Riyadh Reactions

Riyadh Reactions

Riyadh Reactions

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
May 14 2003 8:25 AM

Riyadh Reactions

Everybody leads with the latest on Monday's bombings in Saudi Arabia. The papers all say that at least 20 people were killed, including at least seven Americans. Nine attackers also died, and oddly, nearly everybody includes those guys in the count. (The New York Times  being the sole exception.) About 200 people were injured. Some of the attackers also appear to have escaped. As the Washington Post and USA Today emphasize in their leads, U.S. and Saudi officials believe that the attack was led by an al-Qaida operative whose mentor took part in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. And as the WP focuses in on, Saudi officials believe that the attackers were from the same cell as the 19 militants who escaped a Saudi raid last week.

Though the papers all go with the casualty numbers mentioned above, those figures aren't final. Early yesterday, Vice President Dick Cheney said 91 people had died, and as USAT says, by the end of the day administration officials said they believed the final count would be 40 or 50. The Post, meanwhile,says Saudi officials warned that many of the injuries were so bad that the final death toll could "surpass 100." TP is no doctor, but that seems like an oddly high mortality rate for the injured. And this sounds very cynical—downright grassy knoll-ish, actually—but could it be that more people were initially killed and that the Saudis' warning is some sort of CYA move?

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As the Los Angeles Times' off-lead does a good job of explaining, while everybody is confident the attackers are somehow connected to AQ, it's far from clear what the exact relationship is. "Were they taking orders from higher-ups? Was this a franchise? Who knows." said one official. One purported AQ member was recently quoted in an Arab magazine taunting U.S. officials, "The Americans only have predictions and old intelligence left. It will take them a long time to understand the new form of al-Qaida."

Everybody mentions that U.S. officials said they were worried that Monday's attacks might be first in a series. The LAT plays this angle up highest. But it's not clear whether there's solid intel suggesting further attacks or if officials are just speculating. The quotes in the LAT suggest the latter. ("These things tend to come in clusters," said one official.) That's why the paper's near-banner headline feels near over-the-top, "U.S. FEARS 'WAVE OF ATTACKS.' "

Yesterday, this column wondered whether the Saudi government was dragging its feet on releasing info. The confusion about the number of injured seem to suggest that, but there's also some evidence in the other direction. In what the papers describe as a nearly unprecedented move, the government broadcast photos of the 19 militants who escaped last week.

The Wall Street Journal, just about alone among the papers, gives a picture of the current political situation in Saudi Arabia. Shortly after the government did its Saudi's Most Wanted broadcast urging citizens to help captures the fugitives, three well-known clerics issued a fatwa ordering supporters to hide them.

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An above-the-fold piece in the NYT say that Iraq's new boss, Paul Bremer, has issued orders authorizing GIs to shoot looters on sight. Bremer didn't exactly hold a press conference announcing the policy. Instead, the Times says that Bremer made the decision at a closed-door meeting, the conclusions of which some officers then leaked to the paper. As one official explained the new approach, "They are going to start shooting a few looters so that the word gets around." (By the way, are there any international-law issues with that?)

The LAT and NYT both front the discovery of a mass grave south of Baghdad that may hold 10,000 bodies, victims of Saddam's death squads after the 1991 uprising against him. As the LAT mentions, and the NYT's piece doesn't, the U.S. has come under criticism for not helping to secure such sites for war-crimes investigators. (The NYT's Thomas Friedman makes that point, too.)

The papers note that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon continued to diss the U.S.-sponsored peace plan. Sharon, in an interview in yesterday's Jerusalem Post, said that removing or even freezing Israeli settlements in the heart of the West Bank is "not on the horizon." An adviser to the prime minister told the NYT that the comments weren't a big deal, Sharon was just playing to his right-wing base.

The Post fronts word that Republican leaders in the House plan not to renew the about-to-expire federal ban on assault rifles. They said they're going to drop the issue and not bring it to a vote. The papersays that President Bush, who recently expressed support for continuing the ban, will not push GOP-leaders to change their minds.

The NYT says that the FDA has delayed regulating the human tissue transplant market even though the agency itself acknowledges that there aren't sufficient safeguards against the sale of dirty tissue. "The delay is inexplicable," said one Republican senator. "The FDA has made promise after promise to me that it would adopt final regulations, but it has failed to act. This is bureaucratic inertia."

Today's winner of the Vagueness in Headlines Award goes to the NYT: "TOUGHER MEASURES APPEAR TO BE PAYING OFF." (The article says that police think that terrorists nowadays are finding New York City a harder target to hit.)

Back to the attacks ... Often with major news, the papers' editorials feel the need to weigh in, only to discover—too late—that they don't really have much to say. One exception to that kind editorial blather is today's WSJ. It notices Secretary of State Colin Powell's comments that "terrorism strikes everywhere and everyone," and Saudi's crown prince nod of agreement, "These things happen everywhere." As the Journal points out:

Monday's attacks didn't happen "everywhere." They occurred in the heart of Wahhabist Islam, the land that gave the world 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers; the land from which, according to the U.N. Security Council, some $500 million has been transferred to al Qaeda over the past decade. And the land that is the erstwhile home of Osama bin Laden. ... Saudi fundamentalism continues to pose a grave threat both to the West and to Saudi Arabia itself. We can hope that the terrible excavation of Monday's victims makes that truth impossible to ignore, but the early words from Mr. Powell and the Saudi Prince are not encouraging.