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Western Press Review: Palestinian Power Struggles, Political Opportunities In Karbala, U.S.-North Korean Talks

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 23 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Among the topics discussed in the Western press today are Palestinian power struggles over appointing a new cabinet; stemming the global proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; the official end of a state of emergency in Serbia following the 12 March assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic; political opportunities offered by religious celebrations taking place in Karbala, Iraq; and talks beginning today in Beijing between the United States and North Korea, which are expected to focus on the latter's fledgling nuclear weapons program.


"New York Times" columnist Thomas Friedman says Palestinian moderates are taking part in a "silent coup" against Yasser Arafat, led by newly appointed Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinian legislature pressured Arafat to choose Abbas as his prime minister in a move that Friedman says "was openly designed to diminish Mr. Arafat's power." Abbas has since been attempting to assemble a cabinet, but Arafat "has been fighting him at every turn."

Arafat senses a coming loss of power, and Friedman says "[if] Abbas and his allies in the Palestinian legislature are to prevail, they will need help." The United States, Israel, Arab states, and Europe "should all pitch in," he says.

The United States in particular "has a huge strategic stake in the outcome" of the Palestinian power struggle in how it will affect U.S. plans in Iraq, Friedman says. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rages on and the Arab world continues to see the U.S. administration as unfairly biased toward Israel, any pro-U.S. politicians that Iraq now produces will lack credibility and be seen as U.S. puppets. The leadership in Iraq will then either not be legitimate or will be forced to cooperate with the U.S. only in secret, as many Arab leaders must do today. Friedman urges all relevant parties not to "miss this chance to help nurture an alternative Palestinian leadership."


Writing in "The Washington Post," Muhammad el-Baradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction is "the most serious challenge to international peace and security." El-Baradei, who took part in the final prewar round of UN weapons inspections in Iraq, says a reformed version is needed of "a collective, rule-based system of international security" to stem the flow of weapons. He advises against resorting to preemptive military strikes on nations that are suspected of harboring such armaments.

Instead, the collective security system of the United Nations must "be reinvigorated and modernized to match realities -- with, for example, agreed limitations on the use of veto power and readily available UN forces that possess the flexibility to respond to a variety of situations." But, it is also vital to understand the inherent link between these security issues and nations' initial motivation to acquire increasingly powerful weapons. "The greatest incentives for acquiring weapons of mass destruction exist in regions of chronic tension and longstanding dispute," he says. The international community must thus "resolve to treat not only the symptoms but also the root causes of conflicts -- foremost the divide between rich and poor, schisms between cultures and regimes in which human rights are brutally suppressed."


Serbia yesterday lifted a 42-day state of emergency, declared following the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic on 12 March. The German daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" says the prolonged state of emergency yielded two main results -- Djindjic's murder has been solved and his "posthumous fame has been destroyed for the foreseeable future." The commentary says any country that must bring charges against almost one-third of 10,000 suspected criminals apprehended in the wake of the murder is certainly not in a stable condition. The paper questions why the 3,200 people that have now been accused had been "running around freely."

Solving Djindjic's murder is only the beginning of Serbia's political re-evaluation. The question is also raised concerning Djindjic's alleged supporters, who the editorial says literally "stabbed him in the back."

The government of Djindjic successor Zoran Zivkovic will now have to prove not only that it is capable of governing without relying on a state of emergency, but that it is also able to move forward with the country's much-needed crackdown on organized crime.


A "Stratfor" (Strategic Forecasting) commentary says competing Shi'a (Shi'ite) factions in Iraq may use the religious pilgrimage taking place in Karbala to advance their political agendas. Thousands of Shi'ites from Iraq, Iran, and elsewhere are converging on Karbala to celebrate the end of the traditional 40-day mourning period for the death of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

"Stratfor" says this religious gathering could provide "an excellent opportunity for the various Shiite factions competing for religious and political power in Iraq to propagate their messages, recruit and demonstrate against the U.S. presence." Activists may use the festival to launch a campaign of nonviolent resistance to U.S. forces.

Two factional leaders, Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali al-Sistani and Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr have already emerged from among the Shi'a since the fall of the regime in Baghdad. On 21 April, both "separately endorsed a nonviolent resistance campaign to oppose the U.S. occupation of Iraq. And because both factions are represented in Karbala, the festival would be an opportune time to launch a resistance campaign of some sort."

Shi'ite clerics "have set up their own local administrations to re-establish order in towns and cities throughout central and southern Iraq, and religious leaders have emerged as key sources of political power since the end of the war." If a united Shi'a campaign against the U.S. occupation takes root, "Stratfor" says any proxy U.S. leadership "might find it impossible to govern."


