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Western Press Review: Saving Iraq's Cultural Heritage; 'De-Baathification' Still A Priority?

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 17 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Among topics discussed today in the major Western media outlets are funding Iraq's reconstruction and preserving its cultural heritage in the chaotic aftermath of war; whether "de-Baathification" remains a priority of the U.S.-led coalition now that former Ba'ath Party police and civil service members have been recalled to help maintain order; and U.S. relations with Syria, as Washington's rhetoric takes a truculent turn.


A "Washington Times" editorial says Iraq should be given a grace period on its financial obligations while it focuses on reconstruction. Iraq's oil and gas reserves "are adequate to finance [its] short-term reconstruction and long-term development," the paper says. But the question is now whether the Anglo-American forces currently administering Iraq will institute wise policies and "provide the resources to underwrite Iraq's political and economic development" following several decades of Baghdad's economic mismanagement.

In the short run, the editorial says, Iraq "cannot conceivably service its debt, make payments against the principal, refurbish its dilapidated oil sector and finance its reconstruction." However, Iraq's oil reserves could, over the long term, cover the costs of reconstruction, "if the burden of its external debt is substantially relieved."

The "Washington Times" says, "Just as Yugoslavia received a five-year moratorium on its debt payments in 2001 following the removal of its dictator [former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic], so too must Iraq receive a comparable delay now. Over that time, as Iraq expands its oil sector and finances its democratic evolution, long-term debt renegotiation can take place."


Writing in "Jane's Intelligence Digest," Alex Standish says throughout the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq it has been assumed that "regime change" in Iraq would lead to a process of "de-Baathification" within the country's power structures. However, the "collapse of public order across Iraq has forced Washington and London to make compromises with key sections of the Baath Party-dominated security services" and recall members of the Iraqi police and civil service to work -- "in effect, reinstating the local levels of the Baath Party in positions of authority." Standish says similar moves "are likely to take place in local government, much to the dismay of some Iraqi exiles and political opponents of the old regime," many of whom "regard the Baath Party and all it stands for as the embodiment of the corruption of the Saddam era."

Standish goes on to remark that "there can be little doubt" that Washington would prefer the continuation of a Sunni-dominated administration in Baghdad, "with regional devolution for the Kurds in the north and the Shia in the south." Such decentralized regional power structures would limit Shi'a-Iranian influence in the national government and head off any declaration of Kurdish independence.

For this reason, he says, reinstating the lower levels of the Sunni-dominated Ba'ath party could be seen not only as a measure to counter post-Saddam lawlessness, "but, in fact, as laying the foundations for a new version of the Sunni-dominated regime in which the police, armed forces and civil service remain under tight central control of a pro-Western ruling group based in Baghdad."


In a contribution to "The New York Times," former U.S. deputy permanent representative to the UN, William vanden Heuvel, says today's meeting of UNESCO, the United Nations' Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is a good beginning to establishing protection for Iraq's cultural heritage. In recent days, looters have destroyed or nearly emptied Iraq's museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions.

Vanden Heuvel suggests the United States ask Secretary-General Kofi Annan to give UNESCO temporary responsibility over Iraq's historical sights. The UN should also identify donor nations and establish a fund to be used to combat the loss of Iraq's cultural treasures. "Qualified art restoration experts should be sent to Iraq immediately," he says. "An amnesty on criminal charges should be announced to allow the return of the looted property, most of which is probably still in Baghdad, [and] the United Nations should consider offering rewards for the return of stolen treasures."

"The United States has a duty to lead and the United Nations should welcome the opportunity to respond," he writes. A U.S. call for United Nations involvement "would be a major first step in repairing [America's] relationship with old allies, in recognizing [its] responsibility as an occupying power under the Geneva Conventions and in showing the Iraqis that [the U.S. respects] their heritage as well as their contemporary aspirations for a democratic country respectful of law and order."


In the British daily "Guardian," Andrew Green takes a look at some of the accusations the U.S. has been making about Syria. Syria has been accused of harboring fleeing members of the Saddam Hussein regime. This is entirely possible, says Green, as Syrian authorities cannot patrol the entire 400-mile desert border with Iraq. The U.S. administration has also alleged that Syria has tested chemical weapons, an accusation that Green says is hardly surprising. Several Middle Eastern countries are believed to possess comparable capabilities, "including Algeria, Egypt, Iran and, notably, Israel." But he says the case for invading Iraq rested on Saddam Hussein "being a crazy dictator who might pass chemical or biological weapons to terrorists." Green says Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, can hardly be described in similar terms.

The U.S. administration has called Syria a rogue state that supports terrorism, and Damascus has lent support to Palestinian movements such as Hezbollah and allowed nations to channel arms through Syrian territory. But Green says such policies are mere "tough diplomacy, Middle East style," and hardly qualify Syria as a rogue state.

