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Western Press Review: Milosevic's Trial, Afghan Civilian Toll, And Is Iraq Next?

Prague, 13 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the Western press today focuses on several pressing issues. These include the possibility of the U.S. taking its war on terrorism to Iraq, the trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic at The Hague, and U.S. accountability for civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Other commentary looks at why Israel still needs Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and what Germany's budget deficit means for EU economic policy.


In "The New York Times," correspondent David Sanger writes that the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has now decided where the war on terrorism will go next. He writes: "[By] all indications, the debate is largely over: toppling [Iraqi leader] Saddam Hussein is the next major goal, and the administration is putting in place the diplomatic and military means to accomplish it." Sanger adds that although President Bush made no distinction between Iraq, Iran, and North Korea when referring to them as "an axis of evil" in his State of the Union speech, within the U.S. administration "there is now consensus that Iraq is the only one that has to go."

"The outlines of a strategy are beginning to emerge," Sanger continues. "Between now and May, Mr. Bush's team plans to create what amounts to an inspection crisis -- demanding that Iraq admit into the country the nuclear inspectors it ousted in 1998. Mr. Bush's aides fully expect that Mr. Hussein will refuse outright or feign cooperation in the hope of dragging out the process. Mr. Bush's plan is to use either action as evidence that Iraq is hiding active weapons programs, and use its resistance to justify more forceful action." But Sanger cites a White House official as saying that whether this action will take the form of military attack, support for internal Iraqi rebellions, or yet another option is still undecided.


A Stratfor analysis says that despite the recent "fiery rhetoric" of the U.S. administration, there is not yet a clear consensus on how the United States should deal with Iraq. It writes: "Options range from a CIA-sponsored coup to a conventional military campaign similar to [Operation] Desert Storm. But [a] tougher question remains: Who will run Iraq after Saddam Hussein? The United States is unlikely to attack Iraq until it believes it has identified a suitable replacement regime."

Stratfor says Washington is not likely to support Iraq's largest opposition group, the Iraqi National Congress (INC). Instead, Washington might pick some allies from the ranks of the opposition, including Kurdish forces or Shiite groups, which Stratfor says would also problematically "raise the specter of Iranian influence." The Sunni tribes that comprise the majority of the government and military are another potential source of allies for Washington. Neither Iraq's Sunni nor Shiite populations wants the Kurds to take power.

"Given the problems with supporting the INC, Kurds or Shiites, Washington may be forced to look [at] disaffected elements within the military," Stratfor says. It notes that a number of Iraqi officers have defected and says there is "substantial evidence" Iraqi military elements attempted to overthrow Hussein in 1998. Stratfor concludes: "Of all the options for a post-[Hussein] regime, none is particularly impressive. Still, the Sunni tribes and to a lesser extent the military are the best tools Washington can wield least against Baghdad."


An editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" today looks at the trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, which began yesterday at the UN tribunal at The Hague. The editorial says that "beyond proving its case, the main challenge for UN judges and prosecutors will be to establish the court as fair and legitimate in the eyes of the world."

"But there's also a broader dimension to the trial," says the paper. "Justice can be cathartic, letting people and nations move on, as Germany's postwar history shows. This is true for all the people in the Balkans, the victims as well as the perpetrators. The Bosnian Muslims and the Kosovars should know someone was held accountable for their suffering."

The paper says this trial will also "help set the historical record straight for the Serbs, many of whom still deny that 7,000 Muslims were massacred in Srebrenica, Bosnia, in 1995. By seeing the past clearly, Serbs can start to absolve themselves of collective guilt for crimes committed by leaders in their name. In that sense, Milosevic's trial has the potential to bring both justice and a brighter future to the Balkans."


