The Middle East Muck

The Middle East Muck

The Middle East Muck

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Feb. 21 2002 5:40 AM

The Middle East Muck

The Wall Street Journal tops its world-wide newsbox with President Bush's arrival in China and his plan to push the country to "keep its promise" (WSJ's words) not to sell equipment that can be used to build weapons of mass destruction. (The WP, though, in a story it fronts, says the two countries "failed to reach a long-sought deal limiting Chinese sales of weapons technology.") In its second paragraph, the WSJ adds that Bush will "likely strike an amiable tone," since relations with China have warmed after Sept. 11. The Los Angeles Times also leads with Bush's visit, but emphasizes that the two countries agreed to expand contacts, including a trip to the United States by China's president. The New York Times leads with a leak of a CIA report that warns that Afghanistan could "fall into chaos" if, as the paper says, "steps are not taken to restrain the competition for power among rival warlords." The State Department and Afghan government say that those steps should include an expansion of the international peacekeeping force. The Pentagon opposes that idea. USA Today leads with news that Italian police arrested four men who authorities believe were planning to poison the water lines that feed the U.S. Embassy in Rome. The men were found with nine pounds of a type of cyanide. But instead of buying the pure stuff, officials are saying that the men may have mistakenly purchased something called ferrocyanide, which, as it happens, becomes harmless in water. The Washington Post's top non-local story claims an exclusive, although not a particularly earth-shattering one: "The U.S. military has begun intelligence-gathering flights over the southern Philippines in a significant expansion of its war on terrorism in that country."

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Given that the United States already has troops on the ground in the Philippines, Today's Papers doesn't see how adding surveillance aircraft is a "significant expansion." After all, as the article itself notes, the flights will likely resemble those the United States already flies above Somalia, where the U.S. anti-terror effort is more limited than in the Philippines. Meanwhile, the paper doesn't ask an obvious question: What sort of risks might the planes face? Is there any indication, for instance, that the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas—the targets of the U.S. mission in the area—have portable anti-aircraft missiles or guns? If there isn't, the paper should just say that.

The Post's piece also skates by what seems like an important point: "Abu Sayyaf has had links to al-Qaida and, although those ties have weakened in recent years, Pentagon officials worry that they could be renewed as al-Qaida members flee Afghanistan." [Emphasis added.] Two paragraphs further down, the WP says, "U.S. military support for battling the Filipino insurgency is unequaled in Southeast Asia." If Abu Sayyaf is no longer best buddies with al-Qaida, why is it the United States' regional Enemy No.1? Especially since, as the WSJ reported a few weeks ago, many Filipinos say that "another group—the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a 15,000-man, separatist army—has stronger ties to Mr. Bin Laden's al-Qaida network." (NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof offered a possible explanation earlier this week. He wrote, "Abu Sayyaf is an enemy that can be quickly beaten.")

Everybody notes that Israel launched massive raids against Palestinian targets, including missile attacks against Yasser Arafat's compound. Arafat wasn't injured, but in total about 20 Palestinians were killed yesterday. No Israelis died in the fighting.

The NYT's James Bennet, who consistently provides some of the most incisive analysis about what's going on in the region, today does the best job of explaining how the nature of the conflict has changed recently: Palestinians are de-emphasizing suicide attacks in Israel proper and are instead focusing on hitting targets (both military, and civilian settlers) within the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. These new guerrilla-war style attacks, said one of Arafat's top advisers, are essentially a peace offering. They send a "political message," he told the Times. "We are fighting against the Israeli military occupation in the occupied territories, and we are not fighting against them as a state."

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Meanwhile, Bennet says, Israel, shocked by how many soldiers it's lost in the last week, is no longer retaliating by striking empty buildings and "hoping for a high symbolic value." Yesterday, "the army attacked manned Palestinian checkpoints, killing at least 12 policemen."

The WSJ emphasizes that Israel said it's going to ratchet up the attacks even further.

One quibble with the NYT's account of the events: According to teaser text on the front page of the paper's Web site, "Israeli forces killed at least 22 Palestinian security officers and militants on Wednesday." How does the paper know that all of those killed were either officers or militants? The LAT, meanwhile, has a caveat, and as it happens, a different count: "Seventeen Palestinians were killed Wednesday, most of them policemen."

The papers note that Sharon is now facing huge discontent from both the left and the right. "Lying on the side of the road we have traveled this year, rusting like junked cars, are not only Sharon's promises for peace and security, but even statements that were very acceptable until a short while ago," stated one Israeli editorial noted by the LAT.

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Everybody goes high with word that at least 370 people died when a fire broke out on a train in Egypt. Although the flames were engulfing car after car, the engineers didn't notice them, and the train rode on for at least 4 miles, leaving passengers without any way to escape. 

USAT stuffs a wire story noting that the Russians are considering making a cosmonaut of 'N Sync member Lance Bass. If the Russians do shoot Bass into space, they'll charge him about $20 million. But it's not like Bass is a novice. As the story notes, "The 22-year-old Bass attended space camp near Titusville, Fla., when he was 12."

The Correction ... The NYT's correction box runs a six-paragraph editor's note acknowledging some small mistakes in a NYTMagazine piece that profiled a West African boy who traveled to a cocoa plantation and was enslaved there. Among the oversights, the Times says, "The writer, a freelancer [Michael Finkel] acknowledged that the boy in the article was a composite. Though the account was drawn from his reporting on the scene and from interviews with human rights workers, Finkel acknowledges, many facts were extrapolated from what he learned was typical of boys on such journeys, and did not apply specifically to any single individual."

The correction goes on to say that Finkel has written eight other articles for the magazine, including one  published last week: "Mr. Finkel has assured the editors that none of his other writing was falsified or fictionalized, and the Times knows of no evidence to the contrary." So has it gone back and checked?