The New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times lead with continued Iraq tensions in the wake of Wednesday's mosque bombing in Samarra. The Wall Street Journal tops its world-wide news box with, and runs a front-page story on, a foiled attempt to bomb a Saudi oil refinery. (The LAT also fronts this.)
The daytime curfew in many Iraqi provinces was extended to Saturday. All the papers note yesterday's nearly empty streets in many cities. The Post's piece takes the least pessimistic view, stressing a public statement by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the largest Shiite political party. Al-Hakim blamed Wednesday's bombing on al-Qaida in Iraq, which he called "the enemy of Islam and Iraqis." Although 29 new bodies were found in Baghdad, the papers note that the widespread slaughter of Wednesday and Thursday seems to have subsided.
Even so, the NYT notes that, despite all of the diplomatic statements issued by al-Hakim and a few other big-shot imams, many local clerics preached revenge in sermons yesterday, and talks to form a new government have been suspended indefinitely. Moreover, al-Hakim refused to apologize for retaliatory strikes against Sunni mosques. The Times also reports increasing Shiite anger at the U.S. and its ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghani-born Sunni muslim who had been pressuring Shiite politicians to include Sunnis in the new government.
The Los Angeles Times's report is the most pessimistic; the paper runs a man-in-the-street feature under the headline "A Nation Teeters on the Brink of Civil War." "It is not uncommon to hear Iraqis speaking of civil war as if it has become inevitable," the reporter writes, "as if the only questions worth asking are when it will begin, what will spark it—or whether they will one day look back and realize that this civil war, this ambiguous threat, was already underway when the Golden Mosque in Samarra was blown up."
All the papers note President Bush's address to the American Legion, in which he said the days ahead would be "difficult and exhausting" for the Iraqi people, who now face a "moment of choosing" (presumably between order and disorder). (The LAT says Bush gave a "somber speech" to the veterans group. Somber? Read the speech and judge for yourself.) A "senior U.S. official" tells the