In this month's "Le Monde Diplomatique," former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin says Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is still the best negotiating partner for Israel in the search for a peaceful settlement in the Middle East. He says Israel appears to have concluded that it cannot forge a peace deal with Arafat, and that it needs to find another Palestinian negotiating partner. But Israel "will be making a terrible mistake if it adopts this approach," writes Beilin. "The decision that Arafat is not a real partner could bring disaster: it could remove all chance of peace and normal life for a long time to come, provoke a further deterioration of internal security and worsen the economic stagnation that has already resulted from this crisis."

Beilin says in the nine years since the Oslo peace process, both sides "have made bad mistakes. No one is beyond reproach. The Oslo peace accord has not been completely respected by either side." What Arafat wants, says Beilin, "is to reach a permanent arrangement with Israel that allows him to become president of the Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital." Both Sharon and Arafat are "problematic" leaders, he says. "It would be easy to delete both from the political map and just wait for the next generation of leaders. But that would not maintain the status quo. It would lead to more violence, poverty and despair."


A "Chicago Tribune" editorial calls the trial of Slobodan Milosevic "the most important war crimes trial in Europe since Nuremberg. That's because the criminals involved committed the worst carnage in Europe since the Third Reich. The trial will be a signal to despots and would-be despots that national borders will not protect those who would commit such carnage."

But the editorial goes on to consider some of the difficulties that will be faced by the court. "There are some questions about how much prosecutors can prove. Do they have enough evidence from so-called 'insiders,' who knew this post-Soviet apparatchik during his 13-year stay in power, to connect Milosevic with the war crimes for which he's been charged?" the paper asks.

But it says that Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte "has carefully assembled evidence and a list of more than 300 witnesses. She is convinced she has irrefutable evidence of Milosevic's complicity in genocide in Bosnia and war crimes in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo."

The paper concludes: "The Hague tribunal should not be deterred by Milosevic's tantrums nor by an obstructionist Yugoslav government still withholding some crucial military records. Milosevic is finally going to face his accusers. He will have an opportunity never afforded to his victims, the opportunity to defend himself."


An editorial in "The Washington Post" today looks at the civilian casualties of the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan. It says that "tragic mistakes" of this kind are "inescapable" in wartime, and adds that, thus far, the unintended deaths seem to have been what it calls "relatively low" in number.

But the paper says: "Nevertheless, both senior officers and their civilian leadership in the Bush administration have failed to carry out what should be an essential duty: mounting serious investigations of wrongful deaths, providing a full public explanation and holding U.S. officers and soldiers accountable for any improper or reckless behavior. The obligation to do so is all the greater now because of the mounting evidence that U.S. planes or commandos attacked and killed innocent people several times in the past two months."

The paper says that what is most troubling "is the manifest reluctance of the Pentagon to respond seriously" to such reports. It remarks that U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld "set the tone early on; in his televised press conferences, he has regularly dismissed reports of civilian casualties as terrorist propaganda."

The paper says it is vital for the U.S. to exhibit "a clear commitment to accountability for such damaging errors. When innocent people are reported killed by its forces, the United States must investigate vigorously, be clear and open in its explanations, and be prepared to take action in cases of improper behavior."


An editorial in "The New York Times" also weighs in on the issue of civilian casualties and says that innocent Afghan civilians have paid a high price in the U.S.-led military operation. The paper specifically considers what it calls "a particularly disturbing episode" in which U.S. commandos "wrongly stormed two compounds near Kandahar last month under the impression they held Al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters. One of the raided compounds housed the new government's disarmament commission. The other held the district police [headquarters]. The raiders killed at least 15 Afghans and imprisoned 27, some of whom say they were beaten and abused by their American captors."

The paper goes on to note that reliable overall numbers of unintended casualties are not yet available, but suggests that the civilian toll has been in the hundreds. It writes: "Deadly mistakes like these occur in every war. Yet they are never acceptable. The Pentagon investigation of the misfired commando raid must be thorough and unflinching. Surviving victims and relatives of the dead should be fairly compensated and operational rules carefully reviewed to minimize the risk of similar tragedies in the future."


