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Western Press Review: Casualties, and Questions, Mount On All Sides Of Iraq Conflict

Prague, 24 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Analysis and commentary in the Western press today focuses on developments in the U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq, now in its fifth day. A series of tragedies for all sides over the weekend has given rise to more concerns and questions on the campaign as Western forces encounter a variety of reactions from Iraqis, ranging from spirited welcomes to staunch resistance.

We also take a look at the high turnout, and suspected irregularities, in the referendum held yesterday on a new Chechen constitution.


"The Washington Post" in an editorial today discusses some of the casualties sustained over the weekend by U.S. and British troops in Iraq. A British plane was believed to have been accidentally downed by a U.S. missile, dead U.S. soldiers and U.S. prisoners of war were shown on Iraqi television and elsewhere, journalists were injured or killed, and an American soldier turned on his own battalion, killing one and injuring several others. And throughout it all, the paper says, American and British citizens monitoring the events on television or radio "felt the blows almost as they occurred."

The editorial remarks it is impossible to tell how public opinion in World War II or other past conflicts would have been affected by such immediate reporting. But "in the long run, more information surely is better than less, and sooner better than later." The editorial says the "tidal waves of information" coming from journalists traveling with combat troops in this campaign "place a higher demand on everyone for perspective and patience."

The paper says the only monument to the dead that ultimately matters will be eventual victory, "and a sustained commitment to a rebuilt Iraq -- a commitment that will leave Americans safer and the Iraqi people better off."


In a separate item, "The Washington Post's" William Raspberry says he fears a U.S.-British victory in Iraq may prove Pyrrhic, in that its costs could outweigh its benefits. Possible costs include "the erosion of America's credibility in the world," he says. Can the world, and American citizens themselves, count on U.S. leaders "to tell us the truth about their motives?" he asks. Raspberry says the "shifting rationales offered for launching this war" have created the impression that the U.S. administration was "determined to sell" this campaign from the start.

Is the goal to oust Saddam Hussein from Baghdad, Raspberry asks, or punish him for defying the United Nations? Is it to disarm Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction -- as has been repeatedly claimed -- or to deliver the Iraqi people from a despotic leader? Or perhaps the war is about making the United States safer from terrorism? If so, Raspberry questions why the U.S. is now on heightened "orange" alert, the second-highest level as indicated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Why don't Americans feel safer? he asks.

Raspberry goes on to inquire, if the United States is fighting for freedom, why are U.S. civil liberties being suspended? And why don't Americans feel freer?


In a contribution to "The Wall Street Journal Europe" today, media analyst Siyamend Othman discusses the situation of Iraq's media industry. Formerly of UPI and Amnesty International, Othman says over three decades of limitations "on free speech and the flow of information have had devastating effects" on Iraq, creating a "distorted understanding" of Iraqi history and the sociopolitical environment.

Redressing this situation will require everything from "a radical overhaul of the educational curriculum to providing unhindered access to information and knowledge," says Othman. But most important will be "the creation of free and independent news media -- print, television, radio, and electronic."

If Baghdad falls to U.S. and British troops, Othman says coalition forces will need to be prepared to speak to the Iraqi people via Iraq's television and radio. But from the beginning, "the U.S. should empower its free Iraqi allies by providing them with a forum and the opportunity to address and influence their own people toward democracy." These Iraqi voices "will be far more influential" than American or British statements, and "will visibly reinforce the assertion that the U.S. intends to empower the Iraqi people."

Othman says it is equally critical that future Iraqi media "does not become the unique purview of any single political organization, [or] even, a freely elected government. It must provide a fair, impartial forum to all." Essentially, Baghdad's new media "has to rise above the inter-Iraqi political fray."


An editorial in "The Irish Times" says there is little doubt about the eventual outcome of the war, given the superiority of U.S. and British military capabilities. But this alone is not the only determining factor, it says. "How the war proceeds and ends will have a definite effect on the succeeding regime," it says. Moreover, it is not known "how ready core military personnel in the Iraqi regime are to fight to the end." The paper says: "Many Iraqis have good reason to mistrust both sides in the conflict. Some of them are ready to pursue their own political objectives irrespective of the existing regime or its successor."

The editorial calls it a "crucial political objective" to stave off any clashes between Turkish and Kurdish forces in northern Iraq. The two sides' conflicting political concerns could lead to a disastrous "war within a war." Moreover, the paper says U.S.-British forces cannot alone be allowed "to set the terms of a subsequent political settlement." The United Nations "must have a central and continuing role to play in providing humanitarian aid, organizing reconstruction, endorsing a new governing regime and ensuring Iraq's oil resources are available for the benefit of its own people."


In a contribution to Britain's "Financial Times," Brendan O'Leary, an expert in ethno-political conflict with the University of Pennsylvania in the United States, warns an "aggressive" Turkish policy toward Iraqi Kurds could undermine the U.S.-British military campaign, "damage" Turkey's aspirations to join the European Union, and "render hollow" the stated commitment to a "democratic reconstruction of the Middle East."

Turkey is anxious to prevent Iraq's Kurds from declaring an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq near the Turkish border. Ankara thus seeks to deploy troops across the border in Iraq, to maintain control over the Kurdish population and create a "buffer zone" preventing Kurds from streaming into Turkey. But the United States actively opposes Turkish troops in Iraq. O'Leary concurs, saying Turkey should not be permitted to occupy any more territory than its "border rim" with Iraq.

