International Papers

Unsafe Territory

The latest on abductions of foreigners in Iraq.

The fighting in Iraq, including the kidnapping of more foreigners over the weekend, continued to be the main story in international papers, in particular the Middle Eastern press, despite a fragile calm on most Iraqi fronts Sunday.

The London-based Al-Hayat captured the weekend mood with a banner headline: “Exodus After the Consolidation of the Ceasefire in Falluja, Bush Recognizes the ‘Toughness’ of the Losses.” Another London-based Saudi paper, Al-Sharq al-Awsat, noted that the truce between the U.S. forces and Iraqi insurgents had been extended Sunday, but the paper also headlined news that the new Iraqi army refused to get involved in the fighting and that losses in Fallujah, the scene of the most aggressive fire fights, were estimated at 600 dead. On Monday, Al-Hayat reported that an aide to the latest American nemesis, the young Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, expressed “optimism” about the U.S. response to a plan proposed by Jawad al-Malki, an official of the Shiite Al-Daawa Party. Malki said the coalition had demanded in a written document the dissolution of Sadr’s Mahdi Army, respect for state institutions and the law, a withdrawal of Sadr’s forces from public buildings, and a return to order. He also noted: “Sadr received these demands positively, but also set conditions, demanding a withdrawal of [U.S.] forces preparing to attack Najaf [where he is located], guarantees [the Americans would] end the campaign of arrests, and allowing ‘nationalist forces’ to supervise the agreement.”

Several papers focused on the death toll from the fighting. Although London’s Guardian quoted U.S. officials as saying that most of the dead in Fallujah “were militants picked off with precision,” it also quoted a director of a Fallujah hospital, who claimed that “the vast majority of the dead were women, children and the elderly.” If the Americans are correct in that they killed mainly combatants, then there is hardly an armed man left alive in the city—at least if informal figures published in Al-Hayat are to be believed. The paper, citing Iraqi sources, estimated there were 600 combatants in the town, including Baathists, tribal fighters angered at American destruction of the area, and foreign militant Islamists.

Another hot issue is the growing number of foreigners abducted by Iraqis who oppose the coalition. Sunday saw the release of eight hostages (mostly Pakistani, Indian, and Turkish drivers) while seven Chinese citizens were captured near Fallujah. According to the English-language China Daily, “the captives were reportedly in good health.” They were released today. Meanwhile, Japan awaited news of three of its citizens, after their abductors allegedly said they would be released within 24 hours. The Japan Times noted that “a negotiator has told the Japanese government that they remain safe.” However, a person claiming to be a mediator told an Arab TV station the kidnappers would kill the hostages unless Japan pulled its troops out of Iraq. Japanese officials considered the man’s credibility “questionable,” but on Monday, when there was no news of a release, the mood in Tokyo (where U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney was visiting) was decidedly “downbeat,” according to the BBC. (Americans are also among the kidnapped.)

Have these recent events in Iraq been a huge setback for the United States? London’s Daily Telegraph thinks not. In a leader, the paper wrote that “the Shia and Sunni uprisings in Iraq turn out not to have been the Mesopotamian equivalent of the Tet offensive—the Viet Cong assaults of 1968 that led the American political elite to conclude that the war in Indochina was unwinnable.” Coalition forces have re-established control over several towns, the paper observed, and “the Shia masses did not rise up in support of … Sadr, who was conspicuously shunned by divines with much greater followings, such as Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.”

In an unsigned editorial, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, while suggesting the situation in Iraq was very dangerous, agreed. “[I]t is still too early to talk in apocalyptic terms about a collapse of authority in Iraq.” However, the paper suggested President George W. Bush could draw lessons from Iraq for the Palestinian situation—lessons he should impart to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, with whom he will meet this week: “Occupation is not the end of a war, but rather another phase—it is perhaps the toughest stage, since it involves war against civilians. Hence a local, national leadership is needed to continue the job.”