Much of the Middle East press was taken up with the opening session of the Iraqi national conference in Baghdad yesterday. The conference will lead to the creation of a 100-member national assembly that will, in turn, help organize elections by January 2004. Thoughts of high governance were put aside, however, in the face of several obstacles: an effort by insurgents to shell the facility where delegates were meeting (killing two bystanders near the conference center), the renewal of fighting in Najaf, protests by participants against affairs in Najaf, and the refusal of key political actors to participate in the entire process.
An analysis piece in Lebanon's English language Daily Star noted that the two leading groups absent from the conference (the handiwork of the former U.N. envoy to Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi) were the movement of the young Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, which is fighting American and Iraqi forces in Najaf and elsewhere in Iraq, and the Muslim Clerics Association, a Sunni grouping also hostile to the United States. The article cited an analyst who saw a fundamental flaw in the political process: "The whole point of the Brahimi plan was to bring in the discontents. ... But the discontents have boycotted it and what's going on in Najaf will make it very difficult for the critics to come in."
The London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat was more positive. It reported that delegates (estimated at around 100 people) who were angry at developments in Najaf, both Shiites and non-Shiites, threatened to pull out of the conference altogether. However, "they soon returned to participate in its workings, in a sign that the conference, at which 1,300 people are present, may have successfully navigated through its first crisis." That optimism may be premature, however, since the three-day gathering, and its aftermath, will surely be severely buffeted by the winds of war coming from Najaf.
Indeed, there were conflicting reports about the prospects for a peaceful settlement in Najaf. While a delegation of protesters at the conference apparently managed to gain a commitment from the interim government of Ayad Allawi to keep open a dialogue with Sadr and delay an attack on the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, where he is reportedly holed up, by Monday morning an American and Iraqi assault seemed again imminent following a resumption of fighting on Sunday (in which three U.S. soldiers were among the dead). Another London-based paper, Al-Hayat, observed that the Allawi government had responded to "calls at the conference for a peaceful resolution in Najaf, but also renewed its demand that [Sadr's] Mahdi Army disarm without preconditions, leave the city [of Najaf] and the Imam Ali shrine, and participate in the political process."
As if the fighting in Najaf were not enough, the Iraqi daily Al-Zaman wrote that fighting in Falluja had killed 11 Iraqis and injured 23 others on Sunday, while an unconfirmed report suggested an American Chinook helicopter had been shot down (U.S. officials denied this). And to complicate things, there was a news item too late for the morning papers, but not for Arabic satellite stations such as Al Jazeera: American soldiers surrounded the Umm al-Qura mosque in Baghdad, which houses the Muslim Clerics Association, a day after it boycotted the national conference. According to a cleric at the mosque, quoting a guard who had dealt with the Americans, the "U.S. forces said they had orders to search the whole area, including the mosque, as they had come under several attacks originating from the area." Unlike Al Jazeera's English-language site, which quoted the cleric as saying "he had no doubts the U.S. forces had 'bad intentions,' " the Arabic-language site was more neutral; there he only declared "the situation is unclear."
On its front page, Al-Hayat had an important off-lead story, this time related to Iraq's neighbor Iran, under the headline: "Tehran: Israeli Installations Are Within Range of Our Missiles." The threat came in a statement yesterday by a senior official in the Revolutionary Guards that Iran was "capable of hitting all nuclear and military installations in Israel, in the event Iranian territory and installations were attacked by Israel." This came amid growing anxiety in the Middle East that Israel may try to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities in order to prevent it from developing atomic weapons. It also came just days after the Iranians said they had successfully tested a Shehab-3 missile, which has a range of up to 1,700 kilometers. The Revolutionary Guards, which is among the most radical institutions in Iran, were recently given Shehab-3s.
A fitting coda to the missile story came from the Olympic Games in Athens. According to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, the Iranian judoka and world champion Arash Mir-Esmaeili forfeited his match with an Israeli opponent rather than compete against someone from a country Iran doesn't recognize. The paper added the orders probably came from Tehran. Mir-Esmaeili may face sanctions, since politics are not valid as a reason to boycott matches. Iran's Olympic Committee didn't make things easier for the athlete by issuing a statement saying: "It is Iranian policy to avoid competition with athletes from the Zionist entity. Mir-Esmaeili acted according to that policy." Though the judoka will get $115,000 * as compensation from the Iranian government, it could be one payoff he would surely have preferred to earn the hard way, through Olympic gold.
Correction, Aug. 16, 2004:Due to a typo, this story originally stated that judoka Arash Mir-Esmaeili will receive $15,000 from the Iranian government. In fact, Ha'aretz reports that he will receive $115,000.