Prague, 29 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Editorials and commentary published in the major Western dailies today take a look at yesterday's Iraqi leadership conference in Baghdad; the international effort to rescue Iraq's looted heritage in antiquities; ranking the world's net aid contributions; and the meeting beginning in Brussels today between leaders from France, Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg, as they launch the latest effort to form a common EU defense policy.
An editorial in the Britain's "The Independent" says the outcome of yesterday's Iraqi delegates meeting in Baghdad was rather mixed.
On the positive side, the number of attendees was more than four times the approximately 60 who took part in the first Iraqi leadership conference 10 days earlier. Representatives of the Shi'a Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), were also in attendance. They had boycotted the earlier meeting. The conference reportedly concluded with a pledge to select a transitional government within four weeks, which the editorial calls "an ambitious timetable."
However, many difficulties remain. SCIRI remains divided over the role of the U.S. military administration in Iraq. Moreover, the group does not represent a majority of Iraq's 60 percent Shi'a population. A split is also emerging between Iraqi exiles and home-based groups over the need for U.S. forces to play any role at all.
Yesterday's conference also saw signs of "friction between the U.S. and the British about how to proceed" in their attempts "to coax into being a government that is by, for, and acceptable to the Iraqi people, without appearing to dictate the terms."
"The Independent" writes: "What is increasingly apparent is that the respect of Iraqis for the U.S. and Britain now depends entirely on how soon security is established and basic services are restored. The longer this takes, the more tenuous their authority will become and the more likely it will be that others [will] move to fill the vacuum."
A commentary in Germany's "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" considers the significance of the meeting of about 300 Iraqis, sponsored by the United States and Britain, which reportedly decided yesterday to call a national conference in a month's time to select a postwar transitional government for Iraq.
The multitude of opposition groups that participated hold extremely diverse opinions about Iraq's future. According to the German daily, the only point on which there was genuine common ground was that the Americans should leave Iraq as quickly as possible.
This, says the paper, is a "sobering bit of information for the Anglo-American victors, who saw themselves as liberators." However, the absence of a strong hand in Iraq would leave the country in a chaotic state. Iraq, in the post-Saddam Hussein period, needs "a tough hand to keep order," the paper says. "This is the only chance of settling the diverging interests."
And this task will need "power, time, and sensitivity." Granted, the paper says, the Americans do have power, but they must learn to refrain from turning the country on its head.
In a contribution to the "Chicago Tribune," Hershel Shanks, an editor at "Archaeology Odyssey" magazine, says the archaeological establishment is advocating misguided policies in its attempt to stem the tide of Iraq's looted national treasures, which are now making their way onto the world market.
Leading archaeologists and professional organizations are urging border closures, alerting customs police, and imploring antiquities collectors and museums not to buy them. But Shanks says, "This is precisely the opposite of what should be done if we want to recover" these items.
Instead, "anyone who has an opportunity to purchase any of this loot" should be urged to immediately do so and then "turn it over to the proper international authorities, perhaps for eventual return to the Iraq museums. We should enlist museums, antiquities dealers and collectors who have access to the outlets for these objects to rescue them by ransoming them. Instead of vilifying collectors and trying to drive antiquities dealers out of business," as the archaeological establishment suggests, the world "should be enlisting their help."
Shanks says these traders should be honored "if they manage to retrieve artifacts stolen from Iraq's museums."
The archaeological establishment's objection to this method is that it would "encourage future looting by rewarding the looters. Instead, the archaeological establishment would put the looters out of business by drying up the market."
But "there will always be a market for looted antiquities," he says. The only realistic approach is to prevent Iraq's artifacts from going into private collections by buying them to ensure access to them in public museums.
INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE:
A joint contribution to the "International Herald Tribune" by Nancy Birdsall of the Center for Global Development and Moises Naim of "Foreign Policy" magazine discusses the net contribution of nations worldwide to aid and development in poor nations.
Leaders of the world's richest nations "frequently proclaim their fervent desire to end poverty worldwide and boast of their spending on foreign aid." But various barriers to trade with developed countries "cost poor nations more than $1 billion per year, roughly twice what rich nations give in aid."
The authors' organizations have jointly created the Commitment to Development Index, which measures the net contributions of rich nations. The index "considers the quality, not just the quantity," of aid. For instance, it adjusts for "tied aid" -- aid funds "that recipient countries are required to spend on services from the donor nation" in return for aid. Denmark tops this ranking, as only a fraction of its aid is tied. But the United States ranks 21st when its contributions are adjusted.
The authors urge the Group of Seven nations -- Canada, Germany, France, Japan, Italy, Britain, and the United States -- to assume development responsibilities in proportion to their global reach and economic influence.
"If these countries step forward, they will help improve the lives of millions of people who deserve better than they now have -- and build a more stable world in the process."
