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Western Press Review: Middle East, Terrorism, Al-Qaeda, Iraq, And The Slovak EU Referendum

Prague, 19 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Articles in the major Western dailies today look at the state of the Middle East peace process after the weekend's terrorist attacks, the possible involvement of Al-Qaeda in the Morocco terrorist attack, the hurdles of Iraqi reconstruction, and Slovakia's referendum on the European Union, among other issues.


In a commentary titled "All Map, No Road," the London "Times" considers that it was "grimly inevitable" that the first meeting between Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and his Israeli counterpart, Ariel Sharon, would be overshadowed by terrorism.

"It fits a depressing pattern," says the "Times," "in which any hint of progress, however modest, leads Hamas, Hezbollah, or Islamic Jihad to send a suicide bomber in the direction of innocent people." But the "Times" notes that, "even by recent standards, alas, the spate of attacks this weekend -- four in 12 hours -- was gruesome."

"The Times" goes on to say that the attacks appear to have achieved their objective. "The Israeli prime minister," writes the newspaper, "convened his cabinet, canceled his trip to Washington, and imposed new restrictions on the West Bank. Mr. Sharon's aides publicly speculated that direct action might be taken against Yasser Arafat himself, although the diplomatic consequences of that move, particularly with the United States, would be enormous."

"The Times" warns that the road map for peace in the Middle East remains seriously threatened by terrorism: "While it would be useful if credible counterterrorism measures could be taken in tandem with reforms to ease the daily lives of Palestinians," says the article, "the blunt truth is that until terror is seen to be dealt with, nothing positive will happen."

"The Times" concludes, "The diplomatic 'road map' is thus in danger of being all map and no road. It would be a tragedy if the opportunity opened by Mr. Abbas' arrival on the scene disappeared again in just a few weeks."


The U.S. newspaper the "Christian Science Monitor" also points out that the new terrorist attacks "punctured already faint hopes that the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers would soon follow Washington's road map to peace."

The "Monitor" says the peace plan has gotten off to a difficult start because "each side demands that the other take the first risky steps toward putting Bush's road map into play. Sharon says he will not sign on to the road map until he sees Abbas use his new office to crack down on Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad."

But "the catch," considers the "Monitor," is that "Palestinians say they can hardly fight terror when their security infrastructure has been effectively destroyed by the Israeli military in the course of the uprising."


In the aftermath of the recent deadly terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, David Johnston and Don Van Natta Jr. -- in a news analysis in "The New York Times" -- write that the Al-Qaeda terrorist network appears "to have reorganized bases of operations in at least a half-dozen locations, including Kenya, Sudan, Pakistan, and Chechnya," according to senior counterterrorism officials.

The article, quoting senior counterterrorism officials in Washington, Europe, and the Middle East, says, "The leaders have begun to recruit new members, train the new followers and plan new attacks on Western targets in earnest."

"The New York Times" goes on to say that, "Although Al-Qaeda's role in the Riyadh bombings on 12 May has not yet been confirmed, senior counterterrorism officials interviewed last week in the United States and Europe said they suspected that the Saudi attacks marked the group's resurgence from a period of dormancy that began with the American invasion of Iraq two months ago."

The article says that, despite what it calls Al-Qaeda's "furious attempt to re-establish themselves and send loud messages" to the West, the power base of the terrorist organization appears to have been seriously eroded.

"A counterterrorism official," write Johnston and Van Natta, "estimated that Al-Qaeda had 3,000 members, far fewer than in the late 1990s, when as many as 20,000 people trained at Al- Qaeda camps in Afghanistan."


"The Wall Street Journal Europe" writes today that Moroccan authorities suspect that the weekend bombings in Casablanca were carried out "by locals guided by international terrorists."

The "Journal" says, "Investigators suspect the operation may have been led by Al-Qaeda, although much of the militant Islamist network's high command is imprisoned, dead or on the run."


However, journalist Peter Preston writes in the British "Guardian" today that Al-Qaeda's soft-target strategy "could eventually be its downfall."

"The targets, time after time," writes Preston, "are relentlessly soft. A nightclub of young Aussies in Bali; sleepy Western compounds in Saudi Arabia; a Jewish center and Spanish social club in Casablanca -- where the man with the bomb arrived with a long knife.... Most of those who were maimed or murdered in Casablanca on Friday were ordinary Moroccans."

Preston goes on the say, "Nuclear weapons, dirty bombs, weapons of mass destruction? They may be part of the long-term planning, part of the dreaming.... But they are not, for the moment, part of the reality. That is relentlessly low-tech, as basic as a bad day on the West Bank, or an outrage in the Algeria of 30 years ago."


