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Western Press Review: Partitioning Iraq, The Rise Of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, NATO In Afghanistan

Prague, 20 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Several items in the media today discuss the potential partition of Iraq along political, religious, or ethnic lines, as one former UN official warns against creating a situation similar to the breakup of Yugoslavia. The rise of Iran's Revolutionary Guards as an independent political force is also addressed, as is the NATO mission in Afghanistan, which continues to suffer from a lack of political will and materiel.


Baghdad-based journalist Hiwa Osman says the U.S.-led selection process for leadership on the Iraqi Governing Council has fostered division and religious extremism in the country.

The attempt to ensure broad representation for Iraq's many religious and ethnic groups led to a selection process based mainly along Shi'a and Sunni sectarian lines. Osman says that by labeling Iraqis solely on the basis of their religious identities, "it [was] natural that the 'most Shi'a' or the 'most Sunni' leaders would emerge as symbols of their communities. This paved the way for more extreme elements to rise to popular leadership positions."

Moreover, this method "left little political space for those who do not identify themselves by religious sectarianism -- the more secular and moderate politicians." This undermined the possibilities for coalitions to form along ideological lines such as liberal and conservative, "as members were stuck in the Shi'a, Sunni or Kurdish blocs."

In practice, this created a situation in which, for example, "a leftist-minded Kurd will be unlikely to join the Communist Party because he or she will most likely be Sunni and will not identify with a 'Shi'a' party."

Osman says, if the anticipated caretaker government that will take over power on 30 June "is to allow for the emergence of truly political parties and popular support, there must be a revamping of the selection process away from sectarian lines." The United States, the United Nations, and all parties involved in the decision-making "must acknowledge that within each ethnic group there are people who are secular and those who are religious, and that their political orientations may thus differ."


There have been increasing calls in some press and policy circles for a reconsideration of dividing Iraq into a quasi-federalist state in which its Shi'a, Sunni, and Kurdish populations would all exercise autonomous control over their given regions. In a contribution to today's "IHT," former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, also a onetime UN special envoy to the Balkans, cautions against allowing Iraq to fracture along ethnic or religious lines.

Bildt says sheer desperation is "driving the debate about [letting] Iraq be divided into three independent or semi-independent states." Whether the former Yugoslavia should have been salvaged as a single entity "is now for the historians to debate," he says. But its decade-long disintegration along ethnic-religious lines "saw millions of people driven from their homes, perhaps hundreds of thousands brutally killed, new borders drawn in blood and economies devastated. Feelings of resentment and revenge were built up that might take generations to subside."

If Iraq were similarly divided, there is sure to be long-term fighting over major cities like Baghdad and Kirkuk, as well as over the country's oil resources. Moreover, an independent Kurdistan in the north could "push security concerns to the forefront of politics" in neighboring Turkey, "halting or even reversing the process of democratization and reform."

Nor would Tehran and Damascus welcome such a development. "It is more than likely that all regional powers will throw themselves into the chaos of a disintegrated Iraq to assist their allies and to block perceived adversaries," Bildt argues.

He writes: "It is imperative that we don't let despair over the difficulties today drive us into what would be a disaster tomorrow. The voices in the United States and Israel toying with the idea of a Balkanization of Iraq are truly playing with fire."


A journalist specializing in Iranian affairs writing under the pseudonym of Kamal Nazer Yasin says Iran's Republican Guards, the military support for the clerical regime in Tehran, are now seeking to play an independent role in national politics.

Following the Republican Guards' creation in 1979 to defend the Islamic Revolution from foreign and domestic agitators, Iran's then spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini specifically forbade the guards from becoming actively involved in politics. The Iranian Constitution further prohibits members of the military from direct political engagement.

But author Yasin says recent developments have enabled those guards to "break the taboo on political activity." Tehran's conservative mullahs have increasingly relied on them to restore order following sporadic domestic dissent by opposition lawmakers and the public. The Republican Guards were instrumental in securing the conservatives' controversial victory in February elections and were allowed in exchange to put forth their own candidates. When the new parliament convenes later this month, roughly a dozen legislators will be essentially under their control.

