The Los Angeles Times and USA Today lead with word that after coming under intense international arm-twisting, Yasser Arafat and his newly appointed prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, have agreed on a compromise Cabinet. Forming a Cabinet was one of President Bush's prerequisites for trying to implement the "roadmap" peace plan that envisions the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2005. The deal now needs to be confirmed by Palestinian parliament, which the papers say isn't a sure thing. The New York Times leads with the U.S. military warning Iraqis against unilaterally claiming authority in their country. "The coalition alone retains absolute authority within Iraq," announced a top general. The Washington Post leads with word that the World Health Organization, concerned about the growing number of SARS cases, has advised against traveling to Beijing and Toronto. It's the first time the WHO has put either Beijing or anyplace in North America on the do-not-travel list.
According to late-night reports, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the Israeli town of Kfar Saba, killing one and injuring 14.
Arafat was looking to keep power and get his supporters top positions, while Abbas was trying to get some fresher blood in. They ended up, more or less, splitting the difference. A few of Arafat's men were appointed, but also included was security chief Muhammad Dahlan, a critic of Arafat who is supported by the U.S. and others for his apparent willingness to crack down on militant groups. The Post says Abbas messed up and lost face by trying to please everybody, including old-school Palestinian leaders. "Not only wasn't it a break from the past," said one disapointed Palestinian legislator. "You have more old ministers than new ones."
USAT is the only paper that plays the compromise as a clear defeat for Arafat: "ARAFAT GIVES IN, ACCEPTS CABINET." The NYT disagrees, saying that deal "favored Arafat, at least for now." Still, the Times says that the move is probably going to cause him to lose power in the long-term.
Yesterday's warnings by U.S. forces in Iraq appeared aimed especially at an Iraqi exile who has appointed himself "mayor" of Baghdad. The Times also says that U.S. military officials in Iraq are getting a bit uncomfortable about the activities of the Pentagon's favorite son, Ahmad Chalabi. Unnamed military officials say they're considering either disarming Chalabi's 700-man force or putting them under U.S. command.
The papers all mention that three Marines in Iraq were killed in an accident yesterday involving an RPG. Nobody has further details.
Everybody mentions that U.S. forces took into custody four more wanted Iraqi officials, including the former head of the country's military intelligence service. The U.S. has now detained 10 of the 55 wanted officials.
The NYT notices that with the administration facing growing Shiite opposition, it's reconsidering its plan to create an "interim Iraqi authority" within six months. The paper also says the U.S. isn't just going to play referee and is instead "redoubling its efforts to promote pro-American clerics." Explained one Pentagon official, "It's sensitive, because if we talk about what we're doing, it could rebound against the people we're trying to help. [But] you can't stand back completely."
Apart from TP readers, few people are likely to notice this small change toward more, shall we say, active U.S. participation in Iraqi politics. That's because, irony of ironies, the info is stuffed into an article headlined, "U.S. TELLS IRAN NOT TO INTERFERE IN IRAQ EFFORTS."
That brings to mind another point. The papers should be careful about the language they use here: Both Iran and the U.S. are trying to influence the makeup of a future Iraqi government. Why do Iran's activities necessarily qualify as "interference" or "meddling," while the U.S.'s efforts to promote American-friendly politicians get described with softer terms?
The NYT fronts interviews with more Iraqi torture victims. One man had has tongue cut out, in public, after he criticized Saddam. "You see this?" said a fedayeen officer as he held the tongue aloft to a crowd. "This will be the fate of anyone who dares insult the president."
A front-page piece in the NYTimes looks at Guantanamo Bay where hundreds of captives from the war in Afghanistan are still being held indefinitely. The article's 20th paragraph mentions this small point: "Officials said only a small number of the detainees are members of al-Qaida. The rest have either been determined to be nobodies, rounded up in the chaotic aftermath of the war, or presumed to be nobodies whose state has not yet been determined."
Miller Time ... The NYT's Judith Miller continues her remarkable run of opaque dispatches from her travels with a chemical and bio-weapons hunting team. Today's report, which (hallelujah) is stuffed by the Times, says that the team has now come across a warehouse "filled with chemicals where Iraqi scientists are suspected of having tested unconventional agents on dogs." Of course, as Miller points out (uncharacteristically), the chemicals can have both military and civilian uses. Nor was there was any "immediate way to verify the claim" about the dogs. Maybe that's because the hunting team still has Miller billeted, apparently happily, in some sort of sensory-deprivation tank: "This reporter was not permitted to visit the warehouse but heard descriptions of it from Americans who went to the site."
Miller's reports might end up being spot-on. But the problem with such thinly sourced, credulous, speculation is that they might not. One of Miller's pieces earlier this week said an "Iraqi scientist" (who Miller has seen, now infamously, only at a distance and never interviewed) alleged that Saddam was sharing weapons with al-Qaida. Defense officials quoted in a recent Associated Press dispatch said they were "highly skeptical" of that claim.
Gee, ya think? From the NYT: "CRACKDOWN IS CALLED A MAJOR SETBACK FOR CUBAN DISSIDENTS."
Finally, behind the scenes ... Though the papers don't mention it, there was a minor, confirmed, uprising at the White House yesterday, specifically in the Press Briefing room. One reporter, I.D.'d as "David," asked spokesman Ari Fleischer whether the administration is still considering hitting France with "consequences" for its opposition to the war. Fleischer evaded the question three times, then ...
Q: Why won't you answer the question about ...
MR. FLEISCHER: Greg.
Q: Hold on. We're entitled to follow up, Ari—this isn't homeroom.
MR. FLEISCHER: Greg. Greg.
Q: Why won't you answer the question?
MR. FLEISCHER: Because David, there are other qualified reporters in here, too, who can follow-up.
Q: I didn't say they were not qualified, Ari. I'm saying you're running it like it's homeroom, like we can't follow-up when you're refusing to answer a question that's been posed to you, directly.
MR. FLEISCHER: Greg.
Q [from Greg]: Do you want to elaborate on what those consequences would be?
MR. FLEISCHER: I addressed it earlier.
Q [David]: You didn't address it, which is the point. But you can't tolerate that kind of dissent.
Q [from Greg]: On the home front ...