One word explains why the United States, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union have obliged themselves to sit on their hands, while Russia’s defends its citizens, and national interests, in the Caucasus, and liberates Georgians from the folly of their unpopular president, Mikheil Saakashvili. That word is Kosovo.
Russia sent troops into the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia to take on Georgian troops that had advanced into the territory. Four days of heavy fighting have seen thousands of casualties and the Georgian forces withdrawing. Russian troops were reported on Monday to be continuing fighting in parts of Georgia, including around the capital Tbilisi.
Eight hundred years of Caucasian history explain why Saakashvili has brought such destruction and ignominy on his countrymen over the past few days. Queen Tamar, the greatest of the Georgian sovereigns (1184-1213), is responsible for the habit Georgian rulers have displayed for the past millennium of treating neighboring Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ossetia and the Black Sea coast of Turkey as protectorates. But as Tamar also taught her countrymen, Georgian ambition always runs out of gas when the neighbors prove to be just as ambitious, richer or tougher.
As the bloody military mismatch between Russia and Georgia unfolded over the past three days, even the main players were surprised by how quickly small border skirmishes slipped into a conflict that threatened the Georgian government and perhaps the country itself.
Several American and Georgian officials said that unlike when Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979, a move in which Soviet forces were massed before the attack, the nation had not appeared poised for an invasion last week. As late as Wednesday, they said, Russian diplomats had been pressing for negotiations between Georgia and South Ossetia, the breakaway region where the combat flared and then escalated into full-scale war.
“It doesn’t look like this was premeditated, with a massive staging of equipment,” one senior American official said. “Until the night before the fighting, Russia seemed to be playing a constructive role.”
The past week’s events in South Ossetia are bound to shock and pain anyone. Already, thousands of people have died, tens of thousands have been turned into refugees, and towns and villages lie in ruins. Nothing can justify this loss of life and destruction. It is a warning to all.
The roots of this tragedy lie in the decision of Georgia’s separatist leaders in 1991 to abolish South Ossetian autonomy. This turned out to be a time bomb for Georgia’s territorial integrity. Each time successive Georgian leaders tried to impose their will by force — both in South Ossetia and in Abkhazia, where the issues of autonomy are similar — it only made the situation worse. New wounds aggravated old injuries.
Nevertheless, it was still possible to find a political solution. For some time, relative calm was maintained in South Ossetia. The peacekeeping force composed of Russians, Georgians and Ossetians fulfilled its mission, and ordinary Ossetians and Georgians, who live close to each other, found at least some common ground.
Taliban fighters forced Pakistani soldiers to retreat from a militants’ stronghold near the border with Afghanistan over the weekend, after a three-day battle sent civilians fleeing from government airstrikes.
The pullback from Bajaur, an area of Pakistan’s tribal region where the Taliban and Al Qaeda have forged particularly close ties, came after the military began an offensive there late last week.
Military spokesmen said 6 soldiers had been killed, though the Pakistani Taliban put the number at 22. It was unclear how many civilians had died.
Iraq’s foreign minister insisted Sunday that any security deal with the United States must contain a “very clear timeline” for the departure of U.S. troops. A suicide bomber struck north of Baghdad, killing at least five people including an American soldier.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters that American and Iraqi negotiators were “very close” to reaching a long-term security agreement that will set the rules for U.S. troops in Iraq after the U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year.
Zebari said the Iraqis were insisting that the agreement include a “very clear timeline” for the withdrawal of U.S.-led forces, but he refused to talk about specific dates.
Moqtada al-Sadr has taken yet another step in an attempt to transform his Mahdi Army militia from a force intent on battling US soldiers into a much broader social and political network that can still hold sway in the shifting landscape of Iraq.
During Friday prayers in Sadr City, clerics read instructions from the young anti-American leader ordering his militiamen to join a new religious and cultural wing of the movement that he is calling the Momahidoun, or “those who pave the way.”
The move comes just months after Mr. Sadr’s movement was dealt a serious blow in springtime battles with both American and Iraqi forces in Baghdad and Basra that ended when Sadr called off his fighters after the deaths of hundreds of his followers and innocent Iraqis.
“The Mahdi Army is in a real crisis,” says Abdul Kareem al-Mohmedawi, a native of Sadr City and deputy editor of Al-Jamaher, a liberal newspaper in Baghdad. “There is a weapons shortage and a shortage of volunteers.”
For the second time in four years, Ahmed Qurei, the chief Palestinian negotiator with Israel and a former prime minister, has wielded what can best be described as the bi-national weapon.
In a closed-door meeting on Sunday night with top Fatah leaders, Mr Qurei, a stalwart of the PLO, told those assembled that while the current round of negotiations was serious this did not mean that agreement was in sight.
In fact, he said, in remarks that were repeated in a subsequent statement issued by his office, “if Israel will not support our choice of an independent Palestinian state in the occupied territories including East Jerusalem, then the alternative demand of the Palestinian people and leadership will be a bi-national state”.
His remarks would appear to be a bargaining gambit as Palestinian-Israeli negotiations perhaps enter a crucial phase.