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Western Press Review: Rethinking The Iraq War As Resistance Mounts; Slovenian, Chechen Referendums

Prague, 25 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Several items in the Western media today take a look at the war in Iraq, noting that the fighting does not seem to be going as smoothly as the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush had led the world to expect. Anglo-American troops are encountering fierce resistance in some areas, and looming humanitarian disasters in cities such as Basra threaten to further undermine support for the war.

We also take a look at Slovenia's overwhelming approval of European Union membership in a 23 March referendum and Chechnya's controversial approval the same day of a Moscow-backed resolution declaring the republic an indivisible part of the Russian Federation.


An editorial in "The New York Times" says fighting around central Iraq yesterday between Anglo-American forces and Iraq's Republican Guard troops was the "latest evidence that some of the initial hopes [that] Iraqi resistance would quickly crumble seemed not to be panning out."

U.S. and British officials insist everything is on or ahead of schedule, the paper notes. But the Anglo-American public was unprepared for this resistance. The U.S. administration "had conveyed the impression that the Iraqi government was shaky, that much of the army was not likely to fight and that the Iraqi people would welcome the invasion force with cheers."

Nor have there been the expected "mass defections among the least-motivated Iraqi troops, the regular army," the paper continues. "Some 3,000 have surrendered, and a lot more have simply quit and melted back into the population." But thousands remain, many dressed as civilians and ready to fight.

A "severe" humanitarian crisis is already developing in the city of Basra, whose mainly Shiite population is hostile to the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein and was expected to welcome Anglo-American troops. Instead, Basra's forces are resisting, and coalition troops "have been unwilling to fight their way in at the risk of heavy civilian casualties. Now parts of the city have been without power or water for three days," says the paper. And it is "hard to see how allied forces can mitigate the situation without fighting their way into the city."


"The Washington Post" in an editorial today says "trepidation" over the war has naturally set in following the first reports of casualties and the unexpectedly fierce resistance of some Iraqi troops. But the paper also calls for patience.

"More U.S. casualties are a virtual certainty, as are more collateral damage, tragic mistakes and surprises," the paper says. "It may even prove true that the American strategy of trying to focus the war narrowly on Saddam Hussein and his power apparatus, and away from most Iraqis, will make the fight more costly."

Yet these costs "are worth paying if they succeed in destroying the regime and the threat it poses; and the challenge of stabilizing Iraq after the war will be lessened if U.S. forces continue [to] act as liberators rather than conquerors."

The editorial says: "Millions of oppressed Iraqis have hoped for decades for liberation from Saddam Hussein; at great cost, the world waited 12 years in vain for his voluntary disarmament. After only five days of war, the blizzard of dramatic and sometimes disorienting news is best greeted from that perspective."


In a separate item in "The Washington Post," retired military officer Ralph Peters discusses the United States' "shock and awe" theory of battle. Simply put, the theory proposes that a precise, awe-inspiring, aerial bombardment "can shatter the opponent's will to resist." The enemy thus sees "no choice but surrender."

But advocates of the "shock and awe" school "failed to consider the nature of Saddam Hussein's regime," Peters says. "No matter how shocked and awed the Iraqi leadership may be, surrender is not, never was and never will be an option for Hussein and his inner circle. Because of the nature of their regime and its crimes, the contest is all or nothing for them."

The U.S.-led attempt to "talk Iraq's elite military forces into surrender was humane in purpose and politically attractive, and it might have minimized Iraqi casualties," Peters writes. "But it delayed essential attacks on Iraq's military capabilities. This encouraged at least some Iraqis in uniform to believe they had a chance to fight and win." Now, Anglo-American "forces advancing on Baghdad face the possibility of more serious combat than would otherwise have been the case."

"Some things do not change," Peters says. "The best way to shock and awe an enemy is still to kill him. Those who want to wage antiseptic wars for political purposes should not start wars in the first place."


A "Financial Times" editorial says there are two major difficulties facing Anglo-American troops now on the way to Baghdad. "First, it is proving difficult to identify who wants to fight and who prefers to surrender." Events on the ground are turning out "much messier" than the U.S. and British administrations had led the world, and their publics, to believe.

