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Western Press Review: The Apparent Fall Of Baghdad Heralds An Uncertain New Era For Iraq

Prague, 10 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Discussion in the Western press today is dominated by the apparent fall of the Iraqi capital yesterday, as images broadcast worldwide showed Iraqi civilians and U.S. Marines jointly toppling a statue of Saddam Hussein from a pedestal in central Baghdad. However, U.S. and British officials are insisting on caution, warning that more fierce fighting may lie ahead. Throughout Iraq, civilian reactions ranged from jubilation to anger as crowds began looting government buildings in the fallen capital. Many observers now contemplate what will follow the power vacuum, and how Iraq will become a self-sustaining, democratic nation after decades of repression. Several are calling for the establishment of a war crimes tribunal, similar to the one created for the former Yugoslavia, to try high-ranking members of Saddam's Ba'ath Party for human rights abuses.


An editorial in "The New York Times" says after the apparent fall of Baghdad yesterday, people everywhere are now hoping "that what comes next for the Iraqi people will be a better, freer and saner life than the one they had before."

The paper says, "[The] urgent task now in the occupied areas of Iraq is to bring order and security to cities where the sudden collapse of the government has left a power vacuum that invites lawlessness. In the absence of civil government, there is an ominous potential for strife and bloodshed in a nation riven with ethnic divisions and hatreds. A long-oppressed populace has plenty of scores to settle."

The editorial warns that a burgeoning humanitarian crisis is under way due to a lack of food, water, medical supplies, and aid workers who "wait anxiously for the environment to become safe enough for them to do their work." Once the fighting is truly over, military police can help maintain order while Iraqis are found "to take responsibility for policing and other governmental functions. Until then, some combat forces will need to intervene to keep the cities from descending into chaos."

Yesterday's events in Baghdad "can be the opening chapter in a positive and historic transformation of Iraq, but only if military operations are followed quickly by efforts to stabilize the country, feed and heal the people, and set Iraq on a course toward self-governance. That is the difference between a war of conquest and a war of liberation."


Britain's "The Independent" also discusses the civil disorder in Baghdad following yesterday's events, saying the "central and most immediate danger" is now "the power vacuum that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein leaves behind it." But it also says that, perhaps, the temporary "breakdown of law and order, like the ransacking of party premises, [is] a necessary catharsis after a quarter-century of oppression. It may not be enough for Iraqis to see that their rulers have gone; they must experience the regime's impotence by seizing, grabbing and destroying the instruments of their power."

But eventually order must be restored, says the editorial. "Without order, there can be no reliable distribution of even such basics as water and food." And without "goodwill and restraint on all sides," the chaos could continue. "Iraq has no coordinated opposition waiting in the wings and equipped to take power." Its three main groups -- the Sunnis, the Shias and the Kurds -- along with its exile migr groups, may all "compete for authority and dominance once the old regime is completely finished." The paper says, "conditions must be created in which the voices of all can be heard."

The United Nations must occupy a major role in Iraq's reconstruction, says the paper. "The sooner UN approval for interim civil arrangements can be obtained, the more likely it is that the new order will be acceptable to Iraqis -- and to the fractured international community."


Writing in Britain's "The Guardian," author Timothy Garton Ash says any Iraqi war criminals that are captured should be sent directly to The Hague to stand trial for crimes against humanity. He adds that any U.S. or U.K. forces accused of crimes committed during this war should be sent to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

But in the case of Iraq, he writes, the question what to do with its war criminals is just one aspect of how a country comes to grips with its past. A national reckoning has three main aspects -- trials, purges, and learning the lessons of history. Trials should be confined "to the very worst category of human rights violations" and should apply the "humanitarian law that was in force at the time the crimes were committed. Otherwise," says Ash, "you violate a principle of justice by making it retrospective." If national laws are used, or new ones are created "to fit the occasion, this, to the defeated, does not look like justice at all."

Purges are "a necessary evil," he says. If "deeply compromised senior members of the former regime" are incorporated into the new administration, their "mere presence will compromise the new regime," especially "in the eyes of [the] more idealistic young."

But what Ash calls "the most fruitful form" of coming to grips with the past is learning from history. Individuals should have access to their government files, archives, and records should be made public. "These methods encourage the psychological confrontation of a society with the dictatorial past in all its complexities."


An editorial in "The Washington Post" says people in Baghdad yesterday displayed "relief and jubilation" from "decades of brutal tyranny." But other Iraqis "wept bitterly at the sight of Western troops, not from love of Saddam Hussein but from shame and humiliation" at the entrance of foreign forces into their cities. Nevertheless, the "Post" says, "yesterday's scenes of celebration were an answer to skeptics who doubted that Iraqis wished to be liberated [by] American troops."

