Today, the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times go with updates from Iraq, while the New York Times is workin' on the railroad. The WP leads with news of that a 500-pound bomb meant for an Iraqi militant hit the wrong target yesterday, destroying a home and killing several occupants. The LAT's top non-local story looks at the clandestine role many suspect Iran is playing in the Iraq's upcoming elections. And the NYT, following news of a train derailment in South Carolina that led to a deadly chlorine gas leak, questions whether the rest of the nation's 60,000 pressurized rail tank cars are safe from similar accidents, and from terrorism.
The potential rail car defects have been apparent for at least three years, the NYT says, since a derailment in North Dakota led to an ammonia leak, one death, more than 300 injuries, and the discovery of design flaws that could lead to "catastrophic fracture." Such rail cars also make tempting bombing targets, the FBI warns. After the Madrid train attacks last year, chemical shipments were quietly shifted away from a rail line that ran within four blocks of the capitol in Washington.
Accounts differ as to the number of victims of the errant airstrike in a village near the town of Mosul. The U.S. military says five are dead; neighbors say 14, according to the NYT. The military admitted it had hit the wrong house and issued a (qualified) apology, saying it "deeply regretted the loss of possibly innocent lives." The LAT calls the statement an "unusual step."
Though no one can prove it, the LAT says some Iraqis allege that Iran is "secretly pumping millions of dollars" into Shiite candidates' campaigns for seats in the new national assembly. In southern Iraq, the story says, "Iranian intelligence officials openly roam the hallways at party offices and Persian is sometimes the preferred language. Pictures of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, hang on party office walls and even in government offices." Iraqi Shiite leaders deny any intention to emulate their neighbor's theocratic government.
The WP and NYT have their own analyses of the election. The WP's front-pager takes the wider view, saying that Iraq's elections, along with those in the Palestinian territories this month, "add up to the first meaningful test for Bush's vision of spreading democracy to a region ruled almost exclusively by monarchs, despots and theocrats." But skeptics like Brent Scowcroft fear that Iraq's elections may incite a sectarian civil war. Why? The NYT's inside piece explains that because seats in Iraq's new assembly will be allotted to candidates by virtue of their percentage of the national vote, and because turnout is expected to be light in Sunni-dominated areas, where the threat of election-related attacks is most dire, Sunnis will likely be underrepresented. That might well stoke the sense of marginalization that fuels Sunni militants. Last spring, some American officials advocated a regional-based vote, but the idea was dismissed as cumbersome and potentially divisive. Now, says the Hoover Institution's Larry Diamond, the decision looks like "a mistake."
Diamond, once a top aide to Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer, is all over the papers today with criticism of the Bush administration's approach. In a separate NYT op-ed column, he calls for a "one-time postponement of the vote" and inducements to coax moderate Sunni leaders to participate. But in yet another interview with the WP, he says he doubts his advice will be heeded, accusing President Bush, "a very stubborn man," of "self-defeating obstinacy."
A delay in the vote is exactly what Ali Ghalib, a Sunni government official from the province of Salahuddin, appealed for in a meeting with Shiite leaders in Najaf on Friday. Then, as he drove back to his home in Tikrit through an area known as the "triangle of death," he was stopped by gunmen. All the papers report that his bullet-riddled body turned up yesterday.
In tsunami news, the WP top-fronts a feature on the Indonesian government's efforts to fight smugglers who are purportedly trafficking in children orphaned by the disaster. The story opens with a touching scene of kids bedding down in a local school's dormitory, where they are being offered shelter and protection. Reading further, however, evidence of systematic kidnapping seems decidedly scant: UNICEF has confirmed just one case, though Indonesian authorities "are looking into dozens of similar allegations." Elsewhere in the paper, an Outlook section piece says Thailand's tourism industry might be partially to blame for many of the tsunami deaths there. Resorts are built right on the beaches, and the development has devastated coral reefs and other natural barriers that might have blunted the wave. And a LAT reporter writes about one small Sri Lankan town where 523 residents died, basing his story on several days of interviews.
Late editions of the NYT front word that an audit of the United Nations' much-maligned Iraq oil-for-food program uncovered … nothing very shocking. "There's no flaming red flags in the stuff," says the head of the inquiry, former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker.
The WP fronts a long feature on the latest in automotive technology: A car powered by hydrogen fuel cells that runs as far and accelerates as fast as an old fashioned gas-guzzler. The commercial success of "hybrid" cars like the Toyota Prius, popularized by TV's Larry David, is driving research into the technology. General Motors says it aims to be able to build 1 million hydrogen cars by 2010. But curb your enthusiasm: For now, the prototype is so expensive to build that if for sale, "it would cost as much as a warehouse full of Corvettes."