"Well-distributed regime loyalists may be intimidating others into resisting [and] pretending to surrender to, or welcome, the Americans and British before opening fire on them." And secondly, the speed of the rush to Baghdad "is leaving the U.S.-U.K. supply lines vulnerable."

The paper says these complications may just be "short-term [irritants]." But in the longer term, they "may change Iraqi perceptions, too, demonstrating how irregular warfare might be used against the Anglo-U.S. occupation in the future. It is not clear, moreover, whether ordinary Iraqis are happy to be invaded, however much they hate Mr. [Saddam] Hussein. It is even less certain how they will react to being occupied."


"The Wall Street Journal Europe" in an editorial says that, in the past few days, the U.S. administration has announced that several Russian arms companies have been selling "electronic jamming equipment, antitank missiles, and night-vision goggles to the Iraqi regime in violation of UN sanctions." "The Washington Post" cites a U.S. official as saying at least one of the companies now has people in Baghdad showing the Iraqi regime how to use the devices.

"The Wall Street Journal Europe" says the alleged weapons sellers "are private companies, not Russian state enterprises, but it is the responsibility of governments to ensure that their citizens comply with UN sanctions."

Perhaps officials from Moscow and Washington can iron out these differences, the paper says. "But the episode is another reason to be skeptical about the future of the UN Security Council. The Council is worse than useless if its core members hold its mandates in such contempt."


An editorial in "The Boston Globe" warns that there is "a certain hubris in the notion that the toppling of Saddam Hussein's police state in Iraq can easily be made into a springboard for sweeping democratic transformations in other Arab countries and Iran." While the United States "should do everything it can to help Iraqis create a decent representative government -- with respect for human rights and the rule of law -- [U.S.] policy makers must avoid the temptation to overreach."

The editorial says that even in a best-case scenario, with Iraqis creating and sustaining a flourishing democratic state, the diffusion "of democracy from Iraq to other states in the region will hardly be automatic. No other country possesses Iraq's combination of oil reserves, a large educated elite, and the advantage of a fresh start."

"A democratic transition in Iraq may attract popular admiration" around the world, the paper says. But autocratic rulers in many countries "are adept at retaining power by meting out counterfeit versions of democratic reform" while holding on to the reins of power."


Two German newspapers comment on the strong endorsement Slovenians gave to both NATO and European Union membership in a 23 March referendum. Almost 90 percent of Slovenes voted in favor of joining the EU and 66 percent voted for membership in NATO.

A commentary in the "Frankfurter Rundschau" says these results cannot be merely explained by the fact that Slovenia always "thought, felt and acted European." Such overwhelming results are unusual even by Western European standards.

Nor can this be ascribed to an effective pro-EU government campaign. The most important factor was "fear, a premonition on how to best counter dangerous times ahead and, hence, an awareness of Slovenia's dependence on help from allies. Small nations are exceptionally sensitive to looming crises of large dimensions," the paper remarks.


A commentary in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" says Slovenia has a reputation for having made a very smooth transition from communism to democracy. Moreover, the country has never flagged in its orientation toward the West, even though there was some hesitation regarding the war with Iraq.

Nevertheless, the government was the only one among 10 NATO candidate countries to hold a referendum, and this was to its benefit. Moreover, any indecisiveness was countered by the assassination on 13 March of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, which recalled grim memories of the bloodshed in Balkan wars.


The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" describes as "hardly credible" claims that the Moscow-backed referendum in Chechnya held over the weekend is a critical step toward peace. It is highly unlikely that more than 95 percent of Chechens favor the new constitution and wish to remain in the Russian Federation, the paper says. This is the Russian interpretation of events, the commentary says.

The paper says many Chechens may have feared losing food assistance if they did not vote "yes," and many also may have voted at the point of Russian bayonets.

Moreover, the paper asks, what is a referendum worth in an occupied country in which the capital lies in ruins? It says it is highly unlikely that there was even 80 percent participation in the voting. In Grozny, at least, the polling stations were empty. Even though the population is tired of war, they are not willing to simply abandon their fight and support what they regard as a traitorous government.

The result of this referendum definitely does not correspond to the wishes of the majority, the paper concludes.

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