European papers reacted to a Tuesday attack north of Basra that killed six British soldiers by focusing on Tony Blair and his so-called “dodgy dossier”—the report released in January that purportedly showed Saddam with weapons of mass destruction that presented a serious and potentially immediate threat to Britain. An Italian paper even predicted the issue would lead to Blair’s downfall.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw confessed that the dossier episode had been an “embarrassment” and said that it would have been better not to have published the report, parts of which had been plagiarized from a 12-year-old doctoral thesis, given the ammunition it has provided government critics. Straw gave his defense, which the Independent called “hardly in the Stalingrad class,” as news broke of the deadly attacks in southern Iraq. Along with other papers, the Independent has been stressing the importance of finding Saddam Hussein. On Monday, the paper wrote, “It ought to be embarrassing for a President who relies on gunslinger rhetoric that he has not been able to haul in the bodies of any of his very public enemies.”
Contradictory details of the deadly incident began to emerge Wednesday, as British officers issued a 48-hour ultimatum to city council members in the town of Amarah, where the attacks took place, to hand over the gunmen responsible. It was no ambush, two Iraqi policemen told the Associated Press: Armed men killed two British soldiers during a demonstration at the mayor’s office before storming a police station and killing four more after a two-hour gun battle. Blair, meanwhile, said the soldiers had been on a disarmament mission.
Southern Iraq, where British troops are in charge, has been relatively calm compared to the area north of Baghdad, where U.S. forces are still chasing resistant elements of the old regime. London papers have often praised British forces compared to the Americans, whom they seem to regard as poor imperialists with little patience for peacekeeping.
The Times, which supported Blair’s decision to go to war and called suggestions that Iraq had been better off under Saddam Hussein “ludicrous,” said Blair must hold his nerve and restate the case for war following Tuesday’s incident and the “dodgy dossier” fiasco: “Britain is and should be in Iraq for the long haul. Ministers must be honest about that fact and then hold their nerve.” The Times also speculated that Shiite radicals were responsible for the Amarah attack, whereas Saddam loyalists are the prime suspects for the incidents farther north.
Regardless of who’s to blame, the Daily Telegraph said the former Iraqi leader must be found: “Most urgently of all, the coalition needs to locate Saddam and his sons Uday and Qusay, whether they be dead or alive. It might need to make individual deals with leading captives to do so. The fact that father and sons have not been found is intimidating to Iraqis and encourages loyalists to continue looting, acts of sabotage and attacks. If these things do not happen, yesterday’s tragic events will not be the last of their kind.” The Guardian begged to differ. The left-leaning paper said George Bush’s “obsession with ‘catching Saddam’ … is not a solution. What is needed is a coherent plan to hand back Iraq to the Iraqis rather than the limping measures taken so far. Yesterday six British soldiers paid the tragic price for this ineptitude: it was too high and it should not have to happen.”
On the continent, Italy’s La Repubblica compared Tony Blair’s dilemma to that of Margaret Thatcher, who fell from power when her party abandoned her. The paper went out on a limb saying Blair will likely not be re-elected given the Labor Party rank-and-file’s disapproval of his pro-Washington stance. (Translation courtesy of Deutsche Welle radio.)
In a strongly worded editorial Wednesday, Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said the situation in Iraq is “precarious, unstable, and dangerous” and “miles away” from secure, despite President George W. Bush’s declaration of victory. The paper conceded that it’s pointless to disparage the quality of U.S. post-war planning, because even the best preparations might not have prevented the chaos, but, FAZ said, one thing is clear: NATO should have been involved from the beginning. “With hindsight, America made a grave mistake in depending only on ‘a coalition of the willing,’ ” the paper wrote. “It is a strange interpretation of the value of an alliance when one first ignores it in a very important conflict and then assigns the cleaning-up work to those who fail to clearly indicate how much energy and time they are willing to provide. There are no objections to reinstating NATO as the center for a Western security policy. But in that case NATO must play a bigger role than a mere repair shop for the world’s leading power.” (Translations via Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Deutsche Welle radio.)
On a more upbeat note, European papers east and west of the former Iron Curtain hailed EU leaders’ acceptance over the weekend of former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s draft constitution, even though important elements of that charter—such as which policy areas are subject to country vetoes—have yet to be hammered out. In Romania, Cotidianul said, “Although the European Council’s summit was unable to clarify the existing differences among member states on the future of the EU constitution, the Romanian government is already celebrating the summit’s decision to consider future EU enlargements as an irreversible process and to treat Romania’s accession on the same principles used in the last wave of EU accession.” (Translation courtesy of BBC Monitoring.) Romania and Bulgaria are now hoping to become full EU members in 2007. So are some Balkan countries, such as Croatia and Serbia-Montenegro, although their chances are dim indeed. (For a full run-down on the EU’s constitutional debate, see this BBC backgrounder.)