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Western Press Review: IGC Member Uthman's Assassination, Georgian Unification, And The War In Chechnya

Prague, 18 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The assassination yesterday of Abd al-Zahra Uthman Muhammad (a.k.a. Izz al-Din Salim), the head of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, dominates much of the commentary in the press today. As the scheduled 30 June date approaches for the return of sovereignty to Iraqi hands, several analysts are looking at the possibility that the nation will naturally fracture along religious and ethnic lines, despite Washington's calls for a unified and democratic government to take over. Also at issue today are Georgia's options for reuniting its restive provinces under Tbilisi's central control, and the difficulty of making the news in Chechnya.


An editorial in the Dublin-based daily discusses the assassination yesterday of the rotating president of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, Abd al-Zahra Uthman Muhammad. Uthman was considered a moderate political activist, and the Irish daily calls his death "another blow to a shaky transition process that is supposed to pass real power to Iraqis in barely six weeks time [30 June]."

Yesterday's car-bomb attack, which killed Uthman and six others just outside the U.S.-patrolled "Green Zone," was "a concerted attempt to decapitate the leadership of the United States-appointed advisory body whose members were gathering for a meeting." Uthman is the second council member to be assassinated, following the killing of Aqilah al-Hashimi in September.

Uthman's death was likely meant as "a warning to the U.S. that its writ still does not run, and to all those who are working with it that they may pay a heavy price for doing so."

The paper says the targeted intimidation of Iraq's moderate elements "poses a real danger" to the scheduled transition of sovereignty at the end of June, and makes it more likely that Iraq could descend into sectarian civil war. And the more "difficult and violent" the transfer becomes, "the less inclined the U.S. will be to hand over, as it must, the real levers of power to Iraqis -- or Iraqis and the UN -- most particularly control over the army. Much depends on cool heads prevailing," the paper says.


The assassination of Iraqi Governing Council President Uthman "compounds the disarray already surrounding plans to hand over sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government on June 30. With barely six weeks to go, there is still no firm design for that government, no agreement on who will serve in it and no commitments that it will get international recognition."

Moreover, Uthman's murder by a suicide car bomb at a checkpoint leading into the U.S.-led occupation's headquarters "once again demonstrated that there are no fully secure locations in Baghdad and that all prominent political figures, along with foreign diplomats and United Nations' officials, are at constant risk."

Uthman will be replaced by Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer, who will serve out his term until the scheduled dismantling of the Council upon the 30 June handover. And yet the ascent of al-Yawer, who "spent the last decade and a half of Saddam Hussein's rule in Saudi Arabia," is unlikely to please Iraq's Sunnis, who have already complained that their representatives on the Council do not properly represent their political interests or reflect their views.

The paper says: "That weakness has hobbled the Council from the start. Besides being unrepresentative, it has generally been divided and ineffective." Washington and the UN's main envoy in Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, "should firmly resist efforts by several [council] members to carve out a role for themselves in the interim government.

"If Iraq is to have a better future, it needs an interim government untainted by the many mistakes of the occupation period and strong enough to exercise real sovereignty."


A contribution to the Washington, D.C.-based daily says the U.S. administration must acknowledge that its stated goal of helping create a unified and democratic Iraq ignores the possibility that the country may naturally fracture along religious and ethnic lines.

Constitutional lawyer and international consultant Bruce Fein says, "To ignore the probability of partition invites ill-conceived responses reminiscent of United States support for an undivided Yugoslavia ruled by Slobodan Milosevic against the independence aspirations of Slovenia and Croatia. Experience teaches that foreign policy by improvisation means failure."

Iraq's Kurds have enjoyed sovereignty for the 13 years since the United States established a no-fly zone over northern Iraq, following the ouster of Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait and his aggressions against the Kurdish population in 1991. Given this history, Fein says Iraqi Kurds "are likely to seek de facto or de jure independence" following the scheduled return of Iraq's sovereignty at the end of June. Kurds "profoundly distrust both Sunnis and Shi'ites," he observes.

