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Western Press Review: The Death of Al-Hakim, Nuclear Nonproliferation, And The Mideast

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 1 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Much of the analysis in the major dailies today continues to discuss last week's (29 August) bombing of Iraq's holiest Shi'a Muslim shrine, which killed senior Shi'a cleric Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim and 124 others. Al-Hakim's death seems likely to complicate efforts to ensure a representative government in Iraq. Flawed U.S. and Russian efforts at stemming nuclear proliferation are also discussed, as are events in the Middle East.


Writing in "The New York Times," commentator Craig Smith says the death last week of senior Shi'a cleric Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim in Al-Najaf is "guaranteed to sow mistrust and division in an already fragmented population whose unity and allegiance will decide whether America's embattled nation-building program in the country succeeds."

Smith says each "anonymous bomb and bullet perpetuates a divisive climate of fear and suspicion that is more damaging to stability than any loss of life or property alone." Such attacks create a climate of Americans "against Iraqi, Sunni against Shiite, even Shiite against Shiite."

Now, he says, "unless an indisputably clear culprit is found for the [Al-Najaf] bombing, the biggest question among Iraqis won't be just whom to blame but, once again, whom to believe."

To be sure, says Smith, "there will be plenty of suspects, including agents of Saddam Hussein's toppled regime, rivals for power in Iraq's future government, competing Shiite clerics vying for support among the country's devout masses, and even the United States, which many Iraqis believe wants to keep Shiite clerics from gaining too much power."

Some claim "underground Baathists [wanted] to remove [al-]Hakim from Iraq's evolving political scene." Others say only Hussein loyalists have the technology to carry out such an attack. Smith says highest on the list of suspects are Sunni Muslim members of the former Ba'athist regime, for Iraq's Shi'a majority and its leadership have "always posed the greatest threat to their rule."


In his monthly column for "The Washington Post," Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment says "one thing is certain: There are not sufficient forces in Iraq today to create the secure environment within which essential political and economic development can proceed."

This explains the U.S. administration's renewed focus on passing a UN resolution, he says. But this new spirit of multilateralism "derives exclusively from the need to get more foreign forces on the ground in Iraq."

Washington has also stepped up efforts to get Iraqis more involved in maintaining security in the country. But again, says Kagan, "the Iraqization program comes not from newfound confidence" in Iraqis' ability to self-govern "but purely and simply from the need to make up for the shortfall in [U.S.] troops to guard pipelines and government offices and to patrol borders."

Nevertheless, both these shifts are welcome, Kagan says. "It would be good to get more international forces into Iraq. And getting the Iraqis themselves to take charge of their own country is the goal of the whole enterprise."

But he says neither change may happen in time "to keep the security situation in Iraq from deteriorating to the point of [crisis]." The U.S. administration's bid for a UN resolution will take over a month "and could well fail," while a new Iraqi security service will not be functional until next spring. And the coming months "may be critical to the fate of Iraq and to the American mission there."


Writing in "The Moscow Times," Jon Wolfsthal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says both Moscow and Washington must alter their approach to addressing Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Signatories to the flawed Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), including Iran, are allowed to pursue peaceful nuclear development as long as they allow international inspections. But this provision allows nations to acquire the material for developing a nuclear arsenal, "and then later withdraw from the pact and use the material for nuclear weapons."

To avoid this pitfall with Iran, he says, Russia "should offer to guarantee -- with explicit U.S. endorsement -- Iran's supply of fuel for the Bushehr reactor as long as Iran abandons its indigenous uranium enrichment and plutonium production programs. This offer would give Iran a clear choice -- a reliable foreign source of nuclear energy or an internal nuclear program with weapons potential."

A nuclear-equipped Iran, Wolfsthal warns, "would only serve to increase the desire of other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Syria and even a future independent Iraq, to acquire their own nuclear options."

But the United States and Russia should also establish "a clear policy that nuclear weapons will not be used to threaten states that do not have nuclear weapons or an active nuclear program." Amazingly, he says, since the end of the Cold War, both Washington and Moscow have broadened the circumstances under which they would be willing to use their nuclear arsenals.

"It is time the two countries recognize that such a policy has negative implications that could drive states to acquire nuclear weapons."


A commentary in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" says Friday's (29 August) car-bomb blast in Al-Najaf, which killed some 120 people, including leading Iraqi Shi'a cleric Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, is "worrisome" and conceivably could even lead to civil war.

This act of terror poses many questions about the end of despotic rule in Iraq. It is unsettling to note "the number of connections between Saddam [Hussein] loyalists and Islamic terrorists," which may herald the rise of "general chaos" in the country. Clearly, the paper says, improving security is the prime task.