Yet the paper says the job remains incomplete. "Iraq's weapons of mass destruction must be identified, neutralized and displayed to the world [to] remove their threat and prove the validity of the Bush administration's casus belli."

In many places, discussion has now shifted to which "rogue" state "will be the next target for invasion." But the paper says "the best way to build on the success of the Iraqi military campaign will be not by threatening other regimes but by allowing Iraqis to construct a government that offers them political freedom, human rights and a chance to prosper in the global economy."

It says postwar success "will require more flexibility, patience and willingness to work with allies than was present in the administration's prewar diplomacy." The United States cannot rebuild Iraq "by willfully excluding Europe, the United Nations or Iraqis not of its choosing; any attempt to do so would risk squandering the gratitude and goodwill that were so evident yesterday on the streets of Baghdad."


An editorial in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" considers the prospect of creating an Iraqi war crimes tribunal. The editorial says that since international attempts to bring former Chilean President General Augusto Pinochet to justice in Britain, and former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, it should now "be clear to dictators that they cannot survive with impunity." The paper says if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his aides survive the war, they are bound to be brought to justice.

But at the same time, the days of "victors' justice" -- when the winners of a conflict would impose military tribunals on the vanquished -- are over. U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair seemed aware of this when they suggested that the United Nations should be responsible for an Iraqi criminal tribunal. Of course, says the commentary, even the United States must realize that an international tribunal can only serve well "if it has the courage to examine all the aspects of offenses against humanity."


Writing in the "Financial Times," Charles Kupchan says the standoff at the UN ahead of the war in Iraq made it clear that Russia, France, and Germany are ready for a Europe without an American benefactor. The United States, for its part, has new priorities that diminish its interest in Europe.

Kupchan says the Bush administration has made three major "miscalculations" about U.S. power. The first is that the more "uncompromising" are U.S. policies, "the more readily the rest of the world will get in line." But Kupchan says "the opposite has transpired." Instead of "evoking deference," U.S. policy invites "resentment and resistance."

The second misconception is that "a country as strong as the U.S. does not need international institutions; they only constrain America's room for maneuver." But Kupchan says this is precisely why they are "integral to international stability." They "increase confidence [in the] predictability of U.S. power."

Finally, Kupchan says, President Bush has "vastly overestimated the autonomy that comes with military supremacy." He has been "dismissive of allies because it feels it does not need them." But the U.S. war on terrorism and other projects require "extensive international cooperation."

As for Europe, Kupchan says it must become capable of unified action in the international arena. The EU is currently in limbo, he says. "It is too strong to be Washington's lackey, but too weak and divided to be either an effective partner or a formidable counterweight."


The question of the role of the media in times of war is the subject of a commentary by Michael Stuermer in Germany's "Die Welt." He discusses strikes on the Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi television offices in Baghdad, in incidents that left an Al-Jazeera reporter dead. That same day, a U.S. tank also fired on Baghdad's Palestine Hotel, which was known to house a number of foreign correspondents. Two journalists were killed in the strike.

Stuermer describes this incident as "a grave political mistake" and says it is unlikely the United States targeted journalists. He surmises that is makes little sense to believe U.S. troops would want to prevent the media from showing scenes of jubilation and support for the U.S. campaign.

But Stuermer says the question remains: At what price do we receive these live images of war? The media is ever more concerned with on-the-spot reporting. The reporters, says Stuermer, "often unconsciously, serve as a conduit for those waging war." Correspondents, of course, resist such allegations and say they are guided by a desire for independent news reporting.

Stuermer summarizes the media profession's often dire realities by saying: "Sometimes journalists pay the ultimate price. The news we consume is framed in blood."


The leading editorial in "Le Monde" today expresses doubt that the 9 April firing of a U.S. tank on the Palestine Hotel was merely an accident, as the Pentagon claims. "The U.S. tank took its time," the paper says, raising its turret toward the 14th and 15th floors. U.S. staff were surely aware the building was housing most of the foreign journalists covering the war from the Iraqi capital, even while it was also occupied by members of the Iraqi secret service.

The Pentagon, in expressing its regrets, said the tank was responding to bombardments coming from the hotel. But the French daily says not one of the dozens of journalists on the scene heard or saw any firing coming from the hotel. According to a French Channel 3 correspondent, the U.S. tank's action did not seem to be a reflex or reaction: "Le Monde" calls it "calm, composed, deliberate." The shot killed two correspondents, a Ukrainian-born Reuters cameraman and a cameraman from Spain's Telecinco.

That same day, the Baghdad offices of Al-Jazeera were bombed in a U.S. air raid, killing one journalist, while Abu Dhabi television's offices were hit in a separate incident. "Le Monde" says the death of the Al-Jazeera reporter sparked outrage in the Arab world while the incident at the Palestine Hotel caused Amnesty International to question the judgment of American troops.

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