From Iraq to Gaza and the West Bank, Middle Eastern newspapers had trouble keeping track of the ambient violence on Monday morning, and headlines were largely determined by geographical proximity.
Saudi and other Gulf papers tended to focus on the violence in Iraq and the bomb attack Sunday against the office in Najaf of one Iraq’s senior Shiite clerics, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Said al-Tabataba’i Hakim. There was another big Iraqi story, however, and in a headline Kuwait’s Al-Watan paired it with the bomb attack: “Hakim escapes death and Saddam arrest.” While it was unclear who was behind the Najaf attack (a statement by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a leading Shiite group, blamed elements of the former Baath regime) it came at a time of violent discord between the established Shiite clergy of Najaf and the young firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Recently, Ayatollah Hakim declared that the clergy wanted to end the Anglo-American occupation through dialogue—a moderate statement in light of Sadr’s efforts to build up a military force known as the Army of the Mahdi to oust U.S. and British troops. The paper also described how a coalition spokesman had mentioned Saddam’s narrow escape from a Baghdad neighborhood. Saudi Arabia’s Al-Riyadh daily also led with the story and paraphrased a coalition statement on the botched job: “[American forces were] about to arrest Saddam Hussein, but were delayed in arriving at where he was located in the Harithiyya quarter after receiving information on his whereabouts.”
The London-based Saudi Al-Sharq al-Awsat also mentioned the attack against Hakim in its headline, over another statement: “[U.S. civil administrator L. Paul] Bremer Renews the Accusation That Combatants Are Arriving From Syria.” The paper cited an interview Bremer gave Fox News Sunday in which he remarked, “We’ve also seen foreign fighters coming across, particularly from Syria, and have captured or killed people with Saudi, Yemeni, or Syrian passports and travel documents [and] Sudanese travel documents.” The paper pointed to another emerging story—one particularly odd in light of Bremer’s harsh de-Baathification measures—namely that the United States has started a “secret campaign … to recruit and train hundreds of security and intelligence personnel [from Saddam’s former regime] to uncover those who have been carrying out attacks against coalition forces.”
Another London-based Saudi paper, Al-Hayat, used a double-deck headline to refer to the Hakim incident and also to another serious development the occupation administration will have to address: ethnic unrest between Iraq’s Kurdish and Turkmen minorities. The paper noted that weekend fighting between members of a Kurdish party and Turkmens (following a shooting incident in the town of Tuz Khurmatu) “moved from Kirkuk” in northern Iraq “to Ankara” in Turkey, where Turkish police prevented Turkmens from occupying the offices of the party—leading to dozens of injuries. Turkey has long defended Iraq’s Turkmens. However, in its Sunday edition, Al-Hayat predicted the fighting would weaken Turkish efforts to deploy its forces in northern Iraq, alongside the coalition, since it might lead to direct confrontations with Kurds, who have had troubled relations with Turkey.
Elsewhere in the region, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians continued, with many Levant papers leading with yesterday’s deadly Israeli helicopter attack in Gaza against four Hamas militants. Lebanon’s daily Al-Diyar showed a gruesome photo of men carrying the headless body of one of the victims under a triple-deck headline, which began, “Israel Pursues Its Assassination and Scorched Earth Policies and Refuses a Ceasefire.” According to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, one of the men was a senior official in Hamas’ military wing. The paper, citing Israel Radio, also recounted that “Hamas spitirual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin said before dawn Monday that Israel will pay the price for killing [the official].”
Papers also mentioned the growing divisions between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas over the appointment of a pro-Arafat general to head the Interior Ministry. Lebanon’s English-language Daily Star, under the headline “Palestinian Rifts Grow Over Control of Security Forces,” added, from a wire story, “Abbas, who controls only part of the security apparatus, with the bulk still in Arafat’s hands, rejected the idea of naming a new interior minister and reiterated his demand for complete control of all forces.” That Arafat is seriously upping the ante on Abbas was obvious in an article from the Palestinian daily Al-Quds, which reported that Arafat had appointed a former security chief (with whom he had also once quarreled) to be his national security adviser. His aim? To play the adviser off against Abbas’ powerful security affairs minister, Muhammad Dahlan, and ensure that he, Arafat, will not become politically irrelevant.