Prague, 4 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Among the topics addressed by media commentary today are a new spirit of pragmatism in Iraq's southern city of Al-Nasariyah; promoting democracy by encouraging indigenous initiatives in the Middle East; and a setback for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as his controversial plan to withdraw from Gaza in exchange for keeping permanent settlements in the West Bank is soundly rejected by his own party in a referendum.
THE WASHINGTON POST
"The Washington Post's" David Ignatius says a new sense of "political realism" is emerging in Al-Nasiriyah, just weeks after radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his supporters entrenched themselves in the southern Iraqi city and controlled it for two days.
Italian troops working with the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) eventually regained control of the city. And Ignatius says today, Al-Nasiriyah "illustrates a new mood of pragmatism emerging in southern Iraq as Shiite political, religious and tribal leaders prepare for a transfer of sovereignty less than two months away. Iraqis here seem to understand that unless they quickly take more responsibility for security, the country could descend into chaos after June 30."
Achieving a stable transfer of power "remains a long shot," Ignatius says. But he cites British CPA official Patrick Nixon as saying that, during the uprising by al-Sadr supporters in southern Iraq, Iraqis peered "over the abyss" and saw what a security vacuum could look like. Since then, political, tribal, and religious leaders have adopted a new spirit of cooperation.
Iraq's best chance are "people [who] suffered under the old regime, welcomed their liberation a year ago and now want their country back. The problem is that they must learn self-government almost from scratch," says Ignatius.
Al-Nasiriyah took another step toward self-government yesterday, when regional governor Sabri Rumayidh met with Iraqi police and began assuming responsibility for the area's security, including making a list of local criminals.
Ignatius says Iraq's 30 June transition will be far from smooth, but hopefully pockets of security and stability will emerge, eventually spreading to include the whole of Iraq.
INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE
"To promote democracy in the Middle East, America didn't have to invest billions of dollars and barrels of blood in its dubious Iraqi adventure," writes Nicholas Kristof.
He says the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush "is right to link the absence of full democracy with the Arab world's stagnation. But his initiative for democracy in the Middle East has been scorned and rendered ineffective because of hostility to the American war in Iraq."
Instead, Kristof says, the administration could and should have nurtured "indigenous Arab experiments in democratic elections in places like Bahrain." He says "[from] Morocco to Jordan and Yemen," many Arab states "have held some type of free elections, established parliaments, accepted an independent press or freed political prisoners."
A few years ago, Bahrain was known for its repression. Then the new king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, freed all political prisoners; met with political exiles, urging them to return; and declared that Bahrain would become a constitutional monarchy. "Elections were held in 2002, with women allowed not only to vote but also to run for office."
Kristof says, "One of the lessons of history is that democracy is difficult to impose from the outside. If Bush would devote a tiny fraction of the effort he has invested in Iraq to supporting the reforms sprouting on their own, we might eventually have some homegrown democratic models that would transform the Arab world."
Correspondent Harvey Morris says the rejection of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's controversial disengagement plan by his own Likud Party in a 2 May referendum was "one of the greatest upsets in Israel's volatile political history."
Morris says 50,000 members of Likud "delivered a staggering reverse" to the Sharon plan, which called for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in exchange for leaving some permanent settlements in the West Bank.
With his plan's resounding defeat at the polls, Sharon "fell victim to a powerful settler lobby that he helped to create. In a well-organized and well-financed campaign, they achieved an outcome that amounted to a far-right takeover of Likud."
As for Palestinian officials, Morris says they had "little option but to welcome the prospect of an evacuation of settlements. But they denounced Mr. Sharon's plan on the grounds that Israel would in effect remain in control of Gaza, while consolidating its hold on large areas of the West Bank."
Many in Israel favor holding a national referendum on the plan, which polls show is supported by a "comfortable majority" of the Israeli public. But politically Sharon's "room for maneuver now depends on the backing of others," Morris says. The Likud Party's "defection" means Sharon may now have to rely on backing from the opposition Labor Party. And Morris says Labor "is certain to exact a price" for their support.
THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
This secular daily says Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's controversial plan to exchange an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza for leaving some permanent settlements in the West Bank would have "cut the Palestinians out of the loop on their future."
The Sharon plan was strongly endorsed by U.S. President George W. Bush, and now "both men have suffered a big loss," the paper says. Bush "only ended up undercutting the war on terrorism in ignoring the Palestinians and thus angering even more Arabs."
Neither Likud nor the Palestinian Authority of Yasser Arafat is willing to make the necessary concessions for peace, says the paper. And just as the U.S. administration has decided it cannot trust Arafat, "it must also think twice about endorsing any peace plan from an Israeli government."
Peace "can only be negotiated between courageous moderates on both sides who are corralled by a United States and others acting as honest and evenhanded brokers."
LOS ANGELES TIMES
"As the architect of policies encouraging Israeli settlements on disputed lands, Sharon has in essence created the very political force that is defying him," an editorial today remarks.
Sharon "exacted a high political price" from U.S. President George W. Bush in pushing him "to abandon the long-standing principle that a Palestinian 'right of return' and settlements in the West Bank were subjects only for final-status negotiations." And Bush's concession "undermined the U.S. standing as an honest broker" in the Mideast peace process, the editorial warns.
"If Sharon cannot carry out his initiative by forming a coalition government with Labor or holding a national referendum, U.S. influence in the Middle East will diminish further," says the paper.
It says until now, Sharon has always "displayed a deft touch for Israel's complicated multiparty politics. But the settler movement he helped create has now rebounded on him, and he's going to need all his political wile to make a pullout happen."
Following the Sharon plan's resounding defeat, the paper says the meeting today in New York between the Mideast diplomatic "Quartet" -- comprising the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations – is "likely to go nowhere."
The charges of the abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners could not arrive at a worse time for the U.S.-U.K. occupation, coming as they do at the end of the bloodiest month of conflict since the U.S.-declared end of major combat operations a little over a year ago. Over the past few days, witness testimonies and photographs of U.S. and U.K. soldiers coercing Iraqi detainees into degrading poses made their rounds across the world.
Since its arrival in Iraq, the U.S. Army has employed heavy-handed tactics, says "Le Monde." At the very least, it has lacked tact in waging its psychological warfare. And at the same time, the Pentagon "seriously underestimated the manpower necessary to re-establish peace" in the country.
Even a swift crackdown by Washington on those responsible for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners is unlikely to improve U.S. standing in the country, such is the hostility of most Iraqis -- both Sunni and Shi'a alike.
"Le Monde" says it is crucial that the Coalition Provisional Authority respect the Geneva Conventions, both for the sake of its image and for its effectiveness on the ground. And even that may not be enough to rectify the situation. The honor of the United States is at stake, and it must make sure that the culprits of this latest offense are punished and that the right of war prevails.
Otherwise, the paper asks, how will Washington manage to convince the Iraqis and the Muslim world of its good faith? And how then can it expect Europe and other allies to take part -- under U.S. command -- in establishing peace in Iraq?