International Papers

Baghdad Götterdämmerung?

U.S. and British military setbacks in the Iraqi towns of Nasiriya and Umm Qasr were the lead in most Middle Eastern media Monday, with many papers showing TV stills of U.S. soldiers captured by the Iraqis.

Beirut’s moderately pro-Syrian Al-Diyar captured the mood in the region with the main headline: “And on the Fifth Day, the Picture Was Reversed in Favor of the Iraqi Resistance.” The London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat led with: “Iraq Confronts Tank Attacks in Basra and Embarrasses Washington by Showing [U.S.] Prisoners.” It placed this over a photo of a U.S. POW, and over another shot of a missing Lebanese translator, Hussein Othman, who was with ITN correspondent Terry Lloyd when he was killed, reportedly after his car was hit by British artillery fire. The paper also mentioned that the new U.S. civil administrator for Iraq, Gen. Jay Garner, was left cooling his heels in Kuwait.

Meanwhile, the normally restrained Lebanese press has become increasingly combative. This was plain when, in a special Sunday edition, the left-wing Al-Safir led on the headline: “The American Missiles of ‘Freedom’ Kill the Children of Basra.” This came over a gruesome photo (taken from Qatar’s Al Jazeera) of a dead child with half his head blown away, allegedly the result of a U.S. attack Saturday. The European news station Euronews confirmed the child had died in Basra, though it also refused to show footage of the body.

The big news Monday was the appearance on Iraqi television of Saddam Hussein, significantly without the thick glasses he wore when reading a statement broadcast after the outbreak of hostilities last week. Real or fake, Saddam declared Iraq would be victorious against coalition forces. Saddam’s appearance seemed to contradict suggestions by U.S. officials that the Iraqi leader might have died in the “decapitation attack” last Wednesday. With the war generating mounds of information, it is hard to distinguish accurate news from journalistic errors or military propaganda. For example, on Sunday Al Jazeera interviewed Gen. Hashemi, the commander of Iraq’s 51st Division, who the coalition said had surrendered to them. Hashemi denied this and thus did something remarkable: He proved an Iraqi information minister could tell the truth. Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf had earlier described reports of Hashemi’s surrender as a lie.

Kuwait’s daily Al-Rai al-Aam turned its attention to the southern city of Basra, whose capture was a key coalition objective before the war began, until the likelihood of bloody street battles induced U.S. and British commanders to avoid entering the city just yet. In a front-page story citing Iraqi civilians as sources, the paper pointed out that Iraqi soldiers withdrew from their positions along the Iranian border and moved into Basra. The civilians said “the army [in the city] has tens of thousands of soldiers, light tanks, 155 mm canons, and Stalin’s organs [Soviet multiple rocket launchers], and [it] has built a network of canals filled with oil that they will light in the event of [coalition] advances, meaning the battle will not be at all easy and may last for days.”

A piece in the London-based Al-Hayat proposed an interesting angle to the scenario of a Baghdad Götterdämmerung. The paper noted that two columns of U.S. forces were moving from the south toward the Iraqi capital and would probably meet in the coming hours in Kerbala—a town holy to Shiites because it is where Hussein, the son of Imam Ali, was killed by a superior Sunni Ommayad force in 680. While Saddam’s is a Sunni regime, the symbolism of the locale, which is associated with heroism against greater odds, led the paper to write, “Analysts [believe it possible] that the Iraqi regime intends to turn Kerbala into the major area of confrontation [against U.S. forces], since it captures the spirit of the Iraqi regime, which aspires to inject [both] Islamic and Arab meaning and resonance into its war against the United States.” If Al-Hayat is right, then a secular Sunni-led regime will have co-opted Shiite religious symbolism—surely one of the more bizarre features of this war.

Oddly, several Arabic papers banished reports of worldwide anti-war demonstrations to their inside pages. Still, there were demonstrations, and Al-Sharq al-Awsat published photos from protests in Sydney, Cairo, Oman, Bahrain, Toronto, San Francisco, and Tripoli, Lebanon. The paper, which is also printed in Beirut, ran a story predicting Lebanon would see a “week of demonstrations” and a front-page report that the U.S. ambassador in Beirut has asked the authorities to sanction the country’s information minister, who has been highly critical of U.S. behavior. Lebanon is hardly the most militant of Arab countries, so growing popular mobilization there underlined the extent of Arab resentment elsewhere in the region.

Arab papers often run vague, unsourced news briefs on their inside pages. Once decoded, these are, strangely enough, occasionally accurate. In its “Today’s Secret” brief Monday, Al-Diyar recounted, “Banking sources say several billion dollars have entered the Lebanese banking system in the past 10 days, and the money mostly comes from Arab countries.” If the story is true, it can be read as meaning that Iraqis and Gulf Arabs spirited their capital away to Beirut. It would also mean the unhappiness of some can lead to the happiness of others.