Writing in the "Christian Science Monitor," Peter Zimmerman, a defense consultant and former science adviser for arms control at the U.S. State Department, discusses talks beginning today in Beijing between the U.S. and North Korean officials focusing on North Korea's nuclear facilities. Zimmerman says early moves by the U.S. President George W. Bush administration have left North Korea in a stronger bargaining position and given the U.S. envoy in Beijing, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, "few cards to play."

Last September, the United States rejected North Korea's demands for bilateral talks to resolve the nuclear issue and its requests for a nonaggression treaty with the U.S., which Zimmerman says would have been "meaningless" anyway. These "modest" concessions and diplomatically recognizing Pyongyang "might have gained the U.S. far more while costing little."

He says the Bush administration's goal now should be "the dismantling of Korea's reactors, destruction of [its] plutonium-reprocessing plant, an end to any plans to enrich uranium, and ultimately the removal of the plutonium in existing nuclear weapons -- not regime change." While Kim Jong Il's leadership is autocratic "and his people live in poverty so that the government can build nuclear weapons and maintain a million-man army, [the] only way North Korea can threaten the U.S. is with nuclear weapons." Dismantling them "must be the highest priority -- even if the U.S. must make essentially meaningless concessions to [North] Korean pride."


The debate over lifting UN sanctions on Iraq is the subject of a commentary in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung." It says France and Russia, in considering their economic interests in Iraq, were always reluctant to support sanctions. On the other hand, for years Washington was anxious to implement ever-stricter sanctions, even if this was politically and morally damaging. Now, suddenly, having triumphed in Iraq militarily, Washington is in a rush to lift the sanctions, which the paper says "all goes to show how principles and opportunist interests can alternate."

From a purely practical point of view, the sanctions do prevent Iraq from rebuilding and have caused untold misery to its people. If these were the only motives for removing the sanctions it would indeed be laudable. But there is a political dimension to the sanctions, notably the provision that Iraq must first be declared free of weapons of mass destruction by UN inspectors and the Security Council. Hence the UN wants to take a lead in decision-making. The "FAZ" says that, predictably, U.S. President George W. Bush is opposed to this. And if France and Russia now accede to U.S. wishes then they would cease to have influence on the course of events.

Lifting sanctions would also mean suspending the methods of regulating Iraqi trade. The paper says all that would remain for France and Russia would be "the possibility of disrupted trade and a fear for their economic interests."


A "Wall Street Journal Europe" editorial today says the failure last week of the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Commission to condemn Cuba's renewed political crackdown is underscoring "the message that the UN's inability to act against Saddam Hussein was no fluke; the UN really can't manage to stand up to tyrants." Castro has in recent weeks imprisoned 77 dissidents and executed three by firing squad.

The "Journal" says the UN's problem is that it is "so value-neutral that it must hand such sensitive, key appointments to the likes of Moammar Qaddafi" of Libya, who currently chairs the Human Rights Commission. "In the UN's world of moral equivalency, no one regime is better or worse than any other."

The editorial suggests that perhaps the distribution of power should fall along "more rational lines." It notes that France and Russia, which it calls two "middling" nuclear powers, "sit as permanent members of the UN Security Council, with the power to veto Council decisions." But India, "a democracy with a billion people, and nukes, doesn't. Neither does Japan, which [still] has enough money to buy both Russia and France."

But the best example of the UN's "moral atrophy" is Libya's chairmanship of the Human Rights Commission, the editorial says. "If this is what it finally takes to get people to sit up and take notice that the UN is just so much empty infrastructure, then we should accept it and move on. Something better must be found."


Writing in "Eurasia Review," research analyst Kaan Nazli of the Eurasia Group says recent speculation over the condition of Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev's health has prompted renewed focus on the process of political succession in Baku. Amid preparing for a re-election campaign ahead of October elections, the 79-year-old president collapsed on live television on 21 April. Prior to his collapse, Aliyev was deemed sure of winning re-election.

Under the Azerbaijani Constitution's current rules of succession, in the event of Aliev's inability to carry out his duties as president, power would be handed to Prime Minister Artur Rasizade, who would temporarily assume presidential responsibilities. But Rasizade is considered a weak prime minister, and many observers believe he would serve in a caretaking capacity only.

Aliev's most likely successor is his son, Ilham, currently vice president of SOCAR, the state oil company, and the vice chairman of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP). Many believe Aliyev will try to appoint his son prime minister in the coming months, thereby ensuring his son will succeed him as president in the event of his incapacitation or death. "Internal maneuverings within the YAP are likely to exert the greatest influence over a potential presidential succession process," Nazli writes. He cites some observers as saying that Azerbaijan's opposition parties "are at present too weak and divided to pose much of a threat at the ballot box to the YAP's hold on power."

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