President Bush’s warning—issued following Sunday’s 45-minute Azores summit—that the world has reached a “moment of truth” led the major Middle East papers. All agreed that war is imminent.
Beirut’s left-wing daily Al-Safir described the Azores conclave as the “war summit,” while another Lebanese paper, Al-Anwar, led with the headline, “Bush’s Warning to Iraq and the Security Council Ends Today … War Tomorrow.” Most papers recorded Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s vow to fight “all over the world,” and both Al-Anwar and the London-based Al-Hayat published maps of the four Iraqi military districts Saddam created yesterday to defend against a U.S.-British offensive. Each will be run by a trusted henchman: The central district, which includes Baghdad and Tikrit, the Husseins’ stronghold, will be controlled by the president’s son Qusay; the northern district by the vice president of the Revolutionary Command Council, Izzat Ibrahim; the southeastern district, which includes the city of Basra, by Ali Hassan al-Magid, Saddam’s cousin and brutal enforcer; and the southwestern district by Mazban Khadr Hadi of the RCC. The four should show some fight, since at least three—Qusay, al-Magid, and Ibrahim—were on a list released by the United States Friday of officials who will be prosecuted for war crimes. While all have considerable authority, Saddam retains control over aircraft and ground-to-ground missiles—suggesting he alone decides on possible chemical and biological weapons use.
Most papers fudged over a difference at the Azores press conference between the Americans and the Europeans—namely Bush’s insistence on regime change in Iraq as a precondition for averting war. Instead, Al-Hayat highlighted an oddly sanguine statement by British Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, denying the Azores gathering was a declaration of war. In what seemed a deliberate effort to downplay bellicosity for domestic reasons, Brown noted that Britain would today examine with the United States whether it was possible to resolve the Iraqi crisis without resort to force. Syrian President Bashar Assad, meanwhile, had no doubts as to the inevitability of war. Both Al-Safir and Al-Anwar placed his surprise visit to Tehran on their front pages, with Al-Safir reproducing an Iranian news agency quote of Assad saying that “the United States would face disaster because of the resistance of the Iraqi people.”
As to when war will actually begin, Al-Hayat ran an intriguing front-page story warning that a powerful sandstorm was expected to hit the Kuwaiti desert Monday evening or Tuesday morning. The paper predicted it would create significant problems for U.S. military equipment, similar to those provoked by two other recent storms. This could delay an attack for several days, the paper suggested.
Many papers continued to highlight Bush’s Friday declaration that he will release the so-called “road map to peace” between Israel and the Palestinians. The statement was greeted with cynicism by supporters of the Palestinians, given the administration’s repeated efforts to delay announcement of the plan. In an unsigned editorial, Pakistan’s Dawn expressed the view of many when it wrote, “The move is clearly a sop to the Arab and Muslim world and a victory for beleaguered British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has long believed that U.S. re-engagement on the Israel-Palestine crisis is vital before any attack on Iraq and offers the key to appeasing the Arab world, not to mention his own domestic critics.” Tarek Massarwa, writing in Amman’s daily Al-Rai, was more scornful, “It is blatant that there is a price for releasing—just releasing—the road map, which the Palestinians will be made to pay for in advance, whether in changing their entity’s identity as envisaged in Oslo, or in sacrificing Palestinian social peace.”
The death of American Rachael Corrie, who was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer Sunday while trying to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home in the Gaza Strip, was mentioned in many regional newspapers. Al-Safir placed two photographs of Corrie’s final moments on its front page, describing the death as “a new Israeli crime.” While it is unclear whether the incident was an accident, Israel’s Ha’aretz conveyed the skepticism of one of Corrie’s associates from the pacifist International Solidarity Movement: “There’s no way [the driver] didn’t see her, since she was practically looking into the cabin.” This statement also appeared in the Jerusalem Post, though the paper also quoted an army spokesman as saying the bulldozer “has small windows and a limited field of vision, and [the driver] didn’t see the spot where the woman was standing.” Ha’aretz reported that Corrie was the first ISM casualty of the intifada, adding, “As non-Palestinians, they enjoy a certain measure of immunity.”
An interesting footnote to the Iraq crisis appeared in Beirut’s French-language L’Orient-Le Jour on Saturday. The paper described a speech by Hezbollah’s secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, where he stated: “I propose … that Muslims … stop using expressions … that can harm many Christians hostile to a war [in Iraq]. If the term ‘crusaders’ causes injury to Christians who oppose war, then we must search for a different terminology.” Nasrallah implicitly spoke to two current priorities of Hezbollah: its efforts inside Lebanon to strengthen relations with Christians at a time of regional change, and its desire to distance itself from a pervasive view in the Middle East (shared mainly by Sunni militant groups, not Shiites like Hezbollah) that an Iraq war represents a clash between Christians and Muslims. Nasrallah’s yearning? To forge “a qualitative, popular and official Muslim-Christian alliance against the American-Zionist project which seeks to plunge the world into chaos, destruction, war, humiliation, and corruption.”