Amidst the rubble?
America's increasingly problematic role in Iraq continued to be the focus of the Arab press, writes Dina Ezzat
The bloodshed in Iraq and speculation over a possible civil war in Palestine dominated news headlines and commentaries in the Arab press this week.
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On 28 September Amgad Rasmi in Asharq Al-Awsat reflected on America's phobic fear of Arabs, drawing Uncle Sam looking suspiciously at Mars as it gets closer to earth. "He seems to be a terrorist. He has Middle Eastern features," says Uncle Sam
In As-Safir on 30 August Saad Hago illustrated the economic recession that is taking a serious toll on all Arab countries. Hago drew a fisherman with a note of apology dangling from the hook: "Sorry, there's no bait. It's the recession".
The bloody car bomb killing of prominent Iraqi Shi'ite leader Baqir Al-Hakim, along with over 100 other Iraqis in Najaf, captured much of the attention of the press, particularly as it came a little over a week after another bomb attack killed the UN's representative in Iraq.
Reporters and news analysts alike agreed that the killing of Al-Hakim, a prominent cleric, was yet another sign of the failure of the US occupation forces to establish security in Iraq. Commentators called on Washington to admit it failed and to seek the help of the international community in ending the post-war havoc that only seems to be spreading.
In its editorial on 30 August, just a day after the death of Al-Hakim, the United Arab Emirates' prominent daily Al-Bayan called for a brave diplomatic vision to help Iraq out. "Giving Iraqis sovereignty is the only way out. French President Jacques Chirac suggested it and this is what needs to be done," argued an Al-Bayan editorial.
Commentators calling for a wider role in Iraq for the French, Russians and the rest of the international community -- in other words, the UN -- used forceful language this week. In his daily column in Asharq Al-Awsat, Samir Attallah stated in no uncertain terms that the time had come for the US to ask for the help of the very countries that had strongly opposed its war against Iraq. "The US today is in no better position than when it was before it toppled Saddam Hussein... French and Russian involvement [in Iraq], once a subject of [American] derogatory comments, has now proved to be greatly needed," Attallah suggested on 1 September.
Meanwhile, speculation was rife in the Arab press concerning who killed Al-Hakim. Some articles suggested that loyalists of Saddam were behind the attack, others indicated an inter-Iraqi Shi'ite split while angry Sunnis was one more explanation. The debate would not have been complete without some sort of Israeli involvement. In all events, there were dire predictions of more Iraqi civil strife.
However, the news carried by the papers on 1 September about the arrest of over 20 people, mostly non-Iraqis, led some writers to argue that neighbouring countries were meddling in the internal affairs of Iraq to serve their own regional political interests.
For some commentators the issue was not who killed Al-Hakim or the UN secretary-general's special representative to Iraq a few days earlier. Rather, the question was what were the Arabs going to do about Iraq. In the Lebanese daily As-Safir, Hani Faris called on Arab countries to pay more attention to the situation in Iraq before it was too late. Under the headline, "Can we hear the alarm bells?" Fahis wrote: "If we fail to show interest in Iraq now, we might much more cause for concern when Iraq falls to pieces and we, too, are scattered".
The failure of the US to bring order to post-Saddam Iraq and the Arab reaction to this abject failure was the subject of interesting analyses in some of the Arab press, particularly the Lebanese. A good summary of the ideas floated on the issue was in the article written by Rafiq Khouri in the daily Lebanese Al-Anwar. Headlined "The Arabs' dilemma and the US problem" Khouri wrote of the failure of the US to adequately prepare for the "day after" in Iraq, saying the Arabs were half-pleased and half-worried about the current developments in Iraq. Pleased because the slower the democratisation process in Iraq the better it was for inherently undemocratic Arab regimes. Concerned though because the more havoc there is in Iraq the more headaches there will be for most Arab states, particularly Iraq's immediate neighbours.
The Arab reaction to a request by the Iraqi Interim Governing Council to take Iraq's seat in the Arab League in an upcoming meeting of Arab foreign ministers was used in the Arab press this week to assess Arab resolve and clarity of vision on the Iraqi question. While the newspapers of the North African Arab states declined to take a firm position on the matter, most newspapers of the Arab Gulf states expressed support, ranging from mild to strong, for the council to take Iraq's seat in the Arab League. Detractors of the request were conspicuous in newspapers, or at least columns, that had adopted a strong stance against the war in Iraq.
