The New York Times leads with and Washington Post off-leads with news that Iraq's most powerful cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, passed along what a top Iraqi Shiite politician called "deep concern over real loopholes" in the United States' latest plans for handing over sovereignty by next June. Sistani has called for direct elections. U.S. officials have insisted that a direct election so soon would be a hash because there are no voter rolls and Iraq hasn't even had a census recently. Sistani also apparently insisted that Islam play a central role in the coming government. The WP leads with word that a U.S. university researcher once jailed in China for alleged spying pled guilty yesterday in a federal court to selling prohibited high-tech equipment to China. The paper says officials are now wondering if the researcher's original jailing in China was a sham. "It's curious, isn't it?" said one. The Los Angeles Times leads with Gov. Schwarzenegger granting parole to a convicted murderer for the second time since he entered office. Former Gov. Gray Davis has denied nearly all such appeals.
As yesterday's WP noted, Sistani has an enormous amount of influence. The Post says an earlier ruling by the cleric is the main reason the U.S. recently changed its transfer of power plans—though obviously not to a plan Sistani is completely comfortable with.
With that probably in mind, the NYT plays the latest Sistani criticism as near disastrous: "U.S. PLAN IN IRAQ TO SHIFT CONTROL HITS MAJOR SNAG."
But as the Post makes clear, and as the NYT itself briefly mentions, Sistani isn't rejecting the U.S. plan; he wants to tweak it. "This is a negotiation," a top Shiite politician told the Post. "We're looking for compromise." U.S. officials seem open to that. "The nub of this is, how do we get to enough elections in enough places to satisfy the ayatollah's insistence on elections," one official says in the NYT. "We should be able to do it."
It's also worth keeping in mind that Sistani didn't give any of these opinions himself. He doesn't talk to the press or U.S. authorities. Instead, his messages yesterday were passed along by a top Shiite political leader—who of course may be spinning a touch. The NYT all but skips mentioning that.
The Post does a good job of detailing the United States' current plan and how it's less than democratic: "Bremer's plan calls for caucuses in the country's 18 provinces to choose representatives to serve on a transitional assembly, which would form a provisional government. Participants in the caucuses must be approved by 11 of 15 people on an organizing committee, which will be selected by the Governing Council and U.S.-appointed councils at the city and province level." (The NYT characterizes this process as "indirect elections.") Direct elections are penciled in for March 2005.
The NYT notices another Iraqi who isn't happy with the U.S. plan: former Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi, who said, "The whole thing was set up so President Bush could come to the airport in October for a ceremony to congratulate the new Iraqi government.
The NYT says inside that some intel specialists in Iraq who have been searching for banned weapons are now being reassigned to figure out who the heck the guerrillas are.
Everybody notes that U.S. forces have detained the wife and daughter of one of Saddam Hussein's top former lieutenants. The military believes that the lieutenant has been organizing guerrillas.
The NYT mentions that the Italian embassy in Baghdad was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade; there were no injuries.
Everybody notes that the U.N.'s atomic watchdog agency passed a resolution on Iran that didn't impose sanctions but did warn of "consequences" if Iran continues fibbing. The Times emphasizes the resolution's vague wording: Iran is warned it will be in some sort of trouble if "further serious failures" are found. What constitutes a "serious failure" is left unsaid. The United States wanted a stronger resolution but couldn't convince European countries.
The LAT's Paul Watson says on Page One that loads of recruits are quitting the fledgling Afghan Army because of pitiful pay. The U.S. won't provide figures, but an Afghan officer said, "In total, we have roughly 6,000 trained soldiers, out of whom no less than 2,000 have left." The United States says it plans to have 70,000 soldiers in the force.
With so many contenders, it was hard to crown a winner in the annual Worst Thanksgiving Column Contest. So congratulations Tina Brown!: "Does super-celebrity come only to people who are crazy already or does the bizarre gene kick in under the klieg lights? One thing to give thanks for this morning is not being Michael or Kobe or Phil or Paris or Martha or any of the other spectacles of the great American circus."