The Swiss daily "Neue Zuercher Zeitung" looks at the terrorist attacks in Casablanca, where suicide bombings left 41 dead last week. The commentary says the latest attacks -- both in Morocco and in the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh -- point to a coordinated effort. The terrorists targeted foreigners, which gave them "international publicity." They also inflicted economic damage, especially in tourism-dependent Morocco.

Moreover, adds the "NZZ," the high rate of unemployment means the youth of the country find the promises of Islam "soothingly attractive."

On the other hand, says the commentary, one of the conditions for fighting the violent acts of terror, fanned by Islam extremists, requires the Moroccan authorities to respect the rule of law, adhere to fair trials, and not to overreact. Otherwise, they play into the hands of terrorists who calculate that people will lose faith in a government that undermines justice.


A commentary in "The New York Times" today looks at the snags encountered by the U.S. civilian administration in Iraq in its reconstruction efforts.

The article says that, despite a meticulous reconstruction plan for rebuilding and running the country after the war, the U.S. civilian administration over the past two to three weeks has run into unexpected difficulties in establishing peace and order.

"The looting, lawlessness, and violence that planners thought would mar only the first few weeks," writes the "Times," "has proved more widespread and enduring than [U.S. President George W.] Bush and his aides expected and are threatening to undermine the American plan. Five weeks after Baghdad fell, Mr. Bush finds himself exactly where he did not want to be: forced to impose control with a larger number of troops and to delay the start of efforts to turn power over to Iraqis."

The "Times" quotes a senior U.S. official as saying that "the White House was surprised to learn how badly broken Iraq's prewar infrastructure was. From the outside it looked like Baghdad was a city that works, the official said. It isn't."

The article says that problems in restoring order and basic services were aggravated by infighting in the U.S. administration, which caught the first civilian administrator of Iraq, retired U.S. General Jay Garner, in the middle.

"General Garner," says the "Times," "was caught in bureaucratic crossfire here [in Washington] and in allied capitals. British officials expressed concern that General Garner would look too much like a military proconsul overseeing an American protectorate in Iraq, stirring distrust in the Arab world. In Washington, a bitter fight between the Pentagon and State Department over control of postwar operations escalated as reports of unrest in Baghdad caught American officials by surprise."

The "Times" reports that, according to officials, "the message that reached the White House from two recent meetings with potential Iraqi leaders was that it would be foolish to start experimenting with democracy without making people feel secure enough to go back to work or school, and without giving them back at least the basic services they received during Saddam Hussein's brutal rule."


"The Wall Street Journal Europe," meanwhile, warns about the danger of Islamic fundamentalism in Iraq.

In a commentary titled "Mosque and State," Zachary Karabell says "there's a growing apprehension that fundamentalist Islam is on the rise in postwar Iraq."

"In the political vacuum of Iraq," says Karabell, "Islamist groups are among the most organized and cohesive forces. One area of civil society that Saddam Hussein did not completely obliterate was the mosque, though his hand there was not exactly light (he did execute a number of leading Shi'ite clerics and drove a number more into exile)."

But the author concludes that the danger "is not that most or even many people in Iraq want Islamic government. It's that fundamentalist groups are the best organized and most cohesive and can take advantage of the vacuum and the chaos to seize control."

However, says Karabell, "The notion that Islamic government and fundamentalism are what most people secretly crave has little basis in the history of the region or in its recent past." And he urges, "There is enough to worry about in Iraq; let's stop worrying about the wrong things."


Slovakia gave overwhelming approval to European Union entry in a referendum at the weekend, but victory celebrations were tempered by poor voter turnout that nearly invalidated the result. Those that did vote, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" says in a commentary today, "remind us of Communist days when yes-men went to the polls."

Time will show to what degree the no-voters regarded the prospects of EU membership "with a healthy degree of realism," writes the paper. True, television presented an image of rejoicing enthusiasts for EU membership, "but the awakening may prove harsh."

The paper goes on to say that the European Union is a complicated organization and the prospects of "a golden future" are extremely distant. Nevertheless, concludes the German daily, "saying farewell to this illusion has not deterred any of the countries from agreeing to EU membership. This in turn, says the commentary, may exert pressure on the EU to meet the new demands of an enlarged organization, which will require sacrifices from all the members.


"The Irish Times" acknowledges that Slovakia has voted overwhelmingly to join the European Union, but it also warns that "a poor turnout nearly sank the poll, casting a shadow over similar votes in neighboring Poland and the Czech Republic to be held in June."


The French daily "Liberation" notes that "for the Slovaks, the European choice was an obvious one. A small country of 5 million situated in the heart of Europe, Slovakia, says "Liberation," "did not have other alternatives to the risk of finding itself isolated."

Furthermore, says "Liberation," "the EU also represents the perspective of a better life."

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