The biblical proportions of the Asian tsunami catastrophe continued to make headlines in the international press on Wednesday, even as Arabic newspaper editors began returning their attention to the Middle East amid rising U.S.-Syrian tension over Lebanon and reports that some officials in Iraq are thinking of delaying parliamentary elections scheduled for the end of January.
Ten days after the Asian tsunami, the World Health Organization has warned, according to the French daily Le Monde, that the main danger now is the spread of diseases such as typhoid, dysentery, and cholera. WHO also estimated that some 500,000 people were injured by the monstrous waves and their destructive aftermath. To detect the outbreak of transmissible diseases, the organization “will set up in New Delhi a surveillance center [in the context of a] Global Outbreak Alert Response Network, which will be linked to hundreds of laboratories around the world.” A WHO official predicted that in addition to theestimated143,000 people killed by the tsunamis, 50,000 more might die because of disease.
As the breadth of the disaster becomes clearer, several papers focused on narrower stories, not all of them wretched. New Delhi’s the Times of India, citing the country’s Tribal Ministry, reported that the tsunami had “not been as big an anthropological disaster for primitive tribes of Andaman & Nicobar as was being feared. Jarawas, a heritage tribe, numbering around 270 are reported safe.” Still, the repercussions of the tsunami continue to pose a danger to the tribes, with 3,000 Nicobarese still missing, out of a population of 26,000. From Thailand, London’s Guardian described “one of the few moments of light relief in what has otherwise been a week of heart-rending loss, ghoulish encounters with death, and heroic self-sacrifice.” The paper was referring to the arrival at Phuket’s town hall of Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida, amid utter bewilderment as to who he was. When Bush, who was “bearing news of a $350m … U.S. contribution to the $2.5bn international relief effort” told a skeptical Australian tourist he was President Bush’s brother, the tourist jokingly shot back: “Oh. Good for you.”
“Good” is the last way one would describe the relationship between the Bush administration and Syria, following repeated accusations from Washington recently that Damascus was helping the Iraqi resistance, something the Syrians have denied. The standoff is now extending to Lebanon, from which the United States (in the framework of a U.N. Security Council resolution) is demanding that Syria withdraw its soldiers. The London-based Al-Hayat gave prominence to a story on how last week, while visiting Damascus, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage “warned the Syrian side against any action targeting the Lebanese opposition, [and added] that any such action would be Syria’s responsibility.” Meanwhile, Beirut’s English-language Daily Star reported that the U.S. ambassador in Lebanon said he hoped “that foreign forces will not interfere with Lebanon’s upcoming parliamentary elections.” With the Syrians and their allies facing an expanding, multi-religious opposition front in Lebanon that wants to end Syrian hegemony, a showdown is likely in the spring elections. Armitage’s statement harked back to the attempted assassination in Beirut last October of a former minister and now opposition figure (an attack in which Syrian officials were widely believed to have played a part), as there is growing concern that Syria will use violence to allay its slipping authority in Lebanon.
In Iraq, meanwhile, there is confusion over whether the interim Iraqi government wants to delay parliamentary elections. It fears that a widespread Sunni boycott, combined withambient violence (a bomb blew up outside a police academy today, and the governor of Baghdad was killed yesterday in an ambush, apparently by followers of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi), will undermine the legitimacy of the process. The London-based Iraqi newspaper Al-Zaman noted that the interim government “officially asked Egypt to intervene and persuade the Sunnis to participate in the elections and abandon a boycott … or, if [Sunnis] had a difficulty in doing so, [Egypt could] propose delaying [the elections].” Some Iraqi officials, however, remain adamant that the election will be held on time, though there clearly are differing views inside the interim government.
Kuwait’s Al-Rai al-Aam picked up the same thread in a piece titled: “Did Allawi and Bush Pave the Way for a Delay in Elections?” After recalling an alarming statement by a senior Iraqi intelligence official a few days ago that there probably were some 200,000 insurgents, the paper quoted analysts as saying that while U.S. officials still denied elections would be delayed, Allawi hadperhaps tried, in a telephone call he had with Bush two days ago, to lay the groundwork for such a contingency if the situation on the ground demanded it. The only problem is that that would anger Iraq’s Shiites. To drive this point home, in its Tuesday edition the Daily Star sported a front-page photograph of Shiite schoolgirls walking in front of a banner reading, “We refuse elections delay.”