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Western Press Review: War In Iraq Leads To Strained Relations, Political Crackdowns

Prague, 8 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As U.S. troops continue incursions into Baghdad, several Western media outlets debate how some diplomatic relationships have become strained as a result of the war in Iraq. Russian-U.S. relations and Tehran's relationship with Washington are discussed, as is Kyrgyzstan's growing concern over its cooperation with the U.S. We also take a look at how some world leaders are using the Iraq war as an opportunity to crack down on dissent, both real and imagined.


In a contribution to "The New York Times" reprinted in today's "International Herald Tribune," the president of the Open Society Institute, Aryeh Neier, says as international attention is focused on Iraq, "despots are seizing the opportunity to get rid of their opposition -- real or imagined. In Zimbabwe, Belarus, and Cuba, independent journalists, opposition leaders, and human rights advocates have been thrown in prison."

Neier writes, "In the absence of scrutiny, the leaders of these rogue regimes have been emboldened, aware that their actions are causing little more than a ripple of protest beyond their countries."

In the Belarusian capital, Minsk, the authorities last week "detained 50 opposition protesters who had gathered for the 85th anniversary of the declaration of the short-lived Belarusian Democratic Republic." Neier says, "It seems clear that [President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka, Europe's sole remaining dictator, is intent on tightening his grip on Belarus."

That dictators' "move in times of world crisis comes as no surprise," says Neier. The Soviet Union "crushed the Hungarian revolution in 1956 during the Suez crisis." In 1968, when the U.S. administration was "preoccupied with Vietnam," and the U.S., Germany, and France "were convulsed in antiwar demonstrations" -- the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia.

Neier says if the world allows tyrannical leaders to "escape the international condemnation that is often the only way to protect their critics against abuses," the widespread repressive campaigns taking place today "may have to be added to the list of unintended consequences of the war in Iraq."


A "Stratfor" (Strategic Forecasting LLC) commentary looks at the evolution of U.S.-Russian relations as differences over the Iraq conflict drive a wedge between Moscow and Washington.

The perpetrators of a 6 April attack on a Russian diplomatic convoy traveling from Baghdad to Syria remain unknown, but "Stratfor" says the sense coming from Moscow is already clear -- that the attack was part of a U.S. plan to punish Russia for its antiwar stance.

Russia "certainly is on Washington's blacklist," says the commentary. The Kremlin now faces pressure from the U.S. on a number of fronts. Moscow is being marginalized regarding any postwar role in Iraq, going from being the largest foreign presence in the Iraqi oil industry to being "a non-player." Even more importantly, Washington's support for Russian membership in the World Trade Organization, debt forgiveness, and the Chechnya campaign are all hands the U.S. could choose to play.

"Stratfor" says Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to refrain from officially commenting on the motorcade attack is a "mammoth" political risk. If Putin remains quiet as U.S. plans for postwar Iraq are forming, "he will risk his standing at the top of the political pyramid." The commentary says that, even if Putin survives politically, Washington will clearly realize that Russia is a country "that, at the end of the day, it can afford to largely ignore."

Putin's other alternative is to "ride the wave" of antiwar, anti-American sentiment -- and, perhaps, bring Washington and Moscow's "brief love affair" to an end.


In light of the developing animosity between the U.S. and Russia over the war in Iraq -- and the attempts yesterday to patch up relations with a visit to Moscow by U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice -- a commentary in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" describes U.S.-Russian relations as "a partnership with problems."

Washington and Moscow are engaged in what the paper calls a "mighty dispute" over the war in Iraq, and they differ fundamentally on Iraqi postwar issues. The commentary predicts "they will engage in many more battles stemming from their economic interests in the [Persian] Gulf."

In fact, it seems that the burgeoning strategic partnership between the U.S. and Russia may turn out to be short-lived. U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin are determined to keep their political interests uppermost in their minds. Putin needs the alliance with America; otherwise, "a decisive element of his new Western-orientated policy would be destroyed." Bush also needs Russia, because without Russia a large area of the world would be missing from his antiterrorism coalition.

Both are anxious to maintain their partnership, says the commentary, but unfortunately they do not yet know how to surmount the obstacles that stand in the way of smoother cooperation.


"Winner Takes All" is the title of an editorial by Peter Muench in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," in which he says the United States is exercising its military superiority in the battle to capture Baghdad "in a mere show of power." But in fact, says Muench, the U.S. is readying for a diplomatic victory during which they will not let anyone else seize power, not the Iraqis, the UN nor, least of all, the critics in Paris and Berlin.