An editorial in "Die Welt" by Michael Stuermer looks at some of the obstacles that are blocking the development of a common European Union defense policy. He says at the recent meeting in Athens, the members and representatives of the 10 countries due to join the EU in 2004 "rejoiced in unity," whereas current members in Brussels are now dealing with "a split in Europe" in addition to Europe's separation from the U.S.
Instead of rethinking their blunt opposition to the war in Iraq, the leaders of Belgium, Germany, France, and Luxembourg meeting today in Brussels are about to "ruin NATO completely," Stuermer says.
Europe's defense policy is highly irresponsible and seems to be ready to engage in peacekeeping only when it will not prove a challenge. The states meeting in Brussels have little to offer, says Stuermer.
Today, everything depends on lending more weight to the EU within NATO, Stuermer says. This depends largely on three conditions: British participation, European military investment, and a Europe willing to share America's global military burden.
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
Writing in "The New York Times," Reuel Marc Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute discusses political maneuvering among Iraq's religious communities.
Iraq's "two most prominent revolutionary clerics," 22-year-old Moktada al-Sadr and Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, are betting that the collapse of the Ba'athist regime in Baghdad "has unsettled and compromised the Shi'ite religious establishment." The two men advocate an Iranian-style Islamic revolution in Iraq. And through "physical intimidation and political demonstrations, they are trying to humble and silence their peers, like Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who might accept the creation of a pluralistic, secular democracy under American guidance."
"It is unclear whether Mr. Sadr and Mr. Hakim can convince enough of Iraq's younger Shi'ite clerics [that] their traditional leaders are morally compromised and politically irrelevant." Gerecht says this is unlikely, since "everyone in Iraq, not just the Shi'ite religious establishment, was compromised by Saddam Hussein's rule."
But it will also be difficult for Iraq's senior Shi'ite clergy "to embrace publicly" U.S. attempts to create democracy. "For clerics who have been proud guardians of the country's Islamic patrimony and independence from foreign rule, it would be embarrassing to support America."
Al-Sadr and al-Hakim "and their allies in Tehran understand this all too well." They have been maneuvering in response to what they view as the U.S. power vacuum, in some cases restoring order or public services more effectively than U.S. forces.
Gerecht says the United States must be willing to maintain their presence "until democratic institutions take hold. If it is patient, the odds are decent that Iraqi Shi'ites will support democratic government."
INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE:
Writing in the "International Herald Tribune," James Goodby of Stanford University and Kenneth Weisbrode of the Atlantic Council of the United States discuss the meeting in Brussels today and the latest attempt to formulate a common EU defense policy. The "mini-summit" of leaders from France, Belgium, Germany, and Luxembourg has received little attention, and what press it has received has been "dismissive."
"Past efforts to develop a quasi-independent European defense organization have nearly all fallen short of the mark," the authors note. "NATO has picked up most of the slack, but it cannot do so indefinitely. It is finally time to establish a clear division of labor in defense, and for both Americans and Europeans to put their money where their mouths are."
A new division of labor would require restructuring "the trans-Atlantic alliance into an inner and outer core. The outer core would consist of NATO and be geared to defending its members against external threats." Inter-European security "would be left to the inner core, comprising a capable EU defense organization."
EU members and aspiring members should belong to both tiers. The United States would not be obligated to intervene in inter-European conflicts, nor would every NATO member be required to participate in missions outside of Europe.
Weisbrode and Goodby say, "such a two-tiered alliance should be more flexible, yet carry greater multilateral authority, than current, ad hoc arrangements."
Writing in France's "Le Monde," Marie-Pierre Subtil discusses the "ghost villages" of Russia, where the electricity works, there is running water, and the town has an official population -- but where there are no inhabitants.
Of 160,000 Russian villages, 17,000 are like ghost towns, says Vladimir Sokoline, president of the State Committee for Statistics. Up to 38,000 more villages have less than 10 inhabitants and will themselves be left uninhabited within months or, perhaps, a few years.
Subtil says Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov was "furious" following Sokoline's announcement of these preliminary figures from the October 2002 census at a governmental meeting on 24 April. The "ghost villages" are located for the most part in isolated regions that are difficult to access. The results of the census, which should be made public by the end of the year, counted 145.2 million people, showing a population decrease of 1.84 million since the last census in 1989.
Since the 1989 tally, the number of deaths exceeded births by more than 7 million and 5 million people emigrated, although more than 11 million Russian-speakers arrived in Russia from the former Soviet countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Russia's falling demographic is due to the deterioration of the health system, alcohol abuse, and the declining birthrate, Subtil writes. She cites Sokoline of the national Statistics Committee as saying Russia can expect its population to continue to fall by 1 million inhabitants per year.
RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.