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Western Press Review: British Lives Lost In Iraq

Prague, 25 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Unsurprisingly, the U.K. press leads Western press commentary today in focusing on Iraq, where six British soldiers died in one single attack yesterday and eight more were wounded in another.


"The Daily Telegraph" says in an editorial that the shootings confer a new urgency on the search for Saddam Hussein. The newspaper says that the attacks "will inevitably be seen as a brutal setback to British efforts to restore normality to southern Iraq."

It continues: "To add to the shock, the Amarah area, where both incidents occurred, had previously been regarded as a relatively peaceful area by [British] troops, and a success for their policy of constructive engagement with the local population. Last night it was still unclear whether the attacks were the work of Baathist fedayeen, pro-Iranian Shiites or smugglers, and whether they were co-coordinated."

The editorial concludes: "Most urgently of all, the coalition needs to locate Saddam and his sons Uday and Qusay, whether they be dead or alive. It might need to make individual deals with leading captives to do so. The fact that father and sons have not been found is intimidating to Iraqis and encourages loyalists to continue looting, acts of sabotage and attacks. If these things do not happen, yesterday's tragic events will not be the last of their kind. Without the right political leadership, coalition troops could become, in effect, hostages to those who strive to prevent the creation of the new Iraq."


"The Guardian" presents an opposite view. It says in an editorial: "The chance of such a lethal attack had perhaps not been fully anticipated in an area such as Amara, where the population is predominantly Shia and had been ruthlessly suppressed by Saddam in the early 1990s. The town was bypassed by U.S. forces in the advance on Baghdad on the assumption that it would remain neutral. Yet although British commanders often claim that they have been more successful than their American counterparts in adapting to semi-peace conditions, there has been ample evidence of mounting resentment in the south."

"The Guardian" continues: "In the end, the British forces, like those of the United States, remain an occupying army whether or not they are wearing their helmets. Their position is compromised by the chaotic administration imposed by Washington's envoys. President Bush's obsession with 'catching Saddam,' voiced again yesterday, is not a solution. What is needed is a coherent plan to hand back Iraq to the Iraqis rather than the limping measures taken so far. Yesterday six British soldiers paid the tragic price for this ineptitude: it was too high and it should not have to happen."


"The Times" urges British Prime Minister Tony Blair and other political leaders to make their case that the war in Iraq, Britain's involvement and even the aftermath remain the right things to have done and to be doing.

The newspaper editorializes: "These assaults will doubtless be seized upon by those who initially opposed the war or who have come to favor the swiftest possible withdrawal from the region. It will be said that Tony Blair has, with George W. Bush, blundered his way into a 'quagmire' in Iraq and that these shootings are an accurate, if chilling, reflection of the true character of Iraqi opinion. The prime minister will come under pressure to endorse dramatic moves, such as removing patrols, as an interim stance before securing an exit strategy. On both the [political left and right] there will be calls to 'cut Britain's military and political losses.' The right response for Mr. Blair, which he will surely adopt, would be to ignore these critics."

"The Times" continues: "Ministers have been forced on to the defensive about Iraq of late, impatiently awaiting the discovery of weapons of mass destruction and embarrassed, as Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, rightly conceded to [members of parliament] MPs yesterday, by the 'dodgy dossier' debacle. The case will have to be made again, led by Mr. Blair, not only that the original military campaign was justified but that it remains right, and in the national interest, for Britain to be involved in Iraq until the formation of a stable government that is benign to its own people, peaceable towards its neighbors and of no threat to the international community. Britain is and should be in Iraq for the long haul. Ministers must be honest about that fact and then hold their nerve."


"The Independent" commentator Robert Fisk calls yesterday's attack predictable and, by inference, unnecessary. The writer says: "No one would hurt the Brits, with their friendly public relations machine and all that experience from Northern Ireland which -- when you come to think of it -- might have warned them of yesterday's attack. We, the British, always made a distinction between us and them -- the 'them' being the Americans -- but failed to grasp that in Baghdad, the Iraqis did not recognize the difference."

Fisk continues: "How could they do this to us when we came to liberate them? That will become an inevitable theme in the aftermath of this attack. Guerrilla warfare, as the British know all too well, is a brutal form of conflict. It does not distinguish between 'good' occupiers and 'bad' occupiers, between Americans who shoot down the innocent and Tommy Atkins in his soft beret and his knowledge."

