Stories derived from the weekend’s U.S. media dominated the leading Arabic newspapers Monday. An exception was a piece in the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat suggesting U.S. forces had spotted former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his youngest son Qusai. (The paper did not explain why U.S. forces didn’t capture—or kill—Saddam and his clan.) According to an anonymous Kurdish source cited by Al-Sharq al-Awsat, in the past three days the Americans have intensified their search in rural areas near Tikrit for Saddam, Qusai, Abed Hammoud (Saddam’s onetime personal secretary), and up to 15 other men. The fugitives have purportedly donned traditional Arab garb to escape detection. The source also said that Saddam’s cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as “Chemical Ali,” was not killed in Basra, but is “moving through towns and tribal encampments near the Syrian border.” An Iraqi National Congress source was quoted in the same story saying that former Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf was living at his aunt’s house in the Mansour district of Baghdad. This seems to be no secret in the city, since assailants reportedly stoned the house two nights ago.
Al-Sharq al-Awsat also led with a report splashed in Britain’s Sunday Times suggesting that between August 1999 and November 2002, Iraq’s intelligence services had ties with three unnamed employees at the Qatari satellite TV station Al Jazeera—two cameramen and an official in the “external relations” department. The Iraqis allegedly used the relationships to shape the station’s coverage of news about Iraq. The Times story was based on intelligence documents found in Baghdad by the Iraqi National Congress and passed on to a reporter at the paper. Skepticism is in order since the INC is hardly a neutral purveyor of information, given its hostility toward Al Jazeera. What’s more, the charges are less important than they were played up to be. They did not suggest an Iraqi-Al Jazeera connection after the outbreak of war (information the INC would surely have publicized had it been available), when coverage was more crucial. The disclosures about the Al Jazeera official were also fairly trivial: He is said to have handed the Iraqis copies of two letters sent by Osama Bin Laden to the satellite station, and he apparently helped get individuals expressing the Iraqi viewpoint invited onto some shows. Given Al Jazeera’s sympathies, that was hardly a feat. Arguably, the most remarkable thing was that only three Al Jazeera staffers were on the take, since wealthy Arab governments routinely buy influence in media outlets.
Influence is at the heart of another story preoccupying the Arab press, namely the abrupt change in the U.S. team overseeing postwar Iraq. After news that L. Paul Bremer would replace retired Gen. Jay Garner, Monday’s papers noted that Barbara Bodine, the official responsible for Baghdad, will also leave Iraq soon. Beirut’s English-language Daily Star picked up on a Washington Post story when it reported that Bodine received her marching orders “in a late-night call on a phone that had been installed hours before.” The article suggested that one reason for Garner’s and Bodine’s ouster was the slow pace of reconstruction. The front page of Beirut’s Al-Mustaqbal, owned by Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, quoted the head of Kuwait’s Red Crescent (the Arab equivalent of the Red Cross) saying he had warned the International Committee of the Red Cross weeks ago of a cholera outbreak in southern Iraq, but the ICRC preferred to wait until the situation quieted down before reacting, wasting valuable time. There was an interesting subtext to the story: Hariri and the Kuwaitis have just reconciled after quarreling over Lebanese opposition to the Iraq war, and publication of the story represented an olive branch from Hariri.
Many Arabic papers highlighted a Saturday Newsweek-Washington Post interview with Syrian President Bashar Assad. The interview came a week after Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Syria, and while Powell was in Israel and the Palestinian territories to get the “road map” to peace off the ground. A headline in Lebanon’s Al-Nahar Sunday focused on the little Assad said about Lebanon: “Assad Ties a Pullout From Lebanon to a Peace Settlement and a Full Israeli Withdrawal [from occupied Arab lands].” The pro-Syrian Al-Diyar preferred to stress Syrian backing for Damascus-based Palestinian groups the United States considers terrorist organizations: “Support for the Palestinian Movements Is Tied in to [an Israeli] Withdrawal From the Golan.”
Intriguingly, none of the major Arabic papers picked up on Assad’s statement that he would resume talks with Israel based on the principles of the Madrid conference—the 1991 conclave that kicked off Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. This suggests Syria will not demand as a precondition Israeli acceptance of intermediate understandings reached between the two countries after 1991, several of which were to Syria’s advantage. This was a major concession from Assad, exposing his desire to avoid being the last one to negotiate with Israel if the “road map” succeeds.