Prague, 7 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A review of the major dailies today finds continuing discussion of recent events in Iraq, as violent skirmishes continue between various Iraqi factions and U.S.-led coalition forces. Followers of radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are leading much of the resistance, as al-Sadr himself remains barricaded in the holy Shi'a city of Al-Najaf. There is an outstanding warrant for al-Sadr's arrest on charges linked to the murder last year of a moderate Muslim cleric. Other topics addressed in the press today include recent suicide attacks in Uzbekistan and the "growing pains" of EU accession in Central Europe.
CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
The daily says a "miniwar" has erupted in several locations around Iraq. Radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers are responsible for much of the resistance, as he is wanted on charges related to the slaying last year of a moderate Muslim cleric. Al-Sadr remains barricaded in the holy city of Al-Najaf, and the "Monitor" says he may be hoping a U.S. attack on his location could spark an uprising among Iraqi Shi'as.
"The U.S. military will need to be careful about how it confronts or catches Mr. Sadr," the daily says. The cleric's real threat lies less in his ability to incite violence than in the potential appeal of his brand of Islam. Al-Sadr adheres to an "ultraconservative" version of Islam, and the "Monitor" says while most of Iraq's Shi'as do not want a strict Islamic state like that in neighboring Iran, the use of undue force against al-Sadr could make him more popular.
"[Any] U.S. action against "Sadr in coming days could decide what type of Islam prevails in Iraq," the paper says. "Sadr represents an interpretation of Islam that sees humans as so evil they must be strictly controlled by powerful mullahs [and] forced into creating a perfect Islamic nation. In contrast, most Iraqi Shiite leaders see humans as inherently good and capable of running society on their own," the paper says.
And al-Sadr "is hoping to rally Muslims behind him by goading Americans into overkill."
THE BOSTON GLOBE
An editorial says the ongoing violence in and around Iraq threatens two potential and related calamities -- either that civil war will break out between Iraq's rival factions, or that the Shi'a majority will begin an armed resistance against the U.S. occupation. In attempts to quell the spreading hostility, U.S. forces must "avoid falling in to the trap of reacting with purely military reflexes," says the "Globe."
Iraqi cleric al-Sadr's "ultimate aims are prestige and power." He has successfully played "on Shi'a distrust of the United States and a deep-seated historic resentment against foreign occupiers to put himself forward as a predominant leader of Iraq's long oppressed Shi'a masses."
While he lacks "the scholarly or spiritual status" of Iraq's leading Shi'a cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, al-Sadr "has sought to make a name for himself by inciting Shi'a resistance to foreign occupation." Al-Sadr may also be seeking to "challenge Sistani's dominance as the ultimate source of authority among pious Shi'as."
Al-Sadr is now "positioning himself [to] grab for power after the [U.S.] administration's June 30 deadline for transferring political sovereignty to Iraqis. If they understand that this is Sadr's goal and that confrontations with foreign soldiers serve his political purpose, U.S. authorities will do their utmost to refrain from military operations against Sadr's militia."
This ambitious Iraqi cleric "is best opposed politically."
THE WASHINGTON POST
The "Post's" Harold Meyerson says the U.S.-led war in Iraq has led to "an occupation with no good options."
The U.S. administration plans to hand over power to the Iraqi Governing Council on 30 June, thus returning sovereignty to an interim Iraqi leadership. "Just how that council will sustain itself in power, however, is increasingly unclear after the upheaval of the past few days," says Meyerson. The new Iraqi police force, "which the United States has spent time and treasure recruiting and training, all but collapsed during the uprising of Moqtada al-Sadr's Shi'a militia."
One of the main concerns regarding the scheduled transfer of power has been how to maintain stability in the country as the U.S. scales down its operations. Meyerson points out that within Iraq, "there are thousands of current and potential gunmen willing to fight for their people and their creeds -- Kurdish autonomy, Sunni hegemony, Shi'a control, an Islamic republic. But the force charged with defending a pluralistic, united Iraq just went AWOL under fire.