The German paper sees a solution in "the speedy establishment of an Iraqi militia, probably with the assistance of foreign troops." It is high time to end the debate concerning who should take charge of the international troops, says the paper. That debate is "somewhat narrow-minded," and there is no time to lose given the disorder in Iraq and the rival interests at work, boding ill for all concerned.


In a contribution to the "International Herald Tribune," Henry Siegman of the Council on Foreign Relations says that instead of beginning new Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, the "road map" to Mideast peace "started a contest between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel and the Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, for [U.S. President] George W. Bush's heart and mind, as each sought to convince the American president that the other's noncompliance was blocking the plan's implementation."

Sharon's commitment to the "road map" was going to rest on a single criterion, Siegman says: whether Sharon conceded to the map's demand "that Israel end unconditionally all further settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza. Just as a peace process cannot proceed while Israeli civilians are being blown up on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, it is absurd to expect that such a process [can] proceed while land is forcefully removed by Israel from under the Palestinian negotiators' feet."

But Abbas is also to blame "for not abiding by the road map's provisions: He failed to disarm Hamas and to shut down its terrorist operations."

But Siegman writes, "If Palestinians must understand that they will not achieve statehood unless they renounce violence and forgo the refugees' right of return to Israel, Israel must understand that Palestinians cannot -- and should not -- accept these conditions unless Israel commits itself to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza."


An editorial in the "International Herald Tribune" says last week's six-way talks in Beijing on North Korea's nuclear program "registered more gains than losses." China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea joined the United States and North Korea for talks on North Korean disarmament in return for economic and security guarantees.

The paper says that although "there was no progress on the main issues of substance, the ground has been prepared for further diplomacy, or, if necessary, international action to contain the North Korean nuclear threat."

The additional four negotiators "directly conveyed to Pyongyang that they had their own serious concerns about its behavior and were not merely singing Washington's tune." Host Beijing "deserves much of the credit for getting North Korea to agree to the six-nation format, and for shepherding the discussion to a relatively positive conclusion."

The editorial says that "given Pyongyang's history of breaking past agreements, it should not receive any rewards based on promises alone." Its disarmament must be suitably verified. "There is, however, no reason Washington cannot spell out what it will be willing to do once North Korea demonstrates that it has permanently abandoned its nuclear weapons ambitions."


An item in France's "Le Monde" discusses the effects of last week's attack on a Shi'a Muslim shrine in Al-Najaf, which it says gave new impetus to calls for an international force in Iraq.

Over the weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated that he supports Russian participation in an international UN force that would operate under American command, as long as the UN has a "real" role in the country and provided that control is soon turned over to the Iraqis.

In this opinion, the paper says, he joins French President Jacques Chirac, who has insisted that returning control to Iraq is the only "realistic" option and that only the UN can confer international legitimacy on the occupation. Putin, speaking at a press conference with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, further declared that the UN cannot be used as a cover for the desires of a few -- notably the United States.

"Le Monde" says that, for his part, Berlusconi -- who currently chairs the rotating European Union Presidency -- was content to say only that he would strive to achieve European unity on the Iraq question. As attacks on U.S. and international targets in Iraq continue, the paper says the United States is more actively seeking the deployment of a broader multilateral force supervised by the United Nations but under overall U.S. command.

But the paper says this U.S. vision notably clashes with France and Germany, particularly over Washington's refusal to more evenly share military command.


"Nobody knows who was responsible for the assassination of [Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim on 29 August]," says Rudolph Chimelli in today's "Sueddeutsche Zeitung." But all those who want to prevent Iraq from settling into normality have an interest in perpetrating such assassinations, he says.

Al-Hakim had many enemies, even among his own believers: more radical Shi'as resented his moderate attitude toward the U.S., while conservative rivals took exception to his monopoly on leadership. But, says Chimelli, "It is highly unlikely that a Shiite believer would explode a bomb in the face of the highest holy authority."

Another theory implicates Saddam Hussein supporters and Wahhabis, although the latter, too, were persecuted by Saddam Hussein. Lastly, Chimelli says, Al-Qaeda terrorists may be at the root of the trouble. But he dismisses this theory, saying Al-Qaeda involvement "is even less likely than the existence of weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq.


Karl Grobe in the "Frankfurter Rundschau" comments on the official Russian reaction to the death of nine of the 10-member crew of a decommissioned K-159 Russian submarine, which sank in the stormy Barents Sea on 30 August while being towed to a scrap yard.

Three years ago, when the "Kursk" submarine sank, causing the deaths of 118 crew members, President Vladimir Putin remained on holiday. This time, he reacted a little faster, calling for an investigation, although he did not return from his official visit to Italy.

"Putin remains true to himself," says Grobe. Moreover, the "inheritors of the glorious Soviet fleet have not learned much," he says. He attributes the disaster to "habitual negligence and thoughtlessness."