The international press was alive with Middle East-related stories on Sunday and Monday, including reports of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s use of a bad word, American admonitions to Syria, and the horrendous death toll in fighting in Iraq, including the on-air death of a journalist.
London’s weekly Observer reported that a “furious row” had broken out over the claim in a book published by BBC broadcaster James Naughtie that Powell had referred to several Bush administration colleagues as “fucking crazies” in summer 2002, during the build-up to war in Iraq. The paper noted that “the ‘crazies’ are said to be Vice-President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz.” The secretary’s outburst was allegedly made during a telephone conversation with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. Both Powell and Straw contacted Naughtie’s American publisher (who will be quoting the phrase on the book jacket) to “say they would vigorously deny the claims if publication went ahead.” The paper observed that “as no legal action was threatened, the U.S. launch of the book, The Accidental American: Tony Blair and the Presidency, will proceed as planned this week.” Naughtie was said to be “privately delighted” with the furor. The real story, though, is why it should matter. Two of the “crazies” famously used the F-word publicly in recent times and didn’t even bother to attach it to an alleviating noun. Powell should copyright the phrase and award Naughtie the Department of State Medal.
While Powell was denying, one of his deputies, Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, was doing some affirming—in Damascus, with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Saturday meeting was important because it was the most senior contact between American and Syrian officials since passage 10 days ago of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which the United States co-sponsored and which calls on Syria (though Syria isn’t mentioned directly) to withdraw its forces from Lebanon and respect Lebanese sovereignty.
Reports of the encounter have varied in tone. Sunday, the leading Lebanese daily Al-Nahar headlined: “Burns Transmits a Strong Message to Assad: Now is the Time to End Intervention [in Lebanese Affairs] and to Withdraw [Syrian] Forces.” By Monday, Beirut’s Al-Safir implied the mood was friendlier, amid signs Washington and Damascus would resume a high-level dialogue when Powell meets with his Syrian counterpart at the United Nations in 10 days, on the margins of the annual General Assembly reunion. The London-based Al-Hayat quoted a Syrian source as saying the U.S.-Syrian rapport had moved from “a dialogue of the deaf to one of constructive association.” The Syrians have played up the idea that the United States is seeking Syrian cooperation on Iraq, but that is just Assad’s way of highlighting areas of potential convergence so the Bush administration won’t press him on Lebanon. Indeed, many Lebanese fear Washington will all too readily trade off their country’s sovereignty for greater Syrian assistance in Iraq.
In Iraq assistance may well be needed after an especially bloody Sunday. Over 40 people were killed in street battles in Baghdad, and almost 60 died nationwide following a wave of attacks that included car bombs, gunfire, and the launching of rockets and mortar rounds against the Green Zone housing Iraqi ministries and the U.S. Embassy. The London-based Al-Sharq al-Awsat tried to put a positive spin on things by quoting interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who said yesterday, “There will be a qualitative leap as of next month” in the ability of the Iraqi military and security services to impose security. He also said that “12 regiments will be deployed in all the governorates of Iraq.” This was good news and may well be true, but against the backdrop of the ambient carnage, it sounded positively Panglossian.
According to France’s Le Monde, the Unity and Jihad movement of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for the attacks. The paper also said there were several casualties when, “according to witnesses, an American helicopter fired on a group of Iraqis gathered around the burning remains of an armored vehicle that was … the target of a bomb attack.” The U.S. military says it did so to ensure that the technology of the Bradley fighting vehicle wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands. One of those killed was Mazen al-Tumeizi, a Palestinian correspondent of the Saudi satellite TV station Al-Arabiya. London’s Telegraph described his final moments after he was hit while filing a report live: “Tumeizi was describing the incident on camera when two helicopter gunships were seen flying down the street and opening fire. Tumeizi was hit by a bullet and doubled over, shouting: ‘I’m dying, I’m dying.’ ” Alas, he was absolutely right.