An editorial in today's "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" says Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai is complaining bitterly over German attitudes toward his country. The leader had higher expectations from the one-day visit of German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping. But all that happened was that Scharping "came, saw, and declared: 'Germany will not expand [the six-month] international security mission.' And then he flew away," says the paper.

Karzai, however, is relentless in his efforts to persuade the Germans, British, and French to ensure security both in Kabul and other parts of the country. He has good reasons for these demands, considering the reports of fighting between warlords and the threat of resurgent conflicts. The given situation makes it imperative, says the commentary, for the international community to abide by its pledges not to forsake this country.

"Help does not only consist in sacks of corn," it writes, "but also in a sufficient number of soldiers that can guarantee security for a given time."


In the "International Herald Tribune," John Vinocur discusses the decision yesterday by EU governments to allow Germany to escape an official warning on its growing budget deficit.

Vinocur says that in doing this, "the governments of the European Union have again emphasized the primacy of politics in the affairs of the eurozone and the European Central Bank," and adds that this was done at the expense of "the European Commission's strict interpretation of the Euro Group's [stability pact] regulations."

Vinocur says the decision was related to the fact that this is an election year in Germany, as Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder faces a challenge from the Christian Social Union's Edmund Stoiber. The economy is considered Schroeder's biggest weakness in the election campaign. Vinocur says the "political weight of officially singling out Europe's biggest economy for inadequate financial management seemed beyond the zone of operating comfort for its partners' finance ministers."

Vinocur writes: "[The] fact that the ministers chose to ignore recommendations by the EU's nonpartisan executive body; its monetary affairs commissioner, Pedro Solbes; and the ECB itself by rejecting the warning constituted a setback for the idea that the eurozone is being run by standards totally independent of politics."


An editorial in Britain's "The Independent" also discusses the EU's decision not to level a formal warning at Germany over its budget deficit. The paper says the German "compromise" agreed to by the EU finance ministers "has damaged the euro, even if the currency's value was unchanged on the foreign exchange markets yesterday."

The paper says the rules of the stability pact governing the economic policies of EU member sates are not perfect, but they are clear: "When countries approach a budget deficit of three percent of their national income, the [European] Commission is required to issue a formal warning and the governments concerned have to say what they are going to do about it. That may not seem much of a real constraint, but it is important for the credibility of the currency that warnings are not only issued, but are seen to be issued. The fact that such a warning would have been politically embarrassing for [German] Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder only increases its force," says the paper. "These are precisely the kind of political considerations from which the apparatus for managing the euro was supposed to be insulated."

"Countries should not pick and choose which rules they like or which apply to them," the paper continues. "[Bending] the rules in response to political pressure is calculated to do the opposite of maintaining the credibility of the currency."


In "Eurasia View," CIS political affairs analyst Sergei Blagov writes that, "Eager to retain its political clout in Afghanistan, Russian officials have expressed a desire to enhance military cooperation with the interim government in Kabul." He says it remains to be seen, however, "whether Moscow can meet Afghanistan's security expectations."

Blagov notes that Mohammad Fahim, Afghanistan's interim defense minister, arrived in Moscow on 11 February for talks with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. Their talks centered on arms supplies, and before his arrival in Moscow, Fahim was quoted as saying that he would "seek tanks, armored vehicles, helicopters and fighter jets and other equipment from Russia." Ivanov pledged that Russia would also provide the Afghan national army with "organizational, logistic assistance," as well as spare parts supplies. But a major holdup, Blagov says, "is connected with the cost of arms supplies."

Blagov writes: "Ivanov reminded Fahim during their discussions that Russia had helped the Northern Alliance 'long before' the start of the international anti-terrorism campaign. Such appeals, however, seemed to have only a limited effect on Fahim. The interim defense minister, along with other members of the Afghan delegation, were cautious about being perceived as 'pro-Russian.'"

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)