Accessibility links

Breaking News

Western Press Review: Limiting Iraqi Civilian Casualties, Balkan War Crimes Trials, And EU Peacekeeping

Prague, 1 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As the Western media's attention remains centered on military operations in Iraq, we take a look at recent statements by the U.S. defense secretary and what they could mean for the Mideast region. Also in the news are the assassination last month of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic and trying war crimes suspects from the former Yugoslavia, the European Union's new peacekeeping mission in Macedonia, minimizing civilian casualties in wartime, and Turkey's possible diplomatic missteps ahead of military operations in Iraq.


An editorial in the London-based "Financial Times" discusses recent comments by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld recently accused Syria of supplying Iraq with military equipment, including night-vision goggles, that could be used against U.S.-British forces in the region. He called this a "hostile act" for which the U.S. would hold Damascus accountable.

Rumsfeld then went on to warn Iran to restrain the Iraqi Shia Al-Badr Brigade, which is based in Iran and which moved forces into northern Iraq in February. Rumsfeld warned that these forces would be treated as enemy combatants. Based on the U.S. defense secretary's statements, the "Financial Times" says both Tehran and Damascus "must be wondering where they stand."

Since the 11 September 2001 attacks, Washington "has acknowledged that Syrian cooperation, in identifying dangerous Islamists and interrogating them, [has] saved American lives." Syria does not support Baghdad's position, "even if it vehemently opposes the war."

Tehran "must also be puzzled," the paper says. The Iranian-based Iraqi Badr Brigade is part of the group that led the 1991 Shia revolt in Iraq, which the U.S. and UK are now hoping will revive.

The "Financial Times" says Rumsfeld may be articulating the ambitions of certain elements within the U.S. administration "to widen the 'axis of evil'" to include Syria and other nations. But the paper warns that any U.S. attempt "to extend the Iraqi conflict to other Middle Eastern countries on the U.S. hit list could set the entire region on fire."


"The New York Times" in an editorial reprinted in today's "International Herald Tribune" says U.S. military commanders "are without doubt taking extraordinary steps to limit collateral damage." The U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division "has a team of lawyers [to] advise on whether [military] targets are legitimate under international conventions." There is also "a vast database of some 10,000 targets to be avoided, such as hospitals, mosques and cultural or archaeological treasures."

"Yet," the paper says, "accidents are bound to happen." U.S.-British forces "deserve credit for conducting the most surgically precise bombing effort in the history of warfare, and they are surely right to let the world know how much care they are taking" to avoid civilian casualties.

"But there is a downside to the incessant boasting about the surgical accuracy of the attacks," says the paper. "It raises expectations that every bomb will hit its target -- and [leads to] outrage around the world when one doesn't."


Writing in "The Washington Times," Jeffrey Kuhner discusses the 12 March assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic and attempts to try war crimes suspects from the former Yugoslavia. Djindjic, whom Kuhner calls "a courageous pro-Western reformer," had recently "come under intense pressure from the [U.S.] State Department to deliver three suspected war criminals to the tribunal," including former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic.

American officials insisted their capture would lead to Congress authorizing "badly needed foreign aid" for Serbia. Djindjic was thus "thrust into an impossible political situation." If he cooperated with the unpopular war crimes tribunal, "he risked losing broad-based electoral support" within Serbia. But "if he failed to deliver Mr. Mladic [he] would alienate his major sponsors in Washington and Brussels."

Djindjic was forced into a situation "in which whatever decision he made risked undermining his credibility and prestige."

Kuhner says, "Djindjic's death reveals the dangers faced by liberal reformers in the Balkans who support The Hague's tribunal." He suggests: "Rather than compelling the nations in the former Yugoslavia to cooperate with an international tribunal that is unpopular and increasingly ineffective, Western governments would be wise to [cede] cases involving suspected war criminals [to] domestic courts in Belgrade, Sarajevo and Zagreb. Such a move would show that the West is serious about protecting the national sovereignty of countries in the region, as well as encourage the development of the rule of law by empowering local courts to deal with sensitive war crimes issues."


A commentary in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" by Christian Wernicke looks at the implications of a European Union force of some 320 men beginning a peacekeeping mission in the Balkan state of Macedonia. At last, says Wernicke, the Europeans -- and not NATO -- are policing their own backyard. This mission serves as "a belated lesson of the bitter helplessness" Europe experienced when faced with "the genocide in the former Yugoslavia. This is no small achievement," he says, "but it is still not enough."

Wernicke sees this move as a step in the right direction, toward creating a significant European military force that would merge the air forces and marines of the European powers under a single command. He says such a pioneer European force "would first have to prove that, in the event of civil war or terrorist attack, it has more to offer than indignation."

Wernicke views the Macedonian deployment as an initial step in Europe's journey to becoming a significant force, provided that Britain is willing to participate. Politically, this would eventually mean that the world could rely on Europe, and not only on U.S. forces, to come to the rescue.


A "Financial Times" editorial says that, in Iraq, the "relationship between the media and military strategy is particularly intimate." The U.S.-British allies aimed "to 'shock and awe' Baghdad into submission, [thus] minimizing the fighting and consequent casualties among innocent civilians." Meanwhile, 700 or so "embedded" journalists travel with military units throughout Iraq.

