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Western Press Review: From Winning Iraq's 'Hearts And Minds' To Postwar Reconstruction

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 4 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the Western media today remains focused on events in Iraq, as Anglo-American forces amass on the outskirts of Baghdad ahead of what many observers believe could be a decisive battle in the conflict. We begin with a look at the United States' concurrent battle for the "hearts and minds" of Iraqis, as Iraqi public opinion is sometimes hostile to a possible U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The role of the UN and NATO in administrating an immediate postwar Iraq is also a topic of debate, as is the likelihood of a military takeover in Serbia -- could the Balkans once again become a flash point?


Writing in "Newsweek" magazine, Melinda Liu discusses civilian casualties and the battle for public opinion in Iraq. A bomb hit the Shaab market in Baghdad last week (26 March), killing some 14 civilians and injuring dozens of others, according to Iraqi government accounts. Two days later, a larger explosion rocked a crowded market in Al-Shoala. Nearly 60 people were reported killed and scores of others injured. "Once again the Iraqis blamed the Americans, and once again the Americans denied targeting any civilian neighborhoods," Liu writes. But in "at least one respect, it doesn't make much difference who bombed the two markets. Either way, Iraqis are blaming the Americans, and [President] Saddam Hussein is reinforcing his position among his people."

Liu says, "When it comes to manipulating the minds of his countrymen, Saddam Hussein is a malevolent genius. He understands the intricacies of the Iraqi psyche: the tribal loyalties, the stubborn sense of national pride, the painfully learned distrust of America's promises and, above all, the power of fear." Now, she says, the Iraqi leader is "using those skills in the fight of his life."

Meanwhile, Anglo-American coalition forces are waging their own battle for the "hearts and minds" of Iraqis. But months of concerted efforts at persuasion "have elicited nothing but derision from many Iraqis," writes Liu. She says the Western coalition has often unwittingly sabotaged itself "by offending the Iraqis' sense of national honor."


Ethan Bronner of "The New York Times" says it has been widely noted that the Iraqi response to the arrival of Anglo-American forces has been ambiguous. "Since Saddam Hussein had led his country into two disastrous wars and his people live under harsh international sanctions in a pariah state," Anglo-American observers "[assumed] that most Iraqis [would] dance in the street at the prospect of his removal." But Bronner says that is not what he found during his visits to Iraq.

The most common explanation lately for Iraqis' "muted" reaction to Western troops "is that Iraqis are afraid -- both of government [squads] and of the possibility that [the U.S.] will withdraw prematurely." These are clearly real concerns in Iraq, says Bronner. But he also says in his experience, "many Iraqis, perhaps a majority, seemed to believe in and identify with [Saddam] Hussein. While they feared their ruthless leader, what they feared even more was life without him." Many Iraqis believe Iraq's problems are the fault of the United States, not the leadership in Baghdad, although others blame Hussein's regime.

Part of the explanation for Hussein's popularity involves the nature of regional regimes, says Bonner. Throughout the Middle East, leaders are revered with a sort of devotion that appears strange to Western eyes. Thus, he says, "engaging the Iraqi nation in the project of building an open society" after the conflict "could prove extremely challenging."


A "New York Times" editorial says as Anglo-American troops arrive on the outskirts of Baghdad, there is renewed hope that the conflict in Iraq may be nearing its conclusion. The paper says there have been encouraging signs "that both the battle for military supremacy and the battle for acceptance by ordinary Iraqis were proceeding well."

While the paper acknowledges that information about how Iraqi civilians feel about the Western troop presence "is only anecdotal," it says there were "encouraging vignettes from around the country." As U.S. marines "moved toward Baghdad, they were met by a stream of people fleeing from the city before any fighting there might begin. Many gave the thumbs-up signal, thanked the invaders or waved in encouragement."

In the south of the country outside Basra, a Muslim cleric indicated that the Hussein regime supporters controlling the city "wished to give up if their lives could be spared. And back in Najaf, one of the most prominent Shi'ite clerics in the country issued a fatwa instructing Muslims to remain calm and not to oppose the coalition forces." "The New York Times" writes, "That kind of support from the clergy could greatly ease the maintenance of order and the ability of American and British troops to bring in humanitarian aid."

But the fight is not over yet, the paper says, noting that Baghdad remains protected by 15,000 to 20,000 Republican Guard and security forces that are especially loyal to the current regime.