He concludes: "It also, of course, raises two more questions. Weren't those British soldiers sent to Iraq to find the weapons of mass destruction? And since there don't appear to be any such weapons, why did they have to die yesterday?"


An editorial in "The Independent" says that this question on weapons of mass destruction is proving difficult for the British government to answer. The newspaper focuses on what it calls a "dodgy dossier" that contained misquotations and unfounded urgent scare warnings that the government used to justify the U.S.-led attack on Saddam Hussein's regime.

The newspaper says, "If Tony Blair knew about this and other embarrassing aspects of the dossier, then that further damages the credibility of the prime minister."

The editorial complains that Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was unconvincing yesterday when he told members of parliament "that it was 'nonsense' to say that the government was relying for its case on the idea that Saddam could launch a chemical or biological attack at 45 minutes' notice."

It says: "The government did certainly make that a part of its case. Indeed, it was because of the sense of urgency that the government created about the threat from Saddam that the UN's weapons inspectors were summarily discarded. More than anything, that impatience was the profound error that led to this unnecessary war. Ministers cannot get away from that. Perhaps the foreign secretary's lackluster defense can be explained by the simple fact that the dodgy dossier was not his dossier. It was not produced by his Foreign Office, but by the Downing Street machine."


"The Washington Post" makes a case in an editorial today that there will be enough blame to cover virtually everyone should proof somehow emerge that Saddam Hussein did not have the weapons of mass destruction for which he was targeted by the U.S.-led war.

The newspaper says: "A wide range of governments, agencies and individuals outside the Bush administration looked at the same or their own evidence about Iraq and drew the same fundamental conclusion -- that Saddam Hussein was defying repeated UN disarmament orders. The Clinton administration, the governments of Britain, Germany and France, most of the senior UN weapons inspectors and most Democratic senators also were convinced that Iraq was hiding weapons and the means to produce them. While the Bush administration may have publicly exaggerated or distorted parts of its case, much of what it said reflected a broad international consensus. If it turns out that neither the weapons nor the programs existed, the failure will be not just that of the Bush administration but of most Western politicians and intelligence experts."


In a piece reprinted in today's "International Herald Tribune," "The New York Times" foreign affairs columnist Paul Krugman sees the case entirely differently. He writes: "Politics is full of ironies. On the White House website, President George W. Bush's speech from 7 October 2002 -- in which he made the case for war with Iraq -- bears the headline 'Denial and Deception.' Indeed.

"There is no longer any serious doubt that Bush administration officials deceived Americans into war. The key question now is why so many influential people are in denial, unwilling to admit the obvious."

Krugman asks, "So why are so many people making excuses for Bush and his officials?"

He continues: "Part of the answer, of course, is raw partisanship. One important difference between the current scandal and the Watergate affair is that it's almost impossible now to imagine a Republican senator asking, 'What did the president know, and when did he know it?'

"But even people who aren't partisan Republicans shy away from confronting the administration's dishonest case for war, because they don't want to face the implications. After all, suppose that a politician -- or a journalist -- admits to himself that Bush bamboozled the United States into war. Well, starting a war on false pretenses is, to say the least, a breach of trust. So if you admit to yourself that such a thing happened, you have a moral obligation to demand accountability -- and to do so in the face not only of a powerful, ruthless political machine but in the face of a country not yet ready to believe that its leaders have exploited 11 September for political gain. It's a scary prospect."

Finally, the writer asks: "Yet if we can't find people willing to take the risk -- to face the truth and act on it -- what will happen to American democracy?"


In "The Washington Times," a newspaper whose commentary generally has been favorably disposed toward the U.S.-led action in Iraq, writer Harlan Ullman joins the voices of doubt over weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

He writes: "The pursuit of weapons of mass destruction ultimately destroyed Saddam Hussein and his regime. And not finding those same weapons will at least embarrass President Bush and could do real political damage to his administration."

The writer says, "The truth is that Iraq's pursuit and use of WMD in the past made a convenient and convincing partner to a broader strategic vision that, before 11 September 2001, lay dormant within the administration."

