Knot in Najaf

Knot in Najaf

Knot in Najaf

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Aug. 12 2004 3:26 AM

Knot in Najaf

The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal's worldwide news box, and USA Today all lead with latest from Najaf, where U.S. forces saddled up for a big offensive, then called it off for unclear reasons. But as the final edition of USAT notes, the offensive appears to have been launched this morning. Humvees with loudspeakers are reportedly driving through town warning, "To the residents of Najaf: Coalition forces are purging the city from Mahdi Army." The Los Angeles Times leads with the military, stretched thin by Iraq and other commitments, hiring private guards to protect many bases. Two of the firms doing the work were awarded contracts—totaling about $1 billion—without competitive bidding. (The NYT stuffs a similar story.)The Washington Post'stop nonlocal story goes with Saudi Arabia's announcement that it could quickly hike its oil production by about 15 percent. Traders complained that the Saudis' announcement was too vague and said they think the Saudis' production is just about tapped out anyway.

The Post says the delay in the offensive on Najaf was the result of intelligence suggesting that Muqtada Sadr's men had "rigged explosives" in the shrine of Imam Ali, the rebels' headquarters and the holiest site in Shiite Islam. The other papers suggest political reasons for the delay. As the LAT notes, Iraqi Vice President Ibrahim Jafari called for the U.S. to pull out of Najaf. "Only Iraqi forces should stay," said Jafari, who is the head of a Shiite party and, though the papers seem to skip it, is considered the most popular politician in Iraq. (Of the papers TP scanned, only the Financial Times flags that point.)

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The NYT says the U.S. has tripled its force around the city to 5,000 troops. There are also a few hundred Iraqi soldiers; the Times says they're "playing a small role." The Post says one unit of Iraqis has been training to storm the Imam Ali Mosque.

With emerging food shortages and other problems in town, the NYT says residents are seething at Sadr. "Najaf's people and tribes hold him responsible for what is going in their city now," said one. "I can say that 90 percent of the people here hate him."

The LAT has a fascinating piece on the mosque's roughly thousand-year history, noting that it was a gathering spot for anti-British insurgents in 1920. One attendant back then: Mohammed Sadr—yes, he's an ancestor. Shiite leaders around the world, including Iran's top cleric, condemned the United States' presence in Najaf and warned against hitting the mosque. Shiites "worldwide are shocked and outraged over what is going on in Najaf," said one well-regarded cleric in Los Angeles. "Any attack on that city will destroy America's future in Iraq completely. It will completely discredit America and make it the new tyrant in the eyes of Shias worldwide."

The Post notices that with Sadr's militants "ordering" a curfew, Baghdad's streets were largely empty. "Today is like a day off," said one resident. "There are no police in the street."

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The NYT off-leads Senate Democrats suggesting they won't oppose Rep. Porter Goss' nomination as CIA chief. Apparently, they're worried that opposing the nomination would allow the White House to paint them as opposing moves to improve national security. That's what happened in 2002 when Democrats opposed a GOP bill that created the Homeland Security Department but removed civil service protections for its employees.

The Journal says up high, the LAT fronts, and others go inside with word that the government is close to a deal that would freealleged enemy combatant Yaser Hamdi, a U.S. citizen who has been held incommunicado in a naval brig for the past three years. As part of the pending deal, Hamdi would apparently renounce his citizenship, move to Saudi Arabia, and promise not to sue the U.S. government.

In an impressive—though not particularly timely—airing of dirty laundry, the Post goes Page One with an exploration of the paper's own timid play of WMD reporting in the run-up to the war. "The paper was not front-paging stuff," said Post Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks. "Administration assertions were on the front page. Things that challenged the administration were on A18 on Sunday or A24 on Monday. There was an attitude among editors: Look, we're going to war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?" And those were the victories:

In October 2002, Ricks, a former national security editor for the Wall Street Journal who has been covering such issues for 15 years, turned in a piece that he titled "Doubts." It said that senior Pentagon officials were resigned to an invasion but were reluctant and worried that the risks were being underestimated. Most of those quoted by name in the Ricks article were retired military officials or outside experts. The story was killed.