U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's meeting with EU members in Brussels yesterday is the subject of a commentary in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung." Stefan Kornelius calls on "old Europe" to "act quickly and come to terms with some limitations if it wants to survive."

Although the U.S. decided to go it alone in the war against Iraq, the paper says, there is a growing feeling in Washington that it needs its Western allies "if it wants to prevent stretching its imperial position to breaking point. And in Brussels, the price of this friendly service has to be negotiated."

This entails three lessons: first, all EU current and future members must be united in supporting the U.S. Second, Germany should not be placed in a position to have to choose between Paris and Washington. And third, Europe must stop complaining and instead take action.

Most importantly, Kornelius says, European states must agree on a joint foreign policy, thus formulating a united and precise response to the doctrines of U.S. national security. Berlin must act decisively to prevent terrorism; Paris must realize that it cannot afford to wait while Iran becomes a nuclear power. And Kornelius says it is also time for the EU as a whole to consider how to deal with the Stalinist regime in North Korea.

"Now is the time for Europe to formulate some viable solutions to current world issues," he says.


Writing in the "International Herald Tribune," Simon Chesterman and David Malone of the New York-based International Peace Academy say the United States could prove an "improbable" steward for a postwar Iraqi government. "U.S. motives in installing such a government will be questioned throughout the region and any Iraqis that Washington puts into power may be tainted," say the authors. So how can a "legitimate and sustainable Iraqi government be established when the shooting stops?"

The UN could help convene discussions "among exiled and local Iraqis on an interim political framework and constitutional models for the future," the authors suggest." This is the method that was adopted with considerable success in Afghanistan." And such a model has some distinct advantages. First, it recognizes that Iraq is "too big and fractious" to be administered by outsiders for any significant period of time. And this approach acknowledges that a new Iraqi government will need international help that goes beyond the stabilization and economic reconstruction that the United States and its allies can provide.

Authors Chesterman and Malone remark that the Fourth Geneva Convention places limits on what an occupying power can do. UN Security Council authorization "would provide a sounder basis" for the postwar transformation of Iraq into a democratic regime. They conclude that the United Nations, "whose very existence was brought into question at the outbreak of hostilities, may come out of this difficult experience more relevant than ever."


An editorial in the European edition of the "Wall Street Journal" says it looks "increasingly clear" that NATO will "play a key role" in the security of a postwar Iraq. In discussions following U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's meetings with EU and NATO officials yesterday, Powell discussed the U.S. vision for Iraq's postwar governance. Initial security will be handled by Anglo-American coalition forces, which will then hand over power to an Iraqi interim administration. After an indeterminate period, Iraqi citizens will set up a pluralist representative government.

The "WSJ" says throughout many of these stages, NATO could handle Iraq's security concerns and conduct peacekeeping operations. But a looming issue remains regarding who will take part in Iraq's new government. The umbrella opposition Iraqi National Congress, which acts somewhat as a "government-in-waiting, is clearly suspicious of the State Department, fearing that it might repeat the mistakes it has made in the past in working with Iraqis with leadership potential." But so far, the paper says, "NATO management of postwar security and a limited role for the UN, sounds good as far as it goes."


In a contribution to the "International Herald Tribune," Max Primorac of the Center for Civil Society in Southeastern Europe and the Zagreb office of the Institute of World Affairs says the assassination last month of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic opened a dangerous power vacuum in Serbia. The prospect of a de facto military takeover, he says, "is a possibility that international and Yugoslav officials are failing to confront adequately."

The Yugoslav National Army (JNA) is the strongest institution in the country, and is so "thoroughly penetrated by powerful crime syndicates" that it is often "difficult to determine where Serbia's criminal underworld ends and where its security and intelligence services begin."

No other institution is better positioned than the JNA to benefit from the vacuum Djindjic left, says Primorac. Much-needed Western aid is contingent on Serbia's cooperation with the war crimes tribunal. But this would entail JNA military leaders in power today, some of whom date from the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, surrendering themselves or their colleagues -- a scenario Primorac says could lead them to conclude their interests "are best served by taking power." Any reform of the system also threatens the JNA's lucrative criminal ties. Moreover, "there remains strong populist support" for the visions of a "greater Serbia" advocated by many in the security services.

Djindjic's death opened the possibility that Serbia's "military-criminal complex" would "reassert its control over politics," which Primorac warns could "undo the international community's efforts to bring peace, stability and democracy to the former Yugoslavia."

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