The U.S.-led war on terrorism -- and the resulting presence of U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq -- has increased the Revolutionary Guards' importance in defending the national interest. Their domestic prestige is further enhanced by their role in safeguarding Iran's nuclear program, a source of "tremendous national pride." The guards have sought to establish their economic independence as well by launching "a vast array of financial and economic enterprises."

Yasin says, "Given the opaque nature of Iran's political system, it is difficult to determine the attitude of the country's conservative religious hierarchy towards the Guards' rising political profile." Some suspect the Revolutionary Guards might be "overplaying their hand," inviting an eventual crackdown.

More will become clear during the presidential election of 2005, says Yasin. If the candidate favored by the guards -- Tehran's Mayor Mahmud Ahmadinejad -- is allowed to run, many "will take it as a sign of conservative acceptance of a Revolutionary Guard role in politics."


An editorial today in London's main financial daily says NATO was "supposed to have given itself a new lease of life in Afghanistan, helping provide it with a security umbrella under which reconstruction could take place."

But now NATO leaders are warning of failure, "unless alliance members live up to their commitments to expand peacekeeping operations." The paper says the collapse "of the alliance's first-ever 'out-of-area' operation would deal a serious blow to the idea that NATO could ever mount a similar operation elsewhere."

Operations in Afghanistan will be newly tested ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections in September. But the attempt to register voters across the country can only succeed if security is first established. U.S. forces have set up Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) to aid in this endeavor, and NATO has said it would set up five more PRTs before its Istanbul summit on 27-28 June.

"It has failed to do so," the paper starkly observes.

NATO lacks the helicopters needed by the PRTs for air support and medical evacuation, it adds. Moreover, several NATO member states seem to want to avoid sending their troops to the riskier areas outside Kabul -- the areas most in need of help in establishing security. Other allies are faced with the conflicting military demands of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The paper says European nations should stop to consider the impact failure in Afghanistan would have on "the credibility of their own defense ambitions elsewhere."


Columnist Patrick Sabatier says the sentencing yesterday of U.S. soldier Jeremy Sivits to one year in prison for his role in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghurayb prison will not wash away the stains on the honor of the U.S. military. This verdict will not restore the terribly damaged image of American democracy in the Arab world and beyond. Nor will the news of other U.S. soldiers being court-martialed erase the images of Abu Ghurayb.

Sivits' sentencing and the scheduled military trials of a few others are something of a "cheap exorcism," the sacrifice of a handful of scapegoats. Even worse, says Sabatier, it may serve to exonerate those higher up in the chain of command.

Allegations still abound that the U.S. military's higher-ups authorized the use of questionable tactics in order to "prepare" the detainees for questioning. Because of this, Sabatier says the image and moral credibility of the United States can only be restored if the scandal has serious political consequences for U.S. President George W. Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and their subordinates.


The French daily's Pierre Rousselin says the U.S. Army is worthy of much more than the sad spectacle in which it is now taking part in Iraq. So let us hope that the United States will soon be able to wash away the dishonor that has been left by the abuse at Abu Ghurayb, he says.

Congressional hearings on the matter and the courts-martial of the soldiers accused must do their part, Rousselin says. But the essential question remains unanswered: How far up the chain of command does responsibility go for prisoner ill-treatment?

The photographs of abuse at Abu Ghurayb indicate a climate of "confusion and lack of discipline" at the prison. But are the accused merely rogue perverts, as U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld alleges, or were these actions a response to orders coming from the military police and security services? If the later, such forced interrogations would seem to be more widespread than has yet been acknowledged.

Little by little, Rousselin says, America is discovering that the chaos found in the prisons goes to the heart of the coalition's failure in Iraq. The U.S. administration was unprepared for the challenges of the postwar period, were ignorant of local complexities, and failed to mobilize sufficient manpower to get the job done, Rousselin argues, adding that reservists and unaccountable private security contractors were excessively relied upon for military tasks.

In the wake of the Iraqi prison scandal and the legal ambiguity that prevails for detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Rousselin says the United States believes the all-out war against terrorism has authorized it to operate beyond the rule of law.

And in Iraq today, it is paying the price for this view with U.S. moral and political credibility.