The New York Timesand Washington Postlead with news that next week,President Bush will send Middle East envoy Gen. Anthony Zinni to the region for a third attempt at moving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict toward a peaceful conclusion. This decision comes after weeks of the administration saying that the general wouldn't go back until the two sides renounced violence. Zinni doesn't have a new peace program. He'll push the same truce plan he tried to sell on his last trip, one that calls for the Palestinians to curb militants and for Israel to retreat to positions it held before this outbreak of fighting in September 2000. Atop the Wall Street Journal's world-wide newsbox are fresh Pentagon reports saying that the Americans have sealed off the region containing al-Qaida holdouts in the mountains of Afghanistan and are moving in on remaining groups of cornered guerillas. The Los Angeles Times fronts neither an update on the fight in Afghanistan nor Gen. Zinni. The paper leads with word that the House passed an economic stimulus bill (417-3), as yesterday's papers expected it would, after months of fighting over the bill's provisions. The bill would offer new unemployment benefits and some tax breaks for businesses. It is expected to pass the Senate today, and Bush said he will sign it. USA Today leads with Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan's declaration to senators that the recession is over.
The NYT and WP venture that Bush's motive for sending Zinni to the Middle East right now is pragmatic: The United States needs to do something about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before Vice President Cheney's forthcoming trip to the region to discuss options for moving against Saddam Hussein with Arab nations. Otherwise, Arab leaders won't talk Iraq and will press the United States to play a role in resolving the conflict. The papers don't have any guesses on whether Zinni's mission has a chance at success, though they say that Israeli Prime Minister Sharon welcomed the development. The NYT piece includes a photo of what it calls the "symbolic tableau" of Bush, Cheney and Secretary of State Powell, who, the paper says, announced Zinni's mission together to demonstrate that the highest levels of the U.S. government are concerned about the violence. The WP also describes the power portrait but says the three top officials appeared together to show they were no longer divided over how to revive the peace process (Powell wanted more American involvement, Cheney didn't).
The WP points out that news of Zinni's impending arrival did little to stop Palestinian suicide and Israeli missile attacks. Everyone reports that the Israeli military killed 12-15 Palestinians yesterday. A Palestinian gunman opened fire in a Gaza settlement, killing four Israelis. A suicide bomber blew himself up in a hotel lobby on the West Bank, injuring five Israelis, and café patrons in Jerusalem stopped another suicide attack when they subdued a heavily-wired customer.
One thousand more Afghan soldiers will supplement 1,200 Americans, 1,000 Afghans, and 200 troops from France, Norway, and other allied countries in the battle in Afghanistan, the coverage reports. The WP thinks this manpower increase is coming right in front of a final assault on the al-Qaida forces. And indeed, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld guessed that the battle could be over this weekend or next week. Five hundred al-Qaida have been killed in the fight, the WP says, but hundreds more guerrillas are still alive. The WSJ piece is concerned about good weather holding for the conclusion of the operation.
As for whether this is the last group of al-Qaida resisters in Afghanistan, that's unclear. According to the WSJ, officials say they haven't identified any similar groups of al-Qaida fighters. However, the WP cites an official who says that the United States assumes there are at least two more groups of terrorists who will be up for similarly punishing fights with U.S. forces.
The WP mentions that some of the Afghan soldiers who are fighting this battle were hired by the United States. Perhaps the paper could have noted whether it has been common practice for the United States to hire, not just train, Afghan fighters to attack Taliban and al-Qaida.
The NYT juxtaposes the news that the House finally has passed a stimulus package with Greenspan's comments that the recession is now over in a piece that shakes its head at the "partisan deadlock that kept Congress from responding to the recession until it had apparently ended." No matter, members of Congress said, the bill can morph into a mechanism for making sure the recovery sticks. According to the NYT,Greenspan noted that economic recovery "is already well under way." However, it will be slow, he said. This is in part because consumer spending doesn't have much room to rebound since Americans spent their way through the downturn, USAT reports.
A WP piece appears to have a little fun with Attorney General Ashcroft's plan to fund the creation of neighborhood watch programs so they can join the battle against terrorism. The paper reports on the "consternation and amazement" residents of neighborhoods in the D.C. area feel at being told to look for international terrorists in addition to teenage pranksters and speed-limit breakers. "Fighting terrorists?" said a resident of one suburb. "Um … I guess, if it's part of the program, we can do that, too."