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Western Press Review: Justifying War -- Was the Public Misled On The Iraqi Weapons Threat?

Prague, 15 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Much of the Western press today is dominated by discussion of whether the United States and Britain went to war under false pretenses. The failure to find the alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has fueled speculation that Washington and London made faulty or misleading intelligence claims to justify going to war. We also take a look at the situation on the ground in Iraq and the sectarian struggles going on within the Islamic faith worldwide.


Writing in the "Los Angeles Times," Robert Scheer discusses the controversial "16 words" used by U.S. President George W. Bush to describe Iraq's alleged nuclear ambitions in his January State of the Union speech. The "16 words" are a reference to Bush's claims that the "British government has learned that Saddam Hussein has recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

Scheer points out that in October 2002, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director George Tenet warned White House officials not to use the allegation that Iraq sought uranium from Niger because it was based on a single source of information -- and that single source, Scheer says, later "proved to be a forged document with glaring inconsistencies." Based on the CIA warning, Bush's security aides edited Bush's October speech to remove the claim that Iraq sought uranium from Niger for a nuclear-weapons program.

Scheer says before Bush's speech in January, a CIA analyst, Alan Foley, warned National Security Council officials that the Niger connection remained unproven. The State Department also called the Iraq-Niger link "highly dubious." Yet inexplicably, the Niger allegation was used in Bush's January State of the Union speech.

Scheer says the responsibility for this glaring error lies with Bush and his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice. He says if the Bush administration knowingly employed lies to "[substitute] for facts that didn't exist," it would provide "a firm basis for bringing a charge of impeachment against the president."


An editorial in "The New York Times" today makes a similar argument but stops short of calling for Bush's impeachment. In trying to justify its statements regarding Iraq's attempts to obtain nuclear materials, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is making "a legalistic argument that would be laughable if the matter were not so serious." Since the British government mistakenly believed in January that Iraq had been trying to import uranium from Africa, U.S. administration officials are claiming that Bush "was technically correct when he cited the British concerns in the State of the Union address." But the paper says this explanation "conveniently glosses over the fact that long before Mr. Bush delivered the speech on 28 January, American intelligence officials had concluded that the British charge was probably unreliable."

"Yet the charge still found its way into the State of the Union speech," the editorial says. CIA Director George Tenet "has accepted blame for the CIA's failure to tell the White House to yank it, but the real question is why the White House put it in the address -- and kept it there -- long after it had been debunked." The paper says the attempt to attribute the false claim to British intelligence "was clearly a desperate effort to get around the objections that had been raised by the CIA and other American intelligence agencies."

The paper says the "honorable response at this point would be to concede the error and apologize to the American people."


A "Stratfor" (Strategic Forecasting LLC) analysis says the furor over whether the Central Intelligence Agency or the Bush administration made a mistake about a forged document alleging an Iraq-Niger link is not the real issue. A more important consideration is whether the U.S. administration's "net assessment" of the Iraqi threat was correct.

But, first and foremost, "Stratfor" says, the question is: "Did the Bush administration go to war with Iraq because it feared WMD [weapons of mass destruction]?" "Stratfor" says: "Even if Iraq had had no weapons at all, the United States still would have invaded because of the country's strategic position and for psychological reasons. [The] U.S. administration chose not to express its true reasons for going to war, believing such an admission would have undermined the effectiveness of the strategy in the Islamic world." Washington would have found it politically problematic to explain it was going to "attack Iraq in order to intimidate other countries that were permitting Al-Qaeda to use their territory."

Thus, the administration "chose a public justification for the war [that] was expected to be plausible, persuasive [and] true." In short, the Bush administration "did not go into Iraq because of WMD. [However,] they fully believed that there were WMD in Iraq."

Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons in the past, says "Stratfor," so Iraq certainly had them. And Hussein had nothing to gain by destroying them in secret, so they must still exist. The "urgent issue" today is, where are they?


A commentary in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" responds to the current furor over the disputed U.S. claims that Iraq attempted to buy African uranium for a nuclear-weapons program. The paper says this debate is most interesting because "it goes far beyond the actual issue. It illustrates that the governments in London and Washington possibly used false information or semi-truths -- or at least not unequivocally verified information -- in order to win public support for a war against Iraq." From the political point of view, the commentary says, "this is a rearguard action."

As for the future, it casts a new light on the hotly disputed issue of whether Europe can influence America more through opposition or cooperation. Since rewards for collaboration and punishment for resisting seem to be on par, future developments will have to yield an answer to this question.


