Middle East papers on the war.

Middle East papers on the war.

Middle East papers on the war.

What the foreign papers are saying.
March 31 2003 12:21 PM

Pin Rummy

It was a bad weekend for U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whom some generals have blamed for the stalled military advance on Baghdad because of a lack of manpower and supplies. Seymour Hersh's article in The New Yorker, as well as other reports, suggested that Rumsfeld had overruled war planners in their efforts to dispatch a larger force to the Gulf.

Beirut daily Al-Safir picked up on the row in its headline "Generals Accuse Rumsfeld of Involving the Army in a 'Tragedy.' " It placed this over a story that stated, "[C]learly, the American and British land offensive against Iraq will halt 'for weeks,' despite official American denials." The leading Lebanese daily Al-Nahar offered a more neutral headline: "Controversy at the Pentagon Over Responsibility for Immobility in Iraq—Rumsfeld Defends Himself: 'Franks Prepared the Plan … Which Continues.' " The paper published a story from its Washington correspondent in which he predicted, "Rumsfeld will be the scapegoat if things get worse." Meanwhile, the defense secretary received a broadside from Britain, where the Sunday Mirror ran a scathing comment from former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who recalled U.S. promises of an easy war and wrote, "Having marched us up this cul-de-sac, Donald Rumsfeld has now come up with a new tactic. Instead of going into Baghdad we should sit down outside it until Saddam surrenders."

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In Egypt's English-language Al-Ahram Weekly, Omayma Abdel-Latif suggested that the Iraqi opposition might have been behind the Bush administration's overconfidence. She said that Leith Kubba, an Iraqi analyst, placed "the brunt of the blame … on some sections of the Iraqi opposition, particularly those associated with the [Iraqi] National Congress which, he says, have 'misled their US contacts.' " Iraqi academic Kamil al-Mahdi agreed, saying, "The fact that the opposition in exile miscalculated the strength of the Iraqi resistance is strong proof of how they have lost touch with reality in Iraq."

Several Middle East papers focused on the arrival in Iraq of Arabs wanting to fight against U.S. and British forces. The London-based Al-Hayat reported an Iraqi claim that over 4,000 volunteers had turned up, adding that the Palestinian Islamic Jihad had announced "the arrival of the vanguard of its suicide bombers" in Baghdad. This dovetailed with Rumsfeld's statements last Friday accusing Syria of supplying Iraq with military equipment and opening its border to anti-coalition combatants. The United States is worried about suicide attacks similar to the one that killed four soldiers Saturday, but more generally it wants to avoid becoming the object of a jihad as happened to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Al-Safir showed how difficult this might be, disclosing it was an Egyptian man angry at the invasion of Iraq who drove his truck into a group of American soldiers at a military camp in Kuwait yesterday, injuring 15. The story underlined that "initial reports sought to downplay the importance of the event," and many papers failed to mention the perpetrator's nationality.

One of these was the Saudi Riyadh Daily, whose editor, Ridah Larry, nevertheless corroborated that many Arabs regard the war in Iraq as an anti-Muslim crusade. On Monday he wrote: "It is difficult to believe that Washington's previous war against Afghanistan and the current war against Iraq were only a result of the terror attacks of 9/11. American plots against Muslims have been hatched before the events of 9/11." Larry somehow saw Richard Nixon as the source of alleged American hostility to Islam and observed, "America is actually trying to undermine the Muslims and the Muslim world, so as to have an upper hand in the entire world."

With the Gulf War continuing, little attention has been paid to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. That was remedied Sunday when a suicide bomb attack in the Israeli town of Netanya injured more than 50, an event the Syrian daily Teshreen linked to the Palestinian commemoration of Land Day—a day of protest marking discrimination against Israeli-Arabs. The paper called the attack a "martyrdom operation," which Islamic Jihad claimed was "a gift" to the Iraqi people. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke yesterday before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported, "[H]e got a standing ovation when he declared there must be 'an end of violence as a political tool' against Israel." But he also insisted, "Settlement activity by Israel is inconsistent with President Bush's two-state vision" embodied in the so-called "road map" peace plan that the administration will release soon, though many in the region doubt its effectiveness.

Finally, on Saturday Al-Nahar pondered what the situation in Iraq means for Lebanese Shiite leaders. One prospect is that an Iraq freed of Saddam will replace Iranas a source of religious and political inspiration to Shiites (Arab Iraq is arguably more central to Shiite history than Persian Iran). Al-Nahar suggested inspiration may flow the other way as well since many Iraqis have expressed "great esteem" for Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and for the Iraqi-educated cleric Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, both of whom oppose the ongoing war. The two men, who are rivals, understand that with Saddam gone, Iraqi Shiites will gain the upper hand, so their influence in Iraq is bound to expand, too.