A car bomb exploded in Najaf yesterday outside the holiest Shiite shrine, killing at least 95, including a prominent cleric who had been cooperating with U.S. forces in Iraq; all the papers lead with the story. It was the third major bombing of a civilian target in Iraq in as many weeks—and by far the most deadly. The papers all agree the strike is a major setback for the U.S. occupation.
The cleric, Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, a former exile and outspoken opponent of Saddam Hussein, was apparently the target of the attack. Although the New York Times' and Los Angeles Times' leads report that no one has taken responsibility for the blast, the papers cast suspicion on Baath party supporters and even rival Shiite factions, which are jockeying for power. The Washington Post goes on to report in its Page One analysis that many people at the scene were convinced the carnage was the work of Hussein's followers, since no Shiite would intentionally damage the Imam Ali Mosque, named for the Muslim leader whose followers created the Shiite sect. In Baghdad, the sentiment among Shiites was the same: "Saddam is the enemy of God," a crowd chanted, according to the WP's lead.
The lead in the NYT, which scored an interview with a driver in Ayatollah Hakim's motorcade, reports that the ayatollah had just finished delivering a Friday prayers sermon when the bomb went off. As the line of cars pulled away from the curb, a dark SUV that had been parked nearby only minutes before exploded violently, charring at least six vehicles, leveling one building, and shattering storefronts 200 yards away. "I saw only smoke, fire, bodies and pieces of flesh scattered all around me," the driver told the NYT.
The WP goes inside with some gruesome reporting from Najaf's main hospital, where approximately 95 bodies sat in the morgue and the floors were "slick with blood." According to the Post, "Some of the wards looked like battlefields. The wounds were horrifying—an amputee here, a man bandaged as if mummified there."
"This can spin really out of control really quickly," a Middle East expert told the LAT in the paper's lead. "You could be moving toward a scenario where Iraq is the site of a large number of proxy wars." In more bad news from Iraq, the LAT catches a late AP Wire piece that says the U.N. plans to cut its staff in the country by 90 percent out of concern over mounting violence there.
North Korea, the U.S., and four other nations completed a "sometimes fiery" (NYT's off-lead) series of talks on Friday without bridging any significant differences in their quest for a Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons. The WP reefers the story and gets the best quote, from a Japanese official who pooh-poohed North Korea's widely reported nuke threats on Thursday as classic bluster: "You want to know whether we were all so frightened that we had to go back to Tokyo to hide behind our beds? The answer is no."
Although the papers all report that the participants said they'd reconvene for more talks within two months, early-morning reports quote a North Korean spokesman rejecting the notion before getting on a plane home to Pyongyang. "We're no longer interested," he said. "Our expectations have diminished." It is not clear if his statement reflects a change in the official position.
The NYT and WP both front and the LAT stuffs news that a powerful aide to British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced his resignation on Friday, amid accusations that he helped exaggerate the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction on the eve of war. The aide, a former tabloid journalist who was Blair's chief spin-meister, denies his departure is related to accusations that his office overplayed the nature of Iraq's weapons threat. Nevertheless, the papers take the announcement as a sign the controversy there is going to become more intense.
The FBI arrested a high-school senior (screename: "teekid") on Friday for creating a more virulent strain of the Blaster worm that infected as many as 1.2 million computers running the Windows operating system earlier this month—a story that the WP off-leads, the NYT fronts, and the LAT reefers. Though he faces a fine of up to $250,000 and as many as 10 years in prison, it appears the high-school hacker did little to cover his tracks and boasted openly about unleashing viruses on the Internet. A computer security expert told the WP that the hacker who wrote the original worm "may be clever enough that we can't track them down."
Below the fold, the NYT fronts more 9/11 accounts from Port Authority Police officers, as the paper continues to plow through the approximately 1,800 pages of transcripts and hand-written reports that the Port Authority released on Thursday after being forced to do so because of a court ruling. Although it's just more of the same, the piece still makes for compelling and harrowing reading. (The NYT, which initially sued the P.A. to release the documents, also makes nice with an editorial lauding the conduct of P.A. employees, who gave "everything it was possible to give that morning.")
President Bush expanded the abortion "gag rule" yesterday, ordering the State Department to withhold funding from all overseas groups that perform or recommend abortions even with their own money, according to pieces deep inside the LAT and WP.
The NYT fronts campaign contribution numbers in California's recall election, writing that "the money spigot is turned wide open" and campaign finance legislation voters approved in 2000 "appears to be more loophole than law." On the other hand, the LAT fronts a story that describes how TV advertising, traditionally that most expensive and essential of campaign expenses, is playing less of a role in this election because of the copious amounts of "free media" the candidates are attracting. "The information voters receive about candidates in a California governor's race, normally, is about 70% paid advertising and 30% from other sources. This could be entirely the reverse," a Schwarzenegger consultant told the LAT.
And although Arnold Schwarzenegger is trailing Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante in polls of candidates vying to replace Gray Davis, the WP reports that young surfers may just give the action star a boost by turning out to vote in, like, record numbers, dude. "I've been thinking about voting for Ahh-nold," one such guy told the WP. Of course, our man hasn't really gotten around to registering yet, but according to the Post, he "promised he will. The recall, he said, is too good to miss."
Finally, a rather, um, unlucky correction for those who need about as much good luck as they can get: people who dare to hazard the NYT Friday crossword puzzle.
The crossword puzzle yesterday provided an erroneous clue for 59 Down, seeking the answer "BON." The clue "__ chance!" was incorrect because that expression, in French, is spelled "Bonne chance!"