"And by keeping sole control of the occupation, the White House has ensured that the cause of pluralistic nationhood has become disastrously intermingled with support for the U.S. occupation," Meyerson wrote.
A contribution to the British daily by John MacLeod and Galima Bukharbaeva of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting says last week's suicide bomb attacks and armed skirmishes in Uzbekistan "have shaken the Central Asian state to its core."
President Islam Karimov appeared on television to warn the public that "dark forces" were at work in the country. And the authors say this sense of "official alarm shows how hard the attacks have hit a regime whose mantra is stability at any cost."
Karimov "has waged a 10-year war on opposition and any expression of Muslim identity he doesn't approve of. This has led more young people to join Islamist groups as a way of finding a voice for their anger. Karimov has arrested thousands, mostly alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir supporters, for Islamist activism and subversion."
Tashkent's repressive tactics have been woefully counterproductive. The result has been "more than 6,000 Islamist prisoners, simmering resentment in their communities, and further radicalization of those Islamists who evade jail. Government policies that stifle economic growth and keep the poor down only add recruits to groups which promise an alternative."
And the fallout has spread throughout the region, say the authors. Governments all over Central Asia view the presence of Islamic militants in their own countries "as the spillover from a problem Uzbekistan can't manage."
In regional capitals from Astana to Dushanbe, "the perception is that Uzbekistan -- with the biggest population, aspirations to supremacy [and] surpassed only by Turkmenistan in its repressive tactics -- is the source of many problems."
A "Stratfor" (Strategic Forecasting Inc.) commentary today says government upheavals in Lithuania and Poland -- in addition to the political comeback of a nationalist in Slovakia -- are "generating the appearance of [political] instability" among some of the EU accession states.
Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller has bowed to public pressure and plummeting popularity figures and agreed to resign on 2 May, the day after his country joins Europe. The Lithuanian parliament voted 6 April to remove President Rolandas Paksas from office, and the country will be without a president when it joins the EU on 1 May. And Vladimir Meciar, the Euroskeptic former prime minister of Slovakia -- whose rule was plagued with charges of cronyism and corruption -- has a good shot at becoming president in a 17 April runoff.
Much of the upheaval has been due to the rigorous reforms undertaken by these countries on their path to NATO and EU membership. "Central European democracies are still relatively immature, and the demands placed on them by EU and NATO accession are tough." In the short term, "Stratfor" says, these factors "will make them more vulnerable to populism and nationalism and will lead to government instability. This will make countries in the region generally less reliable -- or at least less predictable -- partners for the EU and NATO."
But ultimately, accession "will have the opposite effect. Membership in NATO and the EU will be a politically maturing force," says "Stratfor." "The maturation will be painful -- as growth always is -- but in the end Europe will be the better for it."
Writing in France's "Le Figaro," Renaud Girard warns his French compatriots not to fall into the trap of taking guilty pleasure at the difficulties the Americans are facing in Iraq. This is not the time for what the Germans call "Schadenfreude," he says.
The United States is a longtime French ally and has helped Paris much in the past, Girard points out. Washington deserves French support in its newest endeavor due to this shared history and because, especially, an abysmal failure in Iraq would have far-reaching consequences for the entire Western world.
True, the neoconservatives in Washington entangled their nation in a war based on false pretenses, notably Baghdad's alleged weapons programs and its presumed links to Al-Qaeda. In a move that showed the neocons' ignorance of the region, they naively assumed that democracy and civil society would establish themselves as soon as the former dictator was toppled. And they seriously overestimated the ability of U.S. troops to colonize a country whose customs and manners they knew little about.
As an old colonial power itself, Paris had some idea of what was coming and duly warned its American ally.
But what's done is done, Girard says. And amid what is beginning to look like a double insurrection of both the Sunni and Shi'a Muslims in Iraq, the scheduled 30 June transfer of power is looking less and less likely. He says Paris would be well advised not to press for a U.S. withdrawal and cease calling for the UN to take over, as the world body has never successfully managed to pacify territories for which it was responsible.