Saddamned?

Saddamned?

Saddamned?

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
March 21 2003 6:09 AM

Saddamned?

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Everybody leads with word that the war appears to be going better than expected: Pentagon officials think that the earlier attempt to nail Saddam and Co. may have actually hit him or at least some of his top men. There is "definitely been some real disruption" among Iraqi leadership, one U.S. official told the Wall Street Journal. "There [are] not a lot of people barking orders," the official added. "We're not sure yet what to think."

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Whatever the case, and the talk might be touched with a bit of spin, the U.S. has yet to launch the much-hyped "Shock and Awe" bombardment, perhaps, as the Los Angeles Times emphasizes, because it's hoping just to cut off the top of the Iraqi regime and avoid lots of destruction. There were some British and U.S. casualties yesterday: Four Marines and eight British soldiers were killed when their helicopter went down in northern Kuwait, apparently an accident.

The ground invasion began in earnest yesterday, apparently a few hours earlier than planned because Iraqis had started to torch oil wells. U.S. Marines are now moving toward the southern town of Basra. U.S. and British Marines have also landed and captured some oil facilities in the south that were blown in the first Gulf War and caused a huge mess, flooding the gulf with oil. Finally, heavy Army units are making a bee-line for Baghdad. Apparently, there has been only sporadic resistance, though not any mass surrenders yet.

The Washington Post off-leads a shocker—complete with a triple-barreled byline: Woodward, Pincus, and Priest—saying that "U.S. intelligence officials believe" that Saddam and possibly one or both of his sons were "still inside" the targeted bunker that was nailed by U.S. bombs yesterday. "The preponderance of the evidence is he was there when the building blew up," said one "senior U.S. official with access to sensitive intelligence." The Post—which only seems to quote senior administration officials, rather than actual intel officials—says it's not clear if Saddam was killed, injured, or if he escaped.

The Post's story is getting a whole lot of attention. But read the New York Times' version before busting open the Cristal. According to that paper, administration officials are only sure that "they had hit a bunker of top Iraqi officials." "To this moment, we don't know who it was," a senior administration official told the Times. A wire story in USA Today gives the same skeptical impression that the NYT does. The LAT also gives the sense that nobody is really sure what the heck was hit.

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Given that the WP went into its Saddam death-watch coverage with overwhelming force (three hot-shot reporters), it sure is surprising that the piece doesn't pick up on the doubts that the other papers notice. Maybe Woodward and two of the other most well-connected reporters in the country just didn't happen to know the phones numbers of any of the skeptics. Or just maybe they or their editors decided to ignore them and hype the hottest part their story.

The Post's piece also says the Pentagon has talked with one of Saddam's former mistresses who says she's sure that the guy who appeared on Iraqi TV with the mustache was not in fact her ex-lover. (The WP forgets to mention that she's connected to Iraqi opposition groups.)

The NYT goes-above-the-fold with Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's contention that top Iraqi officers are secretly negotiating to surrender  their units. But the article's eighth paragraph suggests that Rummy may have been, golly gee, spinning: "Some senior military officials in Washington and in Kuwait expressed skepticism at the suggestion of impending mass defections."

As most of the paper mention, even if the attack missed Saddam, he and his boys are likely freaked that somebody close to them tipped off the Americans.

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Iraq lobbed a few short-range missiles at Kuwait—none loaded with chemical weapons and none apparently longer-range SCUDs. Improved versions of the Patriot missile shot down two of them. (Defense reporter-cum-blogger Noah Shachtman notices that a general recently testified that the U.S. has a grand total of "about 50" of the new Patriots. Four were launched yesterday. The old versions were all-but-useless against missiles during the first Gulf War.)

While Iraqi soldiers did torch as many as 30 wells, the Post notes that at least so far they haven't set fire to pumping stations, which are apparently much harder to put out. (Question: Rumsfeld and President Bush have both warned Iraqi soldiers that lighting up wells would constitute war crimes. Is there any precedent for such potential charges?) (For more on exstinguishing oil-well fires, read this Slate Explainer.)

The papers note that Turkey's parliament met and (good news) gave the U.S. overflight rights. The bad news: They rejected American pleas and voted to send some troops into Iraqi Kurdistan.

The LAT and NYT both front yesterday's world-wide protests to the war. While more than 1,300 people were arrested in San Francisco, the larger protests happened outside the U.S.: over 100,000 marched in Athens, and about 80,000 turned out in Germany.

In other, easy-to-miss, news, the WP goes inside with word that Congress is voting on the president's proposed $726 billion tax cut. The House endorsed it in the wee hours of the morning, while the Senate is expected to vote on it today.

Back to the Post's Saddam-got-bunker-busted piece ... Saddam may or may not be sleeping with the fishes. And passing along unconfirmed info can certainly be fair game in something as cloudy as a war. But in order to do it on the up-and-up, papers should tell readers just how shaky the info is, and certainly let them know if there's any conflicting evidence or opinions. They should also give it proportional coverage. That is, there should be some sort of connection between the attention a story is given and the likelihood that's true. Pretty common-sense stuff really—which the Post todaydidn't follow.