A "Handeslblatt" commentary is more concerned with the aftermath of the U.S. war on Iraq, saying the current turmoil is gradually causing Washington to "slide down from its high horse." The U.S. team is more and more on the defensive over criticism of its failures in Iraq." Even the Bush administration is becoming aware of the need for help in reconstructing Iraq.

But the commentary says this is also true of Germany. Rather than gloating over U.S. shortcomings, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer will use current talks in Washington to secure his country's participation in rebuilding Iraq.

Moreover, "Fischer will be in a position to demand a price for such a service," "Handeslblatt" says. "He can insist on the U.S. sharing power in Iraq with other countries, on a genuine Iraqi transitional government and a clear UN mandate."

This, says the commentary, would serve both Germany, Iraq, and, in the final analysis, the Americans. But first, says the paper, there is a long road to travel before this becomes a reality.


An editorial in "The Christian Science Monitor" discusses struggles taking place within the Muslim faith worldwide. As with any religion, the paper says generalizations about Islam are "likely to be wrong." However, one can safely say that Muslims "believe in one God and Muhammad as the Prophet; daily ritual prayer; almsgiving; fasting during Ramadan; and a pilgrimage to Mecca once in one's lifetime."

But on many issues, "Islam's different schools and traditions often disagree." Many "are trying to shape Islam for the 21st century." But a "profound" conflict is taking place within the faith, "waged by a relatively small number of Muslims who believe they are the true interpreters of Islam -- and that those who do not share their views are heretics and apostates who must be destroyed." They see secular governments "and the West, especially the U.S., as obstacles" to their vision of a "golden era" of Islamic rule.

The Taliban in Afghanistan and terrorist group Al-Qaeda are "manifestations" of this school of thought, which derives largely from Wahhabism, "an 18th-century puritanical interpretation of Sunni Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia," Central Asia, and elsewhere.

Muslims will have to conclude their internal dispute for themselves, the paper says. But Islam's moderate elements can be strengthened "by supporting economic development, tolerance, and human rights in Muslim nations." Successful nation building in Afghanistan and Iraq could set "powerful" examples. Such civic-minded efforts ultimately may be "the most important part of the war on terrorism."


Writing in "The Wall Street Journal Europe," Noah Feldman of New York University says the "ultimate test of success in Iraq will be the creation of a stable constitutional democracy: government of, by, and for the Iraqi people." If, at the end of the Anglo-American occupation, Iraq emerges "with the building blocks of just and effective self-government, the war and occupation will be forgiven." Muslims worldwide who "remain deeply skeptical of U.S. motives will grudgingly have to acknowledge that the American commitment to freedom can be actual, not just rhetorical."

On the other hand, if Iraq is not left in "a position to govern itself under the rule of law, Iraqis and others in the region will be tempted to forget the evils of Saddam [Hussein]'s regime while focusing on the bad consequences of American adventurism."

Thus, the first meeting on 13 July of the Governing Council of Iraq "deserves special attention as the first formal step in the all-important process of transition from coalition rule to eventual Iraqi self-government."

Feldman says, "Free, democratic politics is still brand-new in Iraq." The Islamic democrats on the council must still demonstrate "that their faith is compatible with equal treatment for all Iraqis, regardless of sex or religious denomination." Thus far, he says, Iraq's Governing Council is "demonstrating that there are serious, committed Muslims who think democracy is the right future for the Muslim world."


An editorial in "The Irish Times" says India's decision yesterday not to send troops to Iraq because such a move lacks a UN mandate "provides further confirmation that the postwar U.S.-British occupation is in deep trouble."

India's decision to abstain, "along with indications that large NATO states such as France and Germany have similar reservations concerning the UN mandate, has forced United States leaders to admit publicly that up to 150,000 American troops will need to remain in Iraq for several years if that state is to be stabilized."

U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have an "unenviable task" ahead as they face doubts about their commitment and credibility on Iraq, "especially since they were so convinced they were right to go to war despite the lack of an explicit UN mandate, and were so determined to limit the UN's subsequent role." When they meet in Washington later on 17 July "they will have to face disagreements on the source and quality of intelligence used to justify the case for war, whether British citizens should be tried by U.S. military courts in Guantanamo Bay and -- most important -- whether to seek [a] comprehensive UN mandate to deal with postwar Iraq."

Such a mandate would encourage other nations "to join in the task of stabilizing and democratizing Iraq, but at the cost of substantially diminished U.S. and British control over the political process there."

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