Iraqi Kurdistan "is internationally recognized as an autonomous region." But the Kurdish administration "has no right to impose a federation [on] the rest of Iraq." And equally, "the Turks, Americans and non-Kurdish Iraqis have no right to insist that the people of Iraqi Kurdistan accept a unitary or centralized Iraq."

O'Leary says, "With the end of the Iraqi regime in sight, the regional government should declare Iraqi Kurdistan sovereign but not independent." It should seek a federacy -- "a federal relationship with the rest of Iraq that cannot be changed unilaterally by Baghdad -- and protection of Kurds elsewhere in the country."


Andreas Middel, writing in Germany's "Die Welt," looks at the situation for NATO if Turkey chooses to exploit the war in Iraq to suppress Kurdish aspirations for an autonomous state in northern Iraq. Middel says this would pose a threat to Germany's domestic policies, considering the significant Turkish population in that country. He says it would also pose a mighty challenge for NATO, of which Turkey is a member and which serves as a bridge between the U.S. and Europe.

Germany's position in the Turkish-Kurdish conflict has often been the subject of discussions in NATO circles, Middel says. Germany has responsibilities to NATO and, hence, to fellow member Turkey. But Middel questions what will happen to relations if Turkey exploits the Iraqi war to suppress the Kurds in northern Iraq. NATO members -- including the U.S. and Britain -- could be severely divided on this issue, and could end up working at cross-purposes or following two conflicting policies. Middel suggests many of these questions remain unanswered.


Writing in the "Chicago Tribune," columnist Clarence Page says U.S. President George W. Bush "has promised to plant the seeds of democracy in Iraq and spread its many gifts across the region. That's a lofty dream," says Page, but Bush "has not shown us that he has a clue as to how to pull it off."

Page warns that the "worst signal" the U.S. could send to the world "would be to leave Iraq and the rest of that region with new chaos and ethnic strife to replace its old chaos and strife. We need to keep our promises, but in cooperation with other countries, not in domination over them."

Secondly, he says, "as many around the world have pointed out, the U.S. will not be viewed favorably in the Arab world, among others, unless it uses its mighty clout to play the role of an honest broker in advancing a fair settlement between Israel and the Palestinians."

And third, the U.S. needs to rebuild its relations with the United Nations and other allies, showing that it is willing to work as partners, "not bullies" who are ready to quit "when we don't get our way."


An editorial in "The New York Times" looks at the British and U.S. casualties of the last few days and says the "days ahead will indicate whether the American decision to press ahead with a relatively small invasion force supported by overwhelming air and missile power was a wise one. The advantage of the strategy is speed -- it avoids the need to wait months for a huge buildup of troops and armor. The downside is the lack of security in the rear of the invasion force." The dangers of the strategy are not only to troops and humanitarian workers, "but also to the Iraqi civilians living in towns where order may break down and long-repressed ethnic or religious tensions could explode."

The paper observes that war "brings out the extremes in human behavior, for good and ill." In the first days of the conflict, the world "saw a great deal of the first -- the G.I.s giving aid to Iraqi prisoners, townspeople welcoming the Americans and British as liberators." But now, "we are beginning to see the other, where welcoming civilians may turn out to be lethal Iraqi soldiers in disguise, where coalition troops inflict casualties not only on the enemy but on each other. In a sense, the real war has just begun."


A commentary in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" discusses the conflicting attitudes around the world toward U.S. policy on Iraq. On the one hand, says the commentary, the antiwar demonstrations across the globe protest that the attack on Iraq is "immoral, illegal, and wrong." Three-quarters of the German population says the war is unjust.

The assessment may be different if and when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein falls, the paper notes. But for now, the public is launching unmitigated criticism of the joint U.S.-British military policy. The more complicated the military situation, the greater the political damage, says the paper.

It is quite possible, however, that the protests are an "expression of political blindness and moral ignorance," as the paper says it is misguided to present U.S. President George W. Bush "as a war criminal" or one "driven by dark powers." Nevertheless, the fact that so many people hold this opinion is alarming, the editorial remarks, as it indicates the degree of alienation that has developed around the world.

There is a growing mistrust that is blurring the obvious, the paper says: on the one hand, there is the indispensable global political role of the U.S. On the other hand is Washington's awareness that the world cannot afford an independent policy without America." That, says the commentary, "is the root of the dispute over the war in Iraq."


In France's "Liberation," Helene Despic-Popovic writes from Grozny discussing voting yesterday on a Moscow-backed referendum for a new Chechen constitution that would return the republic to the fold of the Russian Federation. According to Russian sources, 65 percent of voters voted in favor of the referendum. Posters around the city had openly called for a "yes" vote, saying a vote for the new constitution is a vote for an end to the protracted war there.

Despic-Popovic cites some Chechens as saying they voted for the referendum simply because they want peace and are hoping for the best. Those that opposed the referendum simply stayed home, as it was impossible to mount an effective antireferendum campaign in a region patrolled by 80,000 Russian soldiers.

Heavily monitored by the Russian Army, foreign journalists visiting the polling places were not able to truly assess the situation, she says. But the possibility of voting irregularities was apparent. Voting lists seemed dubious, she says, and open to the possibility of manipulation.

Despic-Popovic says this referendum was the political solution offered by Moscow, one that ruled out negotiating with separatist leaders. The new constitution calls for the election of a Chechen parliament and a president, perhaps as soon as later this year. Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised the Chechens more autonomy and a wide amnesty. Despic-Popovic says now that the referendum has passed, it is up to Putin to act on his promises.

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