In this phase, he says, the U.S. is employing its superweapon -- psychology. Meanwhile, the strategists in Washington are proceeding unflinchingly. The message to opponents of their policies is clear: "It's not worth debating or quarreling, because we have everything under control."

A team of experts led by former General Jay Garner, which is now in Kuwait, is ready to take over when the war ends. Shell Oil manager Philip Carroll is already slated to supervise Iraqi oil production. Muench says, "We must face the fact that the aftermath of the war in Iraq is not negotiable."

U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice has already made clear that Anglo-American elements -- those who sacrificed lives and blood in liberating Iraq -- are the ones who will have the final say in postwar reconstruction.


Kurdish peshmerga forces, backed by U.S. special forces and air power, are slowly advancing on the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk in northern Iraq, which "The Daily Telegraph" calls "potentially the most volatile part" of the country.

Since 1991, a no-fly zone above the 36th parallel has allowed the Kurds to "[enjoy] a high degree of political autonomy. Revenue from smuggling and the United Nations oil-for-food deal have turned the three northern governorates into the most prosperous of the country."

The editorial says it is ironic that the Kurds, who have faced hostility and repression from the regime in Baghdad, have much to lose if President Saddam Hussein is toppled. If his regime disintegrates, the Kurds' "dream is to seize control of Kirkuk and its surrounding oil fields, then set up an independent state."

But the paper says: "It is precisely this prospect that could provide Ankara with a casus belli. And if the Turks mass in northern Iraq, Iran is unlikely to stay out."

Turkey fears that surging Kurdish nationalism in Iraq following the war could reignite the desires for independence among its own Kurdish separatists. Washington has assured its NATO ally on the Mediterranean that such nationalism will be kept under control, and the Kurds have expressed their willingness to cooperate within the framework of "a new, federal Iraq."

But the paper says, "It is impossible to tell what might happen as the collapse of Saddam's regime gathers pace."


Writing in "Eurasia View," Afshin Molavi says despite periodic cooperation, relations between Iran and the United States are likely to remain frosty. Both Tehran and Washington share animosity toward the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iraq's Saddam Hussein, and Al-Qaeda. Thus far, Iran has maintained a policy of "active neutrality" on the Iraq conflict, "quietly cooperating with the United States where possible, seeking to secure its own legitimate interests in a post-Saddam Iraq, and loudly protesting [any] U.S. desire to control Iraqi oil resources."

But Washington cites Iran's alleged "pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and its support for terrorist organizations, especially Hizballah and Hamas, as key impediments to diplomatic normalization." For its part, Tehran accuses Washington of undermining its economic interests by sanctioning foreign companies that do business with it and of blindly supporting Israel at the expense of other regional nations.

Molavi says many analysts believe Israel to be the most bitterly divisive issue. He cites political science professor Nasser Hadian of both Tehran University and Columbia University in New York as saying the U.S. administration appears to be actively building a "security consensus" among high-level U.S. policymakers that Iran poses a threat to the United States, in case it feels it must someday target Tehran. "Against this background of heightened tensions," Molavi says, "the most likely scenario for U.S.-Iranian relations for the next couple of years will be a cold, fragile peace."


Also in "Eurasia View," Egamberdy Kabulov -- the pseudonym for an unidentified Kyrgyz-based journalist -- says the Iraq conflict is undermining Kyrgyztan's strategic cooperation with the United States. Many Kyrgyz are concerned that the U.S.-led attack on Iraq will fuel hostility in the Muslim world, leading to increasing instability in Central Asia. Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev "has called for a quick end to hostilities in Iraq, but has stopped short of outright criticism of U.S. military operations." Kyrgyz officials have also warned against using a U.S. air base near Bishkek, given the largely antiwar public sentiment.

Kyrgyz officials "are anxious not to give the appearance of assisting U.S. military operations in Iraq, in part because of concern about an expected backlash by Islamic radicals." Since the start of the Iraq campaign, Kabulov says the U.S. air base has "become a source of growing bilateral tension." The U.S. maintains the base will only be used for humanitarian missions to Afghanistan. But Kabulov says, "From Bishkek's perspective, the [U.S.] administration's decision to proceed with an attack against Iraq without a UN Security Council mandate raises questions about whether Washington will respect the Kyrgyz position on the base issue."

The author says, "If the war on terrorism in Afghanistan was supposed to promote unflinching friendship between Bishkek and Washington, the war in the Persian Gulf is complicating the picture of an already strained relationship."

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