American warnings to Syria captured the headlines in the Arab press Monday, though many papers also front-paged the struggle between leading Shiite clerics in the holy city of Najaf, a topic that serves as a reminder of the hornet’s nest the United States faces in postwar Iraq.
The Anglo-American invasion of Iraq undermined the supremacy of the country’s Sunni minority, allowing the majority Shiites to aspire to increased political power. Because the Shiite religious establishment in Najaf has great influence over its flock, the clergy have significant clout, and inter-clerical rivalry may be behind the assassination of Ayatollah Abdel Majid al-Kho’i by unknown assailants at the Imam Ali mosque last week. The London-based Al-Hayat reported on the latest turn of events in Najaf, after a Kuwaiti Shiite cleric declared Sunday that armed men had surrounded the home of the influential Grand Ayatollah Sistani, instructing him to leave Iraq within 48 hours. Accusatory eyes turned to 22-year-old Hodjatoleslam Muqtada Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr, the son of a prominent cleric killed by Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1999. The paper quoted Shiite sources as also holding “the partisans of Muqtada al-Sadr responsible for the killing of … Kho’i and other officials in last Thursday’s massacre.” Sadr’s representatives denied this, but Kho’i, who headed a wealthy family foundation and was close to the Anglo-American coalition, would have been a rival of Sadr’s in Najaf politics. His death was a setback for the United States and Britain.
Several statements Sunday by U.S. officials, including President George W. Bush, showed no letup in the pressure on Syria. Beirut’s daily Al-Nahar expressed the gist of the president’s message in its headline “Bush Calls for Cooperation From Damascus and Accuses It of Possessing Chemical Weapons.” Bush demanded that the Syrian regime cease harboring former Iraqi officials—a charge the Syrians have denied. On Sunday it was reported that Watban al-Takriti, Saddam’s half-brother, had been caught trying to flee to Syria. Israel, meanwhile, sought to turn Syria’s predicament into political capital. The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has set two conditions on Syria’s behavior: “[It] must lift the threat of Hezbollah attacks against Israel and expel the leaders of [Palestinian] terrorist organizations from Damascus.” Washington backs these aims, even if U.S. officials have not threatened military action to back them up. As Ben Caspit, a commentator in Israel’s Ma’ariv, wrote, “No, the Americans are not planning to invade Syria, but they can hurt it and make it bleed in ways the Damascus regime will not be able to withstand.”
With heavy fighting in Iraq nearing an end, U.S. officials are feeding the media their spin on the war, but little has emerged from the Iraqi side. On Monday the Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal led with a description of Baghdad’s fall by Iraqi army officer Maj. Amer Ahmad. He described horrific casualty tolls but also a lack of central control over Iraq’s military operations. This led him to believe a “bargain” had been struck “to save the head of Saddam Hussein.” He pointed to a story circulating in the army that a Saddam aide, Gen. Sufyan Jgheib, “used an American Apache helicopter to visit units of the Republican Guard in Baghdad and ask them not to fight.” The belief in a U.S.-Saddam deal is widely held in the Middle East, serving to explain why Baghdad fell almost without a fight but also bolstering a prevailing conspiracy theory that Saddam was an American agent.
Attention again turned to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas prepared to announce his Cabinet. Yasser Arafat rejected Abbas’ list, delaying the announcement, because, as Ha’aretz put it, he did not want to “make former Preventive Security chief in Gaza, Mohammed Dahlan, a minister of state for internal affairs, in charge of the Preventive Security forces.” The delay could also further postpone publication of the so-called “road map” to peace, the final shape of which is being fought over by the Israelis and Palestinians, but also by the “Quartet” members sponsoring it, namely the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations. According to a story in Sunday’s Al-Hayat, which cited Israeli sources, the United States has agreed to integrate Israeli reservations into the plan. This could anger other Quartet members who want to see the plan issued in much the same form as it was discussed. Among the more controversial Israeli demands are a prior Palestinian commitment to abandon a “right of return” to Israel for their refugees, a continuation of Israeli settlement building, and a statement that Israel will not have to withdraw to the 1967 borders as the Palestinians demand.