Prague, 2 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Among the topics discussed in the major Western dailies today are the swearing-in today of Iraq's new cabinet, the pursuit of engagement with North Korea, the UN's soul-searching following last month's attack on its mission in Baghdad, and dubious election campaigning in Azerbaijan, as the country's opposition candidates fight an uphill battle.
An editorial in the London-based "Financial Times" says last week's (29 August) bombing of a Muslim shrine and the deaths of over 80 worshippers, including moderate Shi'a leader Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, coupled with the attack on the UN mission in Baghdad last week, are "truly devastating blows."
Such attacks "appear to be aimed at deterring anyone -- inside or outside Iraq -- from working with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which is floundering in its attempts to get a grip on the country."
The attack on the Al-Najaf shrine may have had other motivations as well. It could incite rivalry between Shi'a and Sunni Muslims. "It could also murderously exacerbate intra-Shi'a ideological rivalry and competition for power. Either would be a disaster," says the paper.
The "Financial Times" says the bombers "are exploiting a political vacuum characterized by a deficit of external and internal legitimacy. The occupation has been legalized by the Security Council. But a second resolution is needed to legitimize it and give the UN a clear political mandate." Only then will "desperately needed peacekeeping troops" make their way to Iraq.
The Iraqi Governing Council must become "a fully fledged provisional government," says the paper. Its nomination of a cabinet this week is unlikely to make Iraqis feel they are truly running the country. An elected assembly is also needed to create a new constitution. "That way," the paper says, "appointed provisional government leaders, most of them exiles, would have to take full account of internal forces across Iraq's religious and ethnic patchwork."
Britain's "The Independent" calls the nomination of a 25-member Iraqi cabinet a "welcome development." The selection of its representatives, "reflecting exactly the ethnic and religious composition of the country, may be excessively formulaic," says the paper. "It is all to the good, however, if it helps to convince Iraqis that the days are over when those who belonged to the right family, confessed the right religion and came from the right part of the country enjoyed special privileges."
But the paper says it still harbors doubts over whether Iraq "is progressing towards government by and for the Iraqis." There is still "no sign that the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) wields much authority among the population at large." Instead, IGC members are viewed "as servants of the enemy" on one hand, and as "administratively ineffectual" on the other.
The Anglo-American occupying powers "must now start to delegate powers to the cabinet," says the paper. If the Iraqi interim authority's safety remains under threat, and as long as "more weight is given to their ethnic and religious credentials than to their professional expertise, it is hard to believe that any new milestone has been reached in the liberation of Iraq."
Writing in France's daily "Le Monde," Corine Lesnes says morale at the United Nations has suffered a blow since the attack last month on its headquarters in Baghdad, but the organization remains stoic.
UN officials are now divided over the issue of whether the organization should scale back its mission in Iraq. Should it remove its staff or attempt to show that the UN will not be intimidated by terrorism? Even as Secretary-General Kofi Annan awaits the results of the evaluation mission he sent to Baghdad, the 29 August attack in Al-Najaf shows once again that the situation continues to deteriorate.
But everything in Iraq is political, Lesnes says. A UN withdrawal would almost be a slap in the face to the Americans, as if to say that they must simply manage alone. And the United Nations is experiencing its own internal tensions. Some feel that if it had interpreted its mandate literally and stuck more closely to a humanitarian role it would not have been targeted in Baghdad. Others sense that the UN in Iraq acts merely as an assistant to the United States.
But the future role of the organization will crystallize in the coming weeks, says Lesnes, when the annual General Assembly convenes on 23 September in New York.
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
In a joint contribution to "The New York Times," former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea James Laney and Jason Shaplen, formerly of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, say the U.S. administration "was right to participate in talks in Beijing last week over how to resolve the serious threat posed by North Korea's nuclear program." But as the administration enters the next round of negotiations, "it must decide what it ultimately wants them to achieve." This will not be easy for an administration that is divided "between hard-liners who have pushed to isolate the North" and those "who favor engagement because they believe isolation could lead to a catastrophe."
Ultimately, say the authors, a policy of engagement "is the only sensible approach for Washington -- not only to avoid a military confrontation, but also to prevent serious and lasting damage to [U.S.] relationships with our Pacific allies at a time when our Atlantic alliances are badly frayed. Even if the North refuses to respond, the United States will be better positioned to win the support of its partners for a hard-line approach."
Future negotiations will be difficult, say the authors. "The United States will demand that Pyongyang make difficult concessions." But Washington must also "be willing to provide something in return."
THE MOSCOW TIMES:
An item in "The Moscow Times" by Baku-based journalist Chloe Arnold discusses upcoming presidential elections in Azerbaijan. She says every evening for the last week the electricity in Baku has flickered unreliably, only to surge back on again.
"Coincidentally," she says, "this happens every time an opposition candidate is about to make a live broadcast on television." There has been much controversy across the country over President Heidar Aliev's alleged attempts to install his son Ilham as his successor. Ilham Aliyev has announced his candidacy for president as his father is currently receiving treatment at a U.S. hospital following a collapse earlier this year.
Arnold says while President Aliyev may not be in Baku "in person, [you] can't move without seeing his face on every billboard, bus back and shop window in the capital. He looks 30 years younger -- driving tractors and kissing children, sometimes both at once. It's amazing what photographers can do these days," she adds wryly.
As for the posters of opposition candidates, they remain scarce -- police often tear them down. But there isn't much wall space left anyway, now that Ilham Aliev's campaign posters are going up as well.
"Meanwhile," says Arnold, "a journalist has reported finding a piece of paper at the Central Election Commission which already had the results of next month's poll: [Heidar Aliev] is to step aside, his son will win 60 percent of the vote, and everyone else will get less than 5 percent. You heard it here first," she says.
Writing in Britain's "The Guardian," Brian Whitaker compares the killing last week of Shi'a Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim to the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand, an event that sparked World War I. The death of al-Hakim, who headed the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), may force SCIRI "to adopt a more radical attitude towards the Americans in order to maintain its popular support. More importantly, though, it will also inflame Sunni-Shia tensions."
Iraq "was stitched together after [World War I], from three incompatible provinces of the old Ottoman Empire: the Arab and Persian Shi'a of the south and southeast, the Sunni Arabs in the middle and southwest, and the [Sunni] Kurds [in] the north. [The] difficulty of holding Iraq together was one reason why it ended up with such a brutal dictator as Saddam Hussein," Whitaker says. The "underlying religious and ethnic tensions" were suppressed by Saddam Hussein "with utter ruthlessness but also, as the Americans are now learning, with considerable skill."
Whitaker says to avert a civil war, the Anglo-American occupation should engage Iraq's neighbors, each of which has a stake in a stable Iraq. But unfortunately, this is "impossible," he says. Most regional states "do not recognize the American occupation as legitimate, or at least can't be seen to recognize it." Once again, he says, the U.S. "is stuck. All it can do is pretend that everything will turn out fine in the end."