The attack against the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, was too late for print editions of international papers on Monday morning, though a number of newspaper Web sites put up “breaking news” accounts. Meanwhile, the press was taken up with another Middle East story, namely the fact that just under two months before Iraqi legislative elections are scheduled to take place, and amid escalating attacks against Iraqi and American forces, a senior United Nations official expressed doubts as to whether voting could take place under present conditions—even as Iraq’s interim president insisted it would.
By midafternoon Saudi time on Monday, it appeared that the consulate attack was over. CNN International quoted Saudi Information Ministry sources as saying that five gunmen had participated in the attack, and that three were killed and two injured. A Bush administration official said al-Qaida was suspected of being responsible. Major Arabic Web sites (including Saudi newspapers) were slow in putting the details up, though London’s Times had earlier reported that a group of gunmen infiltrated the consulate and set the building on fire with grenades. It quoted Reuters as saying that “four Saudi guards had been killed and 18 local staff in the building taken hostage.” The paper added that “[a]round 200 Saudi police and national guards sealed off the area around the U.S. mission” as they fought to secure the consulate building. Later reports from AP stated that five non-American staffers were killed in the attack. No Americans were killed or seriously harmed.
On Iraq, the major news item over the weekend was that the U.N. adviser on Iraqi affairs, Lakhdar Ibrahimi, declared to a Dutch newspaper (as quoted on Sunday by the Arabic daily Al-Hayat), that Iraq’s “elections are not a magic potion, but part of the political process; it is imperative to prepare for them in a proper way, and for them to take place at the proper time to achieve the desired objectives.” The statement came as attacks in Iraq continued unabated, killing 70 people in the last 36 hours, and amid fears that the situation in the northern city of Mosul is getting out of hand. Sunni insurgents there are targeting Kurdish militiamen, as well as the usual turntable of Iraqi officials and National Guardsmen. The fear among analysts is that such examples of inter-communal hostility will only escalate if the U.S. and Iraqi authorities insist on holding elections on time.
Not everybody shared this view. The Saudi Al-Sharq al-Awsat noted on Monday that Iraq’s interim president, Ghazi al-Yawar, said in Washington yesterday, before his meeting today with President George W. Bush, that elections would go ahead on schedule. He also made the prediction that American forces might pull out of Iraq within a year: “We’re talking about months, I don’t know, six to eight months; I don’t think it will last years; certainly not.” However, the chances of this happening were qualified by a statement on Saturday from the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. John Abizaid, who implied that the pace of buildup of an effective Iraqi force was lagging. Abizaid said that as a consequence, more U.S. forces were needed to allow elections to go ahead.
Yawar’s statement on the election deadline was significant, since the president is a Sunni Muslim and leader of a large, mostly Sunni tribe. The argument of those advising delay is that a Sunni boycott would make the entire January contest illegitimate and might exacerbate sectarian strife. In contrast, many in the Shiite community are already preparing for elections, and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani is said to be overseeing the preparation of a multi-communal candidates slate. However, there is apparently a significant holdout: On Monday Al-Hayat paraphrased one of the aides of the young Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr as saying that “many efforts had failed to persuade Sadr to participate in the elections.” This could, however, be a ploy by Sadr, as different Iraqi groups continue to bargain over their share in a possible coalition slate of candidates.
Elections or no elections, Iraq has apparently done little damage to Teflon Don Rumsfeld, who will remain at the Pentagon for part of the second Bush term. The London Times observed that the announcement was made Friday “when almost everybody had gone home for the weekend,” suggesting how controversial the decision was. (As if to confirm this, the International Herald Tribune printed a wire service brief that Sen. John McCain had declined to endorse Rumsfeld.) The Times said that the announcement put an end to months of speculation on Rumsfeld’s future, adding: “White House officials made clear that they did not expect Mr. Rumsfeld to serve the full second term, but hinted that his lease extension would be longer than a few months—perhaps through most of 2006.” There were three reasons, it hypothesized, why the secretary had stayed on: that you don’t change a defense secretary during wartime; that Rumsfeld had to complete his project to transform the U.S. military into a “lighter, more agile and technologically sophisticated fighting force”; and that this showed how Bush had no intention of deviating from the policies of his first administration.