Abdel-Bari Atwan, the editor-in-chief of Al-Quds, was vocal in his criticism of the governing council's request. On 31 August, Atwan dedicated his column to calling on the council to pursue legitimacy within Iraq before asking for Arab legitimacy. "It is really amazing that the members of the council decided to embark on an Arab tour before touring governorates of Iraq first," he wrote.
A similar view was expressed by Egyptian commentator Mahmoud Mouawad in an article run by the London-based Al-Hayat. On 1 September, Mouawad expressed surprise that the Iraqi Governing Council was attempting to acquire legitimacy before it had any clear mandate.
Interviews with members of the council continued to provide a fair amount of copy on the Arab affairs pages of many a newspaper this week. Pro-council Kuwaiti papers provided hospitable platforms for the views of its members. On 28 August the daily Kuwaiti Al-Rai Al-Am published interviews with two members, Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, chair of the council in August, and Adnan Bachachi. Al-Jaafari told Al-Rai Al-Am that ending the US occupation of Iraq was not going to be decided according to a timetable but by the ability of the Iraqis to govern themselves effectively. "We hope we can reach this point sometime soon," Al-Jaafari said. To the surprise of nobody, Al-Jaafari voiced criticism of the militant attacks conducted by Iraqis against US forces. "These are no acts of resistance; this is simply sabotage," he said.
Bachachi argued that it was not the wish of the Americans to keep their troops in Iraq for long. "They do not want to... They want to withdraw as soon as possible, since their presence is both costly and threatens the lives of their soldiers," he said.
However, in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat on 1 September, Mahmoud Othman, another member of the Iraqi Governing Council, offered a slightly different perspective. Othman, who represents the Kurds in the council, suggested that the Americans were making mistakes. "The Americans have failed to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people," Othman said, adding that the Americans were interfering with the work of the council. "The council does not have a free hand in its decision-making because of the presence of American ruling partners... From the beginning the Americans wanted to rule Iraq by themselves," he added.
The Iraqi council was also the focus of stories dealing with its performance and composition. In Al-Hayat, on 1 September Wahid Abdel-Meguid, who had earlier expressed understanding of the war against Iraq, argued that the council had set an example in terms of political representation. Abdel-Meguid also saw an interesting development: the presence of communist and Muslim Brotherhood members in the council.
In addition to the killing of Baqir Al-Hakim and the Interim Governing Council, the Arab press carried several other news items on Iraq, including the story of an Iraqi couple who were so grateful to the US for toppling Saddam that they named their newborn George Bush Abdel-Qader Faris.
News from Palestine also carried terrifying images of bloodshed in the wake of Israeli raids on Palestinian cities aimed at hunting down presumed Islamist militants. However, it was the dispute within the Palestinian Authority that took up most of the space dedicated by the Arab press to Palestinian affairs. Both news stories and columns offered more questions than answers about the problematic relationship between Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, ostracised by the US, and Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas who enjoys Washington's support, and who would blink first. In addition, following Arafat's decision to choose Jebril Al-Rajoub as a security adviser, against the will of Washington, some newspaper writers suggested that a massive Israeli operation to undermine Arafat could be around the corner.
While commentators were warning about inter-Palestinian rivalries, journalists were interviewing members of both camps of the Palestinian equation to sound out their views about the future. For the most part, Palestinian officials were keen to stress the concept of national unity despite the obstacles. Members of the Arafat camp also seemed particularly keen to avoid coming across as espousing a pro-militant solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
In an interview with Al-Rai Al-Am, Rajoub argued that "the struggle of Hamas and Islamic Jihad is not an end in itself. It is a means to end the Israeli occupation. Once the occupation comes to an end nobody will even think about killing Jews."
Moreover, the Arab press kept an eye on the tension between Washington and Tehran, the attempts of Libya to return to the international fold by paying handsome compensations to the families of victims of its alleged bombing of commercial planes, and the determined attempts by France to underline its role as a shareholder in the Middle East.
Despite the problems in Iraq and Palestine, from the Gulf to North Africa, the Arab press did take time off to entertain readers with less distressing news. Most of the papers did not miss the opportunity to mark the sixth anniversary of the death of Princess Diana and her Egyptian companion Dodi Al-Fayed. And just as they speculated about who killed Al-Hakim, the Arab press also took turns guessing -- all over again -- as to what was the real cause behind the deaths of Diana and Al-Fayed. An official enquiry in Britain is to open in Al-Fayed's death.