Just a day after Beirut played host to a large anti-Syria rally festooned with red-and-white Lebanese flags, the New York Times and Washington Post lead with the even more massive pro-Syria rally organized by Hezbollah under the exact same flags (along with some fetching portraits of Syrian President Bashar Assad). USA Today and the Wall Street Journal world-wide news box lead with President Bush's speech on democracy and the Middle East, in which he repeated his demand that Syria withdraw from Lebanon, neglected to mention the Hezbollah-rama, and wowed his audience a demonstration of (according to the WP) Michael Gerson-crafted rhetoric: "By now it should be clear that authoritarian rule is not the wave of the future; it is the last gasp of a discredited past," he said. "We are confident that the desire for freedom, even when repressed for generations, is present in every human heart. And that desire can emerge with sudden power to change the course of history." The Los Angeles Times leads with a long investigation into Scottish golfing junkets arranged for Tom DeLay and two other congressmen, in possible violation of House ethics rules. The trips were allegedly paid for by a lobbyist embroiled in an influence peddling scandal reported last year in the WP.
[Morning wires report that violence continues to flare in Iraq, where a large suicide truck bomb killed two people in central Baghdad, and, in western Iraq near the Syria border, 19 bodies were found, each shot in the forehead.]
Hezbollah can certainly turn out a crowd: After remaining quiet during weeks of protests, the armed group massed some 500,000 supporters, almost all Shiites, who poured in from the countryside, filling a central Beirut plaza and overflowing into surrounding streets for miles in every direction. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah treated the raucous crowd to an hourlong address: "Syria is not only present as an army," the Post translates. "It is present in the heart, the mind and the future of Lebanon." And: "Lebanon is not Ukraine. Lebanon is Lebanon, a unique state. If anyone thinks they can kick out the government and disrupt national discipline with some slogans, demonstrations and a TV station, he is wrong and suspect."
Takes vary on what Hezbollah's real goal was. The WP says that its most pressing concern is to deflect international pressure to disarm, which it might be forced to do without Syria's support. But inside the NYT implies that the group is more focused on posturing for domestic political gain. "They are playing the democratic game," said an expert on Hezbollah at Lebanese American University. Nasrallah "was telling the international community that you simply cannot dismiss us anymore, we have a huge constituency who wants us to remain armed, who wants us to continue to protect our borders."
The NYT off-leads and others report that a major overhaul of bankruptcy laws long sought by the credit card industry is likely to pass the Senate after lawmakers rejected, by a 53-to-46, near-party-line vote, a Democratic amendment that had scuttled the measure in previous years. (The amendment would have prevented anti-abortion demonstrators from using bankruptcy protections to avoid court-ordered fines, a provision that rankles abortion foes in the House.) "The free ride is over for people who have higher incomes and can repay their debts," crowed Sen. Chuck Grassley. Except, oops: The WSJ points out inside that wealthy individuals are less likely to feel the impact of the legislation because of "significant loopholes" that allow them to shield their assets from creditors.
The NYT, WP, and LAT front news that Chechen resistance leader and one-time president Aslan Maskhadov was killed yesterday, after Russian special forces cornered him at his hideout near Grozny. The NYT says it's a rare propaganda victory for the Vladimir Putin, but the WSJ, LAT and WP also add that Maskhadov was a moderate whose death likely ends the hope for a negotiated settlement to the Chechen war. Maskhadov had disavowed the deadly sieges of a theater in Moscow in 2002 and a school in Beslan last year, both of which had been claimed by the rebel commander Shamil Basayev, who is still at large. "Nothing good will come of this," a military analyst told the WP. "I expect terrorist attacks in Russia and the North Caucasus."
The LAT isn't the only paper fronting possible DeLay dirt: Its New York namesake digs through documents subpoenaed from an indicted DeLay fund-raiser and comes up with, well, no smoking gun. But the paper suggests that DeLay was personally involved in fund-raising for the Texas political committee that is the focus of the famed grand jury investigation that led to the short-lived DeLay rule. In one subpoenaed e-mail, a lobbyist says he'll give a client's check to the committee directly to DeLay, whose spokesman refused to confirm or deny the transaction. "That was three years ago," he said.
The NYT follows up with new details on yesterday's devastating Dominican Republic prison fire, which claimed 136 of 155 prisoners in a cell block built for 40. As families begin to claim charred, nearly unrecognizable bodies, 71 of which are still unidentified, the government has promised an inquiry. One woman sobbed as she saw her dead brother. "We want justice I swear," she repeated over and over.
An independent report, which will be released in full today, accuses the Israeli government of supporting West Bank settlements in violation of its own laws and policies. According to the NYT and WP, the report describes how government ministries conspired to "systematically establish illegal settlement points" using millions of dollars of government money.
Anchor Away! … From the Post's commemorative sampling of Dan Ratherisms to mark his final broadcast at the helm of the CBS Evening News:
"We've lived by the crystal ball and learned to eat so much broken glass tonight that we're in critical condition."
"We don't know what to do. We don't know whether to wind a watch or bark at the moon."
Texas is "the big enchilada or, if not an enchilada, then a huge taco."