Bus(ted) Transfer?

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Jan. 16 2004 5:53 AM

Bus(ted) Transfer?

The New York Times and Los Angeles Timeslead with the Bush administration's shifting strategy regarding the transfer of power in Iraq. The U.S. now plans to ask the United Nations to help put together an interim government in Baghdad, and Iraq boss L. Paul Bremer III has returned to Washington to confer with administration officials on how best to deal with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, who has demanded that the interim government be selected by direct elections. The Washington Post and USA Today lead with the tightening race for the Iowa caucuses. A poll released yesterday says that four Democratic presidential candidates—John Kerry, Howard Dean, Dick Gephardt, and John Edwards—are in a statistical dead heat as the Iowa campaign enters its final weekend. The Wall Street Journal tops its world-wide newsbox (online) with Federal Reserve data showing that, despite anemic job growth over the past year, rising stock prices and home values have pushed the wealth of American families up near a level not seen since the stock market peaked in 2000.

Tens of thousands marched in support of Sistani in Basra yesterday, echoing his objections to the U.S. plan to hold 18 regional caucuses when the coalition hands over political power. WP, which points out that there is no Arabic equivalent to the word "caucus," says officials are "baffled" by how to placate Sistani, an aging, reclusive figure who may not have a firm grasp on the complex U.S. plan. Unfortunately for U.S. officials, who established a June 30 deadline for the transfer of power, the cleric is too powerful to ignore. "We are neither so stupid nor so reckless as to want to make an enemy of Ali Sistani," a senior U.S. official told the LAT. Why is the U.S. so averse to the prospect of direct elections? One reason, which the WP doesn't mention until after the jump, is that Iraq doesn't have a current census, voting rules, or any real election law.

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The NYT focuses on the Bush administration's newfound desire to give the U.N. a central role in the handover. One possible sticking point: U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan is said to be uncomfortable with becoming involved because many in the international community believe the U.S. plan was specifically designed to ensure that sovereignty is transferred before the 2004 presidential election.

The Iowa caucuses will be held Monday, and this year's contest may turn out to be the closest in the state's history. The NYT and LAT are rightfully a bit skeptical of the poll numbers, however: Caucuses are notoriously difficult for pollsters to crack, since it's extremely tough to determine who's actually going to show up at a caucus. The WP headline-writers, perhaps conscious of this, end up offering a pretty lame headline: "Kerry, Edwards Claim Surges in Close Race." Have politicians ever not claimed to be surging? Surge or no, Dean and Gephardt might have an edge if the race turns out to be as close as everyone thinks, since they've built the strongest get-out-the-vote organizations on the ground.

The NYT fronts word that Mexico is asking The Hague to intervene and void the convictions of 52 Mexicans sentenced to death in the United States. Mexico says the U.S. violated a treaty by not allowing the prisoners to meet with representatives of their government. The U.S. has thus far commuted three executions "out of courtesy," but the State and Justice Departments are fighting Mexico's demands in the international court. In filings at The Hague, U.S. lawyers called the demands an "unacceptable intrusion into the United States criminal justice system."

The WP goes inside with news that the U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council has voted to wipe out a civil code offering Iraqi women relatively progressive legal protections. Women took to the streets to protest the elimination of the code, which prohibited marriage below the age of 18, arbitrary divorce, and male favoritism in some legal cases. The council wants these issues under the jurisdiction of sharia, strict Islamic legal doctrine. Bremer has the right to reject the decision, and he probably will, but experts say that conservative forces will push to make sharia supreme law once the U.S. transfers power.

The WP fronts a piece detailing how U.S. aerospace and energy industries, which have long lobbied NASA to embark on more interplanetary voyages, stand to make billions of dollars as a result of president Bush's space initiative. In 2000, a veteran Halliburton scientific adviser helped write an article discussing the usefulness of Mars research for the oil and gas industries.

Moody artists, prepare your sneers: Starbucks has come to Paris. "We didn't come here to displace any cafes or to teach the French people about coffee," said Howard Schultz, the company's chief executive, diplomatically. Nonetheless, not everyone offered a warm welcome. "American coffee, it's only water," said Bertrand Abadie, a documentary filmmaker. "We call it jus des chaussettes (sock juice)."

Brian Montopoli is a reporter with Columbia Journalism Review's CJR Daily.