Green says the tough U.S. rhetoric may serve to make Damascus more cautious. But what is also clear "is that the rest of the Arab and Muslim world will be deeply antagonized by such tactics." If the "primary aim is to counter Islamic terrorism by diminishing the mass support on which it thrives, this is hardly the best way to go about it."


Writing in "The "Los Angeles Times," columnist Arianna Huffington says the U.S. administration has taken the rather speedy fall of the regime in Baghdad as proof that the antiwar camp was wrong in its objections to a U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq. But Huffington says, "In fact, the speedy fall of Baghdad proves the antiwar movement [was] right. The whole pretext for [the] unilateral charge into Iraq was that the American people were in imminent danger from Hussein and his mighty war machine. Well, it turns out that, far from being on the verge of destroying Western civilization, Hussein and his 21st-century Nazis couldn't even muster a halfhearted defense of their own capital." The fact that the military campaign was relatively easy disproves the U.S. administration's "dire warnings. They can't have it both ways."

Moreover, she says, the apparent relief expressed by the Iraqi people now that Saddam Hussein is gone cannot be cited as a justification for military campaigns aimed at what she calls "preemptive liberation." Huffington says anyone would be celebrating "if the murderous tyrant who'd been eating off golden plates while your family starved" finally got deposed.

But Iraq's relief does not prove "that running roughshod over international law and pouring Iraqi oil [onto] the flames of anti-American hatred was a good idea," she says. "The unintended consequences have barely begun to unfold."


An editorial in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" cites postwar Afghanistan as a model for Iraq's future. Western media have devoted little attention to Afghanistan lately, except to acknowledge that the "situation in a country ravaged by terror and war for years is still serious." The decision for NATO to play a more active role in Afghanistan could well apply to war-ravaged Iraq, says the commentary. There are several arguments favoring expanded NATO operations in and around Baghdad. NATO enjoys U.S. trust and has proved far more efficient than UN peacekeeping forces. A NATO mission, moreover, would increase Europe's involvement in postwar Iraq. This could breathe new life into the organization. The "FAZ" says the only question that remains is whether European nations will approve this solution.


A "Boston Globe" editorial says that, as far as Washington's recent warnings to Syria go, "There are good reasons to warn [Syrian President] Bashar [al-Assad] to stop doing some of the dangerous things he has been doing lately. However, there is no just or sufficient cause to order U.S. troops to turn westward out of Iraq and head for Damascus in coming days, notwithstanding the longings for liberation harbored by many Syrians and most Lebanese."

The paper notes that Damascus has cooperated closely with the United States administration on identifying terrorists since the attacks of 11 September 2001. But lately the Syrian leader may have been helping officials of Hussein's regime in Iraq -- "at the worst possible moment" -- who have fled across the Syrian border.

President al-Assad "needs to be warned to cease playing with fire," says the editorial. "But in the long run, the soundest way to alter the totalitarian politics of the region is to help foster democracy in postwar Iraq and a just and durable peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians."


Patrick Sabatier of France's "Liberation" says regardless of the desires of EU leaders meeting in Athens, as they turn their attention today from EU enlargement to postconflict Iraq, the real decisions will be made in Washington. But likewise, whatever Washington's hawks are planning as they celebrate their victory, Sabatier says the United Nations will play an essential role in Iraq's reconstruction. And the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush seems to realize this, as it asks the UN to lift its sanctions on Iraq. Developing Iraq's oil resources will require a new UN resolution and the reconstruction of Iraq will require the aid of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, neither of which will act without UN approval.

Bush must now decide what he wants to do with Iraq, Sabatier says. One option is to transform it into a U.S. protectorate, managed by former Iraqi exiles allied with America and involving U.S. corporations -- while consigning the UN to the dustbin of history. But this "imperial" path is unlikely, says Sabatier. This war has already cost the United States $20 billion, not including funds for aid or reconstruction. And the continuing presence of U.S. soldiers may breed hostility and destabilization. He says it is thus in U.S. interests to share the costs and risks of Iraq's postwar years with other nations and institutions.


An editorial in Britain's "Independent" says the arrest of accused Palestinian militant Abu Abbas in Baghdad is "neither a great coup in the war against terror nor proof of Saddam Hussein's links with terrorism."

That Abbas "was a terrorist, and a peculiarly nasty one in his day, cannot be denied," says the paper. He was found guilty in absentia by Italy for hijacking an Italian cruise ship in 1985 and killing an American passenger. Italy says its court's sentence still stands, and has demanded Abbas's extradition. The "Independent" says the Italian authorities are right, and suggests returning Abbas to Italy to serve his sentence of life imprisonment.

But the daily says the United States "may still have to prove its case for saying that President Saddam [Hussein] was promoting terrorism" ahead of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The widely known "17-year residence of an ageing figure from the past such as Abu Abbas in Baghdad proves nothing."

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