The paper says, "Their presence has yielded some vivid reporting, but it has often made it harder for public opinion to understand the overall progress of the war." With the war now seeming more difficult that at first believed, "there is criticism from the media on the strategy. This has led to complaints from politicians over media expectations of instant results which fail to understand the constraints of an approach designed to minimize civilian casualties."

The paper says: "Politicians should be commended for their bold decision to allow journalists on to the battlefield. With so many there, the coalition is held to its commitment to safeguard the civilian population." But it is "always easier to fight a war as a dictatorship than as a democracy. That does not mean it is impossible for a democratic country to wage a just war -- so long as it explains its aims and is honest about the results."


Writing in "Eurasia View," journalist Afshin Molavi discusses Iran's precarious position vis-a-vis the fighting in neighboring Iraq. Iranian policymakers have remained officially neutral over the U.S.-British coalition's actions in Iraq, as neither Tehran's reformists nor its conservatives harbor any love for the neighboring regime.

A Baghdad armed with weapons of mass destruction would pose a greater threat to Iran than any other nation. But Tehran remains in a "precarious" position, for Washington is also a longtime enemy. Molavi says, "Torn between two foes, Iran has been playing a double game: loud public denunciations of the United States [coupled] with quiet cooperation and/or tacit acceptance of the likely U.S. victory."

But Iran has even more to worry about within its borders, where "a restive population [has] repeatedly expressed overwhelming frustration with the current order." Iranians "have repeatedly voted for reform at the ballot box." But as the reform movement languishes "in the face of conservative intransigence, Iranians sent a chilling message to reformers in recent municipal elections: they stayed away from the ballot box in droves, with only 12 percent turnout in Tehran and 38 percent nationwide."

Molavi says this "loud silence [reflects] deep-seated frustration with government gridlock, a stagnant economy and the failed promises of reformist leaders." Student reformist groups have recently "announced their independence from what they view as timid reformers and have called for civil disobedience campaigns."

Molavi says Iranian policymakers "are thus left in an unenviable position," both domestically and internationally.


In a commentary in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," Rainer Hermann says Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now weathering a political storm because of his indecisive policies.

Erdogan has undermined Turkey's chances of joining the European Union anytime in the foreseeable future with his failure to reach an agreement with Greece on the partition of Cyprus. He has also alienated the United States by not opening Turkish bases to U.S. troops to launch an attack on Iraq from the north. The U.S. now blames Turkey, in part, for its flagging success in the Iraq campaign.

Hermann says Erdogan's policies have been erratic. In early December, he promised U.S. President George W. Bush support in the war against Iraq. But then, underestimating divisions within the Turkish parliament, he failed to win support for complying with American wishes. He also underestimated the time it would take to push a second vote through parliament, and overestimated Turkey's importance to the U.S., pushing too hard for financial compensation for military help.

Erdogan's election triumph last year and his good intentions now have taken a bad turn, says Hermann. Now, it is to be hoped that "a cold wind will not slam the door to Turkey's future entirely," he says.


Writing in Britain's "The Guardian," Iraqi affairs analyst Dilip Hiro writes, "By now it is apparent that the Anglo-American decision-makers made a monumental miscalculation by imagining that Iraqis in the predominantly Shiite southern Iraq would welcome their soldiers as liberators." This miscalculation stemmed from "blind faith in the unverified testimonies of the Iraqi defectors combined with [the U.S.-British] failure to realize the complexity of the task of overthrowing President Saddam Hussein's regime."

U.S. and British policymakers failed to distinguish between "civil strife among Iraqis and an armed conflict between invading infidel troops and Muslim Iraqis; between Iraqis' loyalty to their homeland and their fealty to their current [ruler]; [and] a failure to fully grasp the importance that Muslims in general and Shiites in particular attach to the holy city of Najaf."

Hiro says Iraqi soldiers "see their country invaded by non-Muslim troops from America and Britain, their old imperial master." Many who hate Iraqi President Saddam Hussein "loathe America more. They hold it responsible for the UN sanctions which over the last dozen years have reduced their living standards by 90 percent."

Author Hiro says, "By invading Iraq despite the opposition expressed by Muslim and Arab allies of the West, the U.S. and British governments have opened a Pandora's box which will now be hard to close."


In France's daily "Liberation," columnist Serge July says the U.S.-British mission in Iraq is turning out even worse than expected. The failure of military plans which predicted the collapse of the regime in Baghdad within days is a setback for U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and those subscribing to the idea of imposed democracy. And this failure heralds the return of "real war," says July.

"Real war" had disappeared from the American horizon and, more broadly, the horizons of all democratic nations after the war in Vietnam, he says. True military war -- which is self-mutilating, destructive, atrocious, sometimes genocidal -- had been common throughout the history of the last 40 years. But no democracy has recently launched a war of vengeance, annexation, or conquest. Instead, interventionist wars, aimed at limiting or ending international tragedies, prevailed and met with a degree of success. Such interventions generally had UN approval, with some notable exceptions such as Panama or Kosovo, the latter of which was a NATO action.

The Gulf War of 1991 was also self-limiting, in that once the UN mandate to end Iraqi occupation of Kuwait was fulfilled, the armies withdrew at once. But today, the U.S. finds itself on the path to real, limitless, old-fashioned war. Originally viewing themselves as liberators, they are now being forced to take Iraq town by town -- even house by house -- and will do so losing hundreds, perhaps thousands of soldiers in the process.

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