While the division of Iraq into separate Kurdish and Arab states is not inevitable, Fein says it raises many key questions. Neighboring Turkey, Syria, and Iran fear the rise of insurgencies among their own Kurdish populations, should calls for an independent Kurdish state erupt in Iraq. And how would the U.S. respond to a Kurdish push for independence? Should it impose an economic embargo on Kurdish areas or intervene militarily?

Fein says these and other questions must be considered as the scheduled late June transfer date approaches. "If [U.S.] President [George W.] Bush's Iraq planning continues to pivot on the faulty certitude of summoning into being a unified and democratic country on June 30, then monumental foreign policy blunders will be inescapable."


A contribution by Peter Galbraith, former U.S. ambassador to Croatia and now of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, says U.S. plans for the future governance of Iraq are based on fantasy rather than reality.

"Civil war is a more likely outcome in Iraq than democracy," Galbraith writes. "There is growing tension between the secular Kurds and Shi'a religious leaders who want to make Iraq an Islamic state. [Kurdistan's] leaders reply that their region will not stay in an Islamic state."

The U.S.-led coalition's efforts to build a unified Iraq "risk provoking civil war." Galbraith says by ousting Saddam Hussein, "the coalition shattered an 80-year-old political system that brought unity through force."

Today, "the best hope for holding Iraq together and avoiding civil war is to allow each of Iraq's three constituent communities the system it wants." The country's "best chance for survival is as a loose federation of at least two, but more likely three, states -- Kurdistan in the north, a Sunni Arab state in the center, and a Shi'a state in the south." The central government in Baghdad "would exercise relatively few powers -- little more than foreign affairs and monetary policy."

Establishing such a federalist system in Iraq "is the last chance to hold the country together. For Britain and the U.S., it is also a way out."

Galbraith says now more than ever, "the U.S. and Britain need an exit strategy from an Iraq engagement that is opposed by growing majorities in both countries and in Iraq. This strategy has to be based on a clear-eyed understanding of what Iraq is, and not fantasies about a country that never was."


An editorial today questions whether, following the scheduled 30 June transfer of power from the U.S.-led occupation to an Iraqi interim government, the current instability in the country is likely to continue or abate. The Ankara-based daily says optimists believe that if the coalition powers "manage to transfer sovereignty and authority to a 'truly Iraqi government' the issue will be solved." But this is "easier said [than] done," the paper says.

"What is a 'truly' Iraqi government?" the paper asks. To determine this, one must look at who is perpetrating most of the violence in Iraq. "Is it the pro-Saddam Sunni fighters or is it a more broadly based Iraqi resistance movement that has emerged after the Americans mistreated the Iraqi people and lost their affection? Or is it a blend of both? What is sad is that the American liberators have first turned into occupiers and then the villains in the eyes of the Iraqi Shiite and Sunni masses."

So will the 30 June power transfer "ease the anger of the Iraqi people?" the Turkish daily asks. "What is clear is that with the exception of the Kurds most of the Governing Council members hardly have the backing of the groups they claim to represent." Even a temporary government must truly represent the Iraqi people that it claims to serve.

The paper warns, "If Iraq is handed over to a weak caretaker government and the current violence continues unabated then Iraq may well be plunged into chaos that would make the ordinary Iraqi yearn for the current mess."


Now that Georgia's restive region of Adjara is back under Tbilisi's control, "attention is turning to how Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili approaches Georgia's two other separatist regions -- Abkhazia and South Ossetia."

CIS affairs analyst Igor Torbakov says Moscow is now watching developments "apprehensively," as the fall of Kremlin-backed Adjaran leader Aslan Abashidze in early May heralded a major shift in relations between Moscow and Tbilisi. "Russian officials and experts now worry that a strengthening central government in Tbilisi is causing Russia's strategic position in the Caucasus to erode."

