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Western Press Review: Islam's Reformists, Oil And Instability, Kyrgyzstan Hedges Military Bets

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 4 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Western media analysis and commentary today focuses on continuing UN weapons inspections in Iraq as the mission enters its second week. Also discussed are Russian military moves in Kyrgyzstan; the European Union's summit in Copenhagen next week, as the schedule for Turkish membership hangs in the balance; how oil production and instability guide the Middle East; and Islam's moderate and reformist forces, among other issues.

FINANCIAL TIMES:

In Britain's "Financial Times," Martin Wolf discusses how a combination of population growth, repressive governments, and rapid urbanization combine to destabilize the Middle East.

Oil is the starting point, he says. In 2001, the region generated 30 percent of the world's oil production, "as much as North America and the former Soviet Union combined." Wolf cites forecasts by the U.S. Department of Energy that predict a 54 percent increase in world oil consumption by 2020. "The further one looks to the future, the bigger the [Persian] Gulf's role will become, unless there is a revolution in energy consumption and production."

Exploding population growth in several countries in the region -- namely Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia -- is taking place alongside rapid urbanization. As a result, unemployment affects close to 45 percent of the labor force in Iran and Iraq, and just under 40 percent in Saudi Arabia. Standards of living are subsequently falling as oil profits are divided among a larger population.

Wolf says, "As economic and social stresses have affected these countries, the response has been different varieties of repression." Regional governments have often tried to divert "the pressure that is arising within to enemies outside," such as Western nations.

In Iran, this strategy has failed, as hostility has shifted from the West onto the hard-line mullahs. In Iraq, confrontation has been the favored tactic. But overall, the "prognosis for stability looks grim," Wolf says.

THE NEW YORK TIMES:

In "The New York Times," columnist Thomas Friedman says what is going on in Iran today "is, without question, the most promising trend in the Muslim world." On 6 November, Professor Hashem Aghajari was arrested for blasphemy and subsequently sentenced to death for maintaining that laymen could interpret the Koran without the aid of Muslim clerics. His sentence sparked mass student uprisings, which continue throughout Iran.

Friedman calls the student movement "a combination of Martin Luther and Tiananmen Square -- a drive for an Islamic reformation combined with a spontaneous student-led democracy movement."

He describes the events as "hugely important, because it reflects a deepening understanding by many Iranian Muslims that to thrive in the modern era, they, and other Muslims, need an Islam different from the lifeless, anti-modern, anti-Western fundamentalism being imposed in Iran and propagated by the Saudi Wahhabi clerics."

What is happening in Iran, says Friedman, "is precisely the war of ideas within Islam that is the most important war of all." Only Muslim societies themselves can "delegitimize and root out" radical, militant sects. "And that will happen only when more Muslim societies undergo, from within, their own struggle for democracy and religious reform."

Just as only "the disenchanted citizens of the Soviet bloc" could eventually bring down Soviet communism, he says, "only Muslims fed up that their faith is being dominated by anti-modernists can kill [Osama] bin Ladenism and its offshoots."

FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG:

A commentary in Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" looks at Russian President Vladimir Putin's extensive travels this week. Putin arrived in India today, having already visited China, and is due to continue his journey to Kyrgyzstan tomorrow.

The paper interprets this round of shuttle diplomacy as "a battle for lost influence." In particular, regarding Russian air bases in Kyrgyzstan, the commentary says it is all important for Moscow to demonstrate to its own military that it maintains influence in Central Asia, to avert possible criticism for "recklessly selling out to America."

It is apparent that some agreement has been reached between Russia and the United States, since American troops are now stationed only a few kilometers away from Russian bases in the Central Asian nation.

Considering there is agreement and partnership between the two powers on the fight against terrorism, the paper says there is no reason why the U.S. should "begrudge its new partner Putin at least the appearance of remaining a great power."