Ullman writes: "As long as the economy does not deteriorate and a massive terrorist attack against the United States does not reoccur, President Bush seems politically bulletproof. Saddam's evilness is enough for many Americans to dismiss any errors in judgment over Iraqi WMD."

The writer concludes: "Judgment and accountability, however, are too important to be deferred indefinitely. We learned that long ago in Vietnam. If Iraqi WMD are not found, there may be good reason to explain or to excuse the decision for war. Regardless, the crucial issue still remains over whether the war will transform both Iraq and the region's political landscape. WMD provoked the war. And failing to exploit the peace will provoke worse. It is the latter for which the administration and Congress must be judged and held accountable."


"The New York Times" columnist Thomas L. Friedman writes that the debate over WMD is, fortunately for Bush, obscuring the greatest U.S. failing in Iraq -- inadequate planning for postwar Iraq.

He writes: "President Bush is sure lucky no weapons of mass destruction have been found yet in Iraq. Because had we found these weapons our entire focus today would be on the real issue: why the Bush team -- which wanted this war so badly and had telegraphed it for so long -- was so poorly prepared for postwar Iraq."

The writer says: "I still believe that with the right effort Iraq can be made a decent place. But that task has been made much harder because of the Pentagon's poor planning for postwar Iraq. If the Pentagon's lapses can be overcome -- and I hope they will be -- then we should learn from them for future wars. If they can't be overcome, then they will be grist for next year's who-lost-Iraq debate."

Friedman writes: "Because the Pentagon had no coherent postwar plan for reconstituting Iraq politically, it made it up as it went along. Instead of [providing] a firm U.S. hand guiding things from the top, the Pentagon initially appointed the hapless General Jay Garner to run Iraq. He's been replaced by the more deft L. Paul Bremer, but important time has been lost in which Muslim clerics have filled the vacuum in many areas. We must establish an Iraqi secular authority. Soon."

The commentary concludes: "A successful U.S. rebuilding of Iraq is the key to America's standing in the world right now. But Bush and Rumsfeld seem to be treating it like some lab test in which they can see how much nation-building they can buy with as little investment as possible."


The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" says in an editorial that the United States is asking too much when it turns to a reluctant Europe to help pick up the pieces of Iraq. The newspaper says: "Although U.S. President George W. Bush officially declared the war is over, the situation in Iraq can certainly not be described as being secure. It is miles away from such a situation, which is precarious, unstable, and dangerous."

It says: "With hindsight America made a grave mistake in depending only on 'a coalition of the willing.' It is a strange interpretation of the value of an alliance when one first ignores it in a very important conflict and then assigns the cleaning-up work to those who fail to clearly indicate how much energy and time they are willing to provide. There are no objections to reinstating NATO as the center for a Western security policy. But in that case NATO must play a bigger role than a mere repair shop for the world's leading power."


Military historian Caleb Carr argues in the "Los Angeles Times" that the United States should hold off on placing blame for postwar chaos in Iraq and concentrate on solving the problems there. Carr writes: "Americans have a long tradition of blaming their own civilian and uniformed commanders for wartime setbacks instead of recognizing the success of an enemy's efforts. There's a very good chance that this tradition is alive, well and hard at work in Iraq today."

The commentator says, "The war is clearly not over, despite what Bush said during his patently silly amateur theatrics on the aircraft carrier 'Abraham Lincoln.'"

He writes: "We were all supposed to be happy friends in Iraq by now. But our antagonist may have proved, once again, to be a damnably clever opponent. Before we get entirely swept up with finding people on our own side to blame -- there will be ample time for that later -- we ought to be about the business of devising new schemes to neutralize our foe, schemes even more imaginative than those admirable plans that brought us into Baghdad so quickly."


Conservative columnist George F. Will writes in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" that U.S. leaders should find WMD in Iraq soon or prepare to explain themselves. Will says: "For the president, the missing WMDs are not a political problem. Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, says Americans are happily focused on Iraqis liberated rather than WMDs not found, so Americans 'feel good about ourselves.'

"But unless America's foreign policy is New Age therapy to make the public feel mellow, feeling good about the consequences of an action does not obviate the need to assess the original rationale for the action. Until WMDs are found, or their absence accounted for, there is urgent explaining to be done."

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