Abkhazia and South Ossetia have operated beyond Tbilisi's writ for more than a decade in the wake of the Soviet collapse. After the peaceful reabsorption of Adjara, Abkhaz leaders "are plainly concerned that Saakashvili seeks to apply his Rose Revolution formula -- organizing mass rallies that force incumbent authority from power -- to Abkhazia in the regional capital, Sukhumi." For now, Sukhum "is taking a tough line," demanding that Tbilisi recognize its de facto independence. But Torbakov says, "Despite the defiant rhetoric, Abkhaz leaders have clearly been unnerved by Saakashvili's success in [Adjara]."

The South Ossetian leadership is also clearly worried about Georgian reunification plans.

"Many Russian experts believe that Tbilisi considers the recent events in [Adjara] as a 'test case,'" Torbakov says. But in recent days, "Georgian officials have toned down their reunification rhetoric." Saakashvili recently stated that a solution to the Abkhaz issue would "take a couple of years." The Georgian president further indicated that a federalist arrangement would be an option, and that [Sukhum] would need to be offered some "economic incentives."


"The world has all but forgotten Chechnya," says independent defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer. "[Russian] President Vladimir Putin clearly prefers Soviet-style news: dull and predictable. Ambitious foreign journalists now dread a posting to Moscow. They either produce human-interest stories that never get aired back home or spend all their time in Middle Eastern hot spots."

But for one day -- 9 May -- Chechnya "became front-page news around the world" when its Kremlin-backed president, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, was assassinated in Grozny. "Television crews were in place to cover Victory Day celebrations, so pictures were available immediately. It was tailor-made for the six o'clock news," says Felgenhauer.

"Russia is regarded as a stagnant backwater until disaster strikes," he says.

And now over a week has passed since Kadyrov's death "and Putin still has no clue what to do in Chechnya. Kadyrov was seen as Putin's man in Chechnya, but now the reverse seems to have been true. It's an old story: The tail wags the dog."

As Felgenhauer observes, Putin "hasn't been to Chechnya much, and he had never been to Grozny. He was apparently unaware that the Russian military leveled the city during the siege of 1999-2000 and that the capital is still in ruins." The Russian president "seems to have been misled and misinformed about the situation in Chechnya by the state-controlled media, falsified intelligence reports and Kadyrov himself."

Kadyrov's 5,000-strong army, made up of veterans of the separatist movement, is now demanding control of Chechnya and wants to install Ramzan Kadyrov, the late leader's son, as the new president. If the army gets its wish, Felgenhauer says, we will then "know for certain who is in charge in the republic."


A contribution by Pascal Boniface of the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (l'Institut de Relations Internationales et Strategiques, or IRIS) says the military difficulties faced by the United States in Iraq are obvious. But compared with the degradation in the popularity and prestige of the United States, the military troubles are minor.

U.S. forces were, for a short time, looked upon as liberators, then quickly recast in the role of occupier. For a long time now, the U.S. Army has been viewed as the source of Iraqi repression, and it is hard to imagine how its presence might once again be broadly accepted by Iraqis.

Those nations that opposed the war -- those that feared the ouster of Saddam Hussein would create as many as or more problems than it solved -- are seeing their predictions borne out day after day. Washington violated international law, citing the fight against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the stability of the Middle East, and the promotion of liberal values and morals.

But the "experts" who maintained that Iraq was awash in dangerous weapons, the "noble souls" who preached war in the name of virtue, are today much more discreet. One could say that, at the very least, the limits of U.S. credibility have been reached, says Boniface. And "moral bankruptcy" lies not far off.

But even those nations that opposed the war must take a hand in bringing stability to Iraq, although under UN command and at the request of a legitimate Iraqi government. But these two conditions are now incompatible with the U.S. military presence in Iraq, says Boniface, for all foreign elements associated with the United States will be automatically susceptible to the hatred aroused by Washington.