EURASIA VIEW:

An item in "Eurasia View" says Russia's recent air deployment to Kyrgyzstan ahead of establishing a new air base is "a strategic setback for the United States." However, both Russian and Kyrgyz military officials say the new base aims to enable Russian aircraft to provide air support for ground troops from Collective Security Treaty member states that may be mobilized to deal with regional security threats.

Kyrgyzstan now hosts one Russian and one American air base, which provides air support to U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and throughout the region. But the paper says the "warming relationship between Moscow and Bishkek deals a blow to U.S. strategic interests."

It cites a Russian political analyst as suggesting the United States has not paid enough attention to the security needs and interests of Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev's administration. "Not only is the Kyrgyz government confronting a threat posed by Islamic radicals, but it also is grappling with an increasingly confrontational domestic political opposition," says the paper. "Akaev now appears to believe that Russia can provide more support for his embattled administration than can the United States."

THE WASHINGTON TIMES:

Nationally syndicated columnist Cal Thomas writes in "The Washington Times" that unrest and discontent in the Muslim world stems more from temporal, rather than theological, concerns. The "failure of governments to meet minimal human needs" is one of the major problems in the Muslim world, he says. "Despite massive infusions of petro dollars, most people in nations run by Muslim authoritarians are poor and illiterate. Their poverty is not the fault of the West," he adds.

As during the Cold War, dictators "blame their people's misery on 'outsiders' and the rich nations of the West." But if people realize they are being denied prosperity and the right to "[enjoy] a real life, not by America, but by their own political and theological leaders, the people might overthrow those leaders." That is why regional governments "seek to keep their people in intellectual, theological, and political bondage -- so they can remain in power."

Thomas says Muslim leaders encouraging moderate forms of Islam can help in two ways. If they do so, "it will demonstrate there are true moderates who believe in pluralism and tolerance." If they refuse, "it will expose their real motives."

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:

In a joint contribution to the European edition of "The Wall Street Journal," Zeyno Baran of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Washington, D.C.,-based Western Policy Center's Andrew Apostolou say that at the 12-13 December European Union summit in Copenhagen, the EU has "a historic opportunity to improve relations with Turkey and its own Muslim minority."

"Turkey will not join the EU anytime soon," say the authors. But just "to start negotiations, the country must still introduce political reforms. To fully adopt and implement EU law and transform its inflation-ridden economy could take Turkey another decade, if it is successful at all."

But Baran and Apostolou say: "What matters is the very promise of an EU reward for these much-needed economic reforms. Turkey's newly elected government, run by the AKP [Justice and Development Party] can use a positive signal from the EU to kick-start the economic stabilization that previous governments so consistently mishandled."

The prospect of EU membership may also strengthen "Turkey's fragile democracy, just as it did in [EU members] Greece, Spain, and Portugal in the 1970s."

SUEDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG:

In the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," Heribert Prantl looks at the issue of immigrants from Kosovo residing in Germany. German Interior Minister Otto Schily is anxious to get rid of this minority group "en masse and quickly."

This has led to a violent quarrel with UN Mission in Kosovo chief Michael Steiner, who fears this will upset the fragile peace in Kosovo and who is begging for patience until the situation in Kosovo is more settled. All Steiner is asking for is less of "an iron-rod approach," says Prantl.

The problem has been tabled at today's Interior Ministry conference, and the commentary says it is highly unlikely that the hard-liners will heed either Steiner's anxieties or the demonstrators outside the conference door.

Schily is determined to take fast action to obviate a possible ruling of the Federal Supreme Court on immigration and integration. Prantl says Schily naturally fears a new law might force him to look more closely at the fate of immigrants from Kosovo. But Prantl says if he acts now, he has a free hand.

THE INDEPENDENT:

In Britain's "The Independent" daily, correspondent Robert Fisk says the new round of UN weapons inspections in Iraq is taking place "unhindered." But yet, U.S. President George W. Bush has already stated that "the signs are not encouraging." Fisk says this means "America plans to go to war with Iraq," no matter what the UN inspectors find.

Fisk says there have already been attempts to discredit the UN inspectors, although they were appointed at the urging of the U.S. State Department. Why did the State Department want them on the inspection team, he asks? So it could discredit the team later?

