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Western Press Review: Chalabi's Office Raided, Putin 'Rebuked'

Prague, 21 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Leading editorial writers around the world consider a number of topics, including yesterday's surprise raid on the home of a member of the U.S.-picked Iraqi Governing Council and a recent European Court of Human Rights judgment critical of Vladimir Putin's Russia.


An editorial in "The New York Times" recounts the story of how Iraqi police and U.S. forces yesterday broke into the Baghdad home and offices of Iraqi Governing Council member Ahmad Chalabi. The raids were reportedly linked to an Iraqi-led investigation of alleged wrongdoing.

Chalabi was a former favorite of the U.S. Department of Defense, but has recently fallen out with Washington. "The New York Times" notes he was one of the sources of the original flawed intelligence that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction. In the editorial, the paper concedes Chalabi had numerous flaws, but defends Chalabi on principle. "The sight of American-controlled forces smashing their way into the home of a leading politician, even one this unappetizing, was troubling."

"The New York Times" speculates that with the raid, the U.S. administration may be looking for someone to pin the blame on for its failed Iraq policy. "There's little to recommend Mr. Chalabi as a politician, or certainly as an informer. But he can't be made a scapegoat. The [U.S. administration of President George W.] Bush should have known what it was doing when it gave enormous credence to a questionable character whose own self-interest was totally invested in getting the Americans to invade Iraq."

The paper concludes that the raid may even backfire by giving Chalabi something he never had before -- popular support.


The British newspaper "The Guardian" turns its attention to the recent killing by the U.S. military of more than 40 people in Iraq near the Syrian border and an Israeli crackdown on a peaceful Palestinian protest that killed eight.

"The Guardian" says: "When Iraqis are blown apart in Baghdad by a car bomb, or Israelis in Haifa by a suicide bomber, these are instantly and correctly labeled as 'terrorist attacks.' However, when American helicopters or Israeli tanks cause death to innocent civilians on a similar scale, there is always an alternative version on offer."

The U.S. Defense Department says the people killed in the Iraqi village of Al-Qa'im were occupying a what it called a "foreign fighter safe house." The Israeli army's explanation for the deaths in Gaza was that the fire had been directed against an "abandoned structure" as a warning.

The paper takes issue with these explanations: "Of course, no one has the monopoly of truth, yet on the facts so far reported in these two cases, as on too many recent occasions, the 'official' version is simply not credible."

The paper concludes that when the U.S. military claims its forces took "obligatory action" and Israel says it is acting "in self-defense," words "lose all credibility."


The London-based "Financial Times" cites this week's ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in favor of exiled Russian businessman Vladimir Gusinskii.

It says the ruling "will hardly have Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, quaking in his boots. Yet this week's verdict...[sends] the Kremlin an important reminder of the standards by which it will be measured if it wants to be ranked among European democracies."

Gusinskii was arrested on fraud charges shortly after Putin took office. Proceedings were dropped after Gusinskii promised to sell his media empire to the state-controlled company Gazprom. The human rights court found the authorities had abused Gusinskii's rights by employing legal instruments for commercial ends.

The paper says "the timing [of the ruling] could hardly be better, with legal proceedings gathering pace in the Yukos affair" -- a case which the daily says is Putin's latest and most significant assault on the business oligarchs.

The paper concludes that "having easily won a second term, Putin faces few effective critics at home. But he does want Russia to be a respected member of the clubs established by the world's leading democracies. So he should listen, at least with one ear, to well-founded international criticism."


"The Wall Street Journal Europe" also looks at yesterday's raid on the Baghdad home and offices of Iraqi Governing Council member Ahmad Chalabi. The editors admit that they don't know enough of the facts to say whether the raid was justified, but they say, in any event, "Chalabi deserves the benefit of the doubt."

The paper defends Chalabi, saying he "has been vilified repeatedly in background quotes by U.S. 'sources,' especially by State Department and CIA officials who won't forgive him for opposing their status quo views of Saddam Hussein and the Mideast." Moreover, UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has all but said one of his tasks is to keep Chalabi from playing any role in the transition government after the handover of sovereignty on 30 June.

The newspaper says: "What makes all of this hostility even stranger is that Mr. Chalabi shares the U.S. goal of building a free and democratic Iraq. He was a driving force behind most of the good things the Governing Council has accomplished -- especially the privatization law and the interim constitution that is the most liberal in the Arab world."


The "Financial Times" examines a recent poll in Iraq that shows that nine out of 10 Iraqis see the U.S. soldiers there as occupiers, not liberators. The poll, conducted by the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies, also shows that radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has emerged as the second-most-popular figure in Iraq.

The editors are alarmed by the results, pointing out the poll was taken before the recent revelations of abuse by U.S. soldiers of Iraqi prisoners at Baghdad's Abu Ghurayb prison.

The daily says: "There is no single explanation for the intensifying Iraqi hatred of the occupiers. But a root cause is...[the] way U.S. troops have used disproportionate and reckless force in any perceived threat."

The newspaper says in the case of al-Sadr, "until six weeks ago [he was] regarded as little more than a hooligan with no theological standing among the majority Shi'a Muslims." But once U.S. chief administrator L. Paul Bremer decided to confront him, al-Sadr was easily able to mobilize his militia. Now, the paper, says "the young [al-Sadr] ranks only behind Grand Ayatollah Ali [al-Sistani], the leading Shi'a cleric," in the estimation of Iraqis. This, it says, is a catastrophic "own-goal" for the occupation.


The "Chicago Tribune" returns to the recent violence in the Gaza Strip and the deadly Israeli attacks on Palestinian protesters in the Rafah refugee camp. The daily affirms that Israel has the right to defend itself, but says the growing civilian death toll in Gaza is "nothing but irresponsible, and the killings and broad demolition of homes do not contribute to Israel's defense."

The Chicago daily says Israel's "scorched-earth strategy during the past two weeks is bound to further inflame Palestinian rage. This atmosphere of increasing mutual recrimination will play into the hands of Palestinian radicals, so that an Israeli pullout from Gaza may leave behind not the seeds of eventual peace but a ticking bomb."

The editors offer a piece of advice to the Israeli government in Gaza: "Pull up stakes and leave the land to the Palestinians."


The German daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" examines the recent selection of finalist cities to host the 2112 Summer Olympic Games. The games now will be held in either London, Paris, Madrid, New York, or Moscow. The eastern German city of Leipzig was one of four that did not make it to the final round.

Commentator Anke Bryson writes that while the decision is "bad" for Germany, it is not as serious as the earlier rejection of Berlin's bid to host the 2000 games. She says, in the final analysis, Leipzig was the wrong city to represent Germany in the bidding process. "Leipzig's Olympics application became a symbol of German unity. It was something politicians of all parties were eager to boost in order to win over [the former East Germans] -- at the risk of neglecting vital aspects like the infrastructure."

Compared with 2000, she says, "this time around, Germany was not the wrong country. Leipzig was just the wrong candidate."
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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.