poland, with 8,000 troops each."

Allawi's challenge will now be "to create the conditions in which elections to a constituent assembly can be held without his appearing too dependent on outside powers. That may well mean conducting the ballot in less than ideal conditions in order to meet a deadline whose postponement would hand a propaganda victory to the men of violence."

THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The first of a two-part editorial in the paper today says that since U.S. President George W. Bush "made the fateful decision to depose Saddam [Hussein], a great deal has been accomplished in Iraq. A cruel dictatorship, which, conservatively speaking, murdered hundreds of thousands of its own people, is gone. Saddam is in jail, and the new Iraqi government is expected to take custody of him as early as this week. [The] era of rape rooms, torture chambers, acid baths and mass graves is over." Now, if the insurgency can be defeated, "the Iraqi people have a chance to build a new society with more civil rights and political freedom than exists anywhere in the Arab world."

Nevertheless, the U.S. administration of Iraq under L. Paul Bremer was "marred by examples of poor planning and missed opportunities." Notably, the security situation deteriorated "because of the failure to bring in sufficient troops early on to defeat the insurgency and the failure to train adequate numbers of Iraqis to perform military and police duties." And Bremer's "reluctance to give budgetary authority to local Iraqi councils made it impossible for them to respond to concerns about inadequate public services," which made them seem "little more than figureheads."

The paper says, "It is imperative that democracy succeed in Iraq." And more, not fewer, U.S. troops are needed in the country. "The next several months will tell whether [U.S.] strategic efforts have meant success or failure. Importantly, Mr. Allawi and his colleagues deserve strong support from the United States and fellow democracies."

The second part of the double "Washington Times" editorial today deals with the sense of optimism felt by most Iraqis, according to recent polls. A survey earlier in June commissioned by U.S. officials of 2,000 households in six Iraqi cities found that Iraqis are generally hopeful about the future. "About half of Iraqis said that the country is 'heading in the right direction,' and about 40 percent said it was heading in the 'wrong direction.'" And unsurprisingly, Iraqis "were most concerned about security and crime, economic issues, and infrastructure in that order. More than 70 percent said that the transfer of sovereignty would improve the situation."

The paper says Iraqis also have "forward-looking political ideals." Only a few indicated they would have difficulty voting for a woman political candidate; "85 percent said they believed women should have the right to vote without interference from family members; and 75 percent said that women should have the same political, economic, civil and legal rights as men."

When asked what is the most important ideals that a political party should strive for, "most declared things like social justice and improving standards of living, including education and health care."

"Obviously, Iraqis are optimistic about their future," says the paper. "Americans should be, too."

THE GUARDIAN

In a contribution to this London daily today, Iraqi-born novelist and former political prisoner Haifa Zangana says yesterday’s transfer of power to an interim Iraqi government was merely a symbolic attempt to legitimize the U.S.-led occupation of the country, and closely resembles aspects of the ill-fated British occupation of Iraq early last century.

She writes: "On April 28, 1920, Britain was awarded a mandate over Iraq by the League of Nations to legitimize its occupation of the country. The problems proved enormous." So the decision was made "to replace the occupation with a provisional Iraqi government."

Following years of Iraqi calls for independence, a treaty was signed in 1930 "which aimed to satisfy Iraqi aspirations." But the British "retained their power, through military bases, advisers and control of oil. The monarchy proved an oppressive regime under which many opposition leaders were executed and thousands more were imprisoned. Elections were managed, corruption was widespread, bombing and military force was used against popular uprisings." And the "mainstay of a corrupt and docile regime was the presence of British forces on the ground," Zangana says. "Is this what present-day Iraq has to look forward to?"

Foreign occupation "has always been perceived as a process by which to rob us of our identity and dignity. The British, in the past, failed to understand the depth of the feeling among Iraqis both against occupation and towards the Palestinian issue. Now, in their partnership with the U.S., they are repeating the same mistakes.

"As in the past, Iraqis are denied their natural right to resist the occupier and its imposed form of government."

LE FIGARO

The lead commentary today by Jean de Belot in this Paris-based news daily says one question remains paramount in Iraq -- whether or not, after a year of occupation, the country will descend into chaos, adopt an Islamic regime, or set itself on a road toward a democratic government that U.S. President George W. Bush hopes will become an example for the entire Middle East. The uncertainty is all the more daunting as the Anglo-Saxon forces in the country must maintain a delicate balance. On the one hand, they must maintain law and order; on the other, they must ensure the supremacy of Iraq's new "sovereign" government and lend credence to the idea that Iraqis are in control of their own destiny.

The elections scheduled for the beginning of 2005 rely on maintaining this balance, as does the improvement of the everyday life in the country. Moreover, the real balance of power between the provisional authority of Iyad Allawi, a close associate of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, and the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, John Negroponte, remains to be established.

For now, the U.S. president can claim to have kept his promise to transfer authority to Iraq by the end of June. By timing the handover for the NATO summit in Istanbul, he also hopes to elicit the alliance's help in this new phase.

But for those in Iraq who wish to live freely in an open country that is respectful of human rights, little of note has changed. Iraq's progress has mainly been a matter of formalities. And many risks remain unchanged.

THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR

An editorial today says voters in Serbia, "the hatchery for the gruesome Balkan wars of the 1990s, on Sunday [27 June] rejected the nationalist ambitions that proved so destructive to themselves and their neighbors.

"By decisively backing Boris Tadic, the pro-Western, pro-reform presidential candidate, they have finally indicated readiness to walk the long path toward integration, the European Union, and NATO."

The other candidate, Tomislav Nikolic, whom the paper calls a "hard-line nationalist," had pledged to reverse some of Serbia's liberal economic reforms. A former ally of ousted Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Nikolic's Radical Party became the largest in parliament in December.

The paper says Tadic is right to insist "that Serbia must fully comply with extraditing war-crime suspects to an international tribunal, even if many Serbs think it's a biased court. He also has to realize how harmful the bickering between his party and other democratic forces has been, and put a stop to it. And now that Serbia has decided to embrace the West, the U.S. and the European Union need to hug back with more aid."

FINANCIAL TIMES

"The victory of the liberal Boris Tadic in the Serbian presidential election is a step forward in the search for lasting peace and stability in the former Yugoslavia," says an editorial in London's financial daily. "But despite Mr. Tadic's considerable political skills, it is only a small advance on what remains a long and difficult road."

Serbia "must work hard to make the most of the election in its efforts to end its international isolation. And the European Union and the U.S. must respond more positively to Belgrade than they have in the three and a half years since the overthrow of former President Slobodan Milosevic."

The priority in Belgrade "is to create a stable government capable of implementing painful political and economic reforms and cooperating with the West on controversial issues headed by the war crimes tribunal." But Western powers must also "make it easier for Serbia to accept the tribunal's justice. First, the court must show greater flexibility in considering Serb offers for some cases to be tried in Belgrade. Next, it should show its impartiality by putting more effort into pursuing Serb complaints about war crimes allegedly carried out by non-Serbs -- especially ethnic Albanians in Kosovo."

Finally, the paper says, the West should be "more patient and more generous."

(Click here for complete coverage and analysis of events in Iraq at RFE/RL's dedicated "The New Iraq" webpage.)
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