Moreover, U.S. President Bush keeps citing "the Iraqi antiaircraft defenses firing at American and British pilots" as a breach of UN resolutions -- "even though the no-fly zones have nothing to do with the UN inspections nor, indeed, anything to do with the UN at all." Fisk adds that yet again, the U.S. is "trying to establish links between Osama bin Laden and [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein in a desperate attempt to hitch the 'war on terror' to the war for oil" in Iraq.

Fisk says the world is being prepared for the "unspeakable possibility that the UN inspectors will find absolutely no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq." That will leave the U.S. with "only one conclusion," says Fisk: that the inspectors somehow failed.

THE IRISH TIMES:

Conor O'Clery in "The Irish Times" concurs with Fisk's aforementioned assessment, saying the U.S. administration's rhetoric appears to be "the talk of someone who is not contemplating anything other than regime change in Iraq." The response from "tough-talking U.S. officials contrasts sharply with the satisfaction at the UN that the inspections are going well," he points out. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday that Iraq's cooperation "seems to be good."

O'Clery says the "strong U.S. rhetoric reflects private unease among hawks in [U.S. President] Bush's cabinet that the appearance of cooperation by Iraq could sap the international willingness to achieve disarmament of Iraq by force." Some within the U.S. administration are concerned that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein "will not provide a specific pretext for war." The administration has already indicated that its response to the declaration Iraq must make of its weapons programs by 8 December "will be skeptical no matter what it contains."

O'Clery says Washington "must, therefore, turn the argument back to the unique threat posed by the Iraqi dictator, i.e. his potential to develop weapons of mass destruction, including a nuclear capacity." The 8 December UN deadline "is a crisis point," he says, "though it may not be the occasion for an immediate declaration of war. Rather it will be the beginning of the endgame."

THE WASHINGTON TIMES:

In "The Washington Times," "National Review" reporter Joel Mowbray says within the U.S. administration, "there are two schools of thought" about how to respond to Saddam Hussein's "expected noncompliance" with the deadline to declare his weapons programs on 8 December. "The wait-and-see crowd -- led originally by [U.S. Secretary of State Colin] Powell -- wants to give the weapons inspectors breathing room to find contraband, something that could take months or even a year or more."

But the other, more hawkish faction believes that this "go-slow approach would do nothing but undermine [U.S.] credibility," because the U.S. has already declared that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction capability. So, if Saddam Hussein "denies possessing what the United States, through its intelligence, knows what Saddam in fact has, then a failure to call him out would erode [U.S.] moral clarity."

The UN Resolution 1441 deadline on 8 December "could mark an important milestone: The declaration that Iraq is in 'material breach' of the UN." Even if the U.S. declares this breach, "bombs might not start dropping immediately," says Mowbray, "but the prospect of war would be much closer to reality."

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:

In "The Wall Street Journal Europe," Richard Spertzel, former head of the biological-weapons inspection team for the UN Special Commission on Iraq, suggests the Western media has been inappropriately upbeat about the way UN inspections are going in Iraq. "Far from the apparent capitulation that many want to read" into Iraq's granting greater access to potential weapons sites, Spertzel says "the more likely explanation for the Iraqi behavior is ominous: Iraq is confident that it is several steps ahead of the United Nation's inspections regime. How else, he asks, to interpret the gracious ushering of reporters into the halls of one of Saddam Hussein's presidential palaces?

The surprise presidential palace visit by inspectors "was symbolic," says Spertzel, "given the contention over the site back in the 1990s. But Saddam is too wily to hide his toys in the same place twice."

He asks, "Are these inspections -- of soft, relatively small, noncontroversial sites -- really all it takes for Iraq to appease its way out of a bombing campaign aimed at regime change?" The real test, Spertzel says, will come after the UN deadline for declaring weapons on 8 December -- "if Iraq realizes the inspectors are likely to find something Iraq has not disclosed, or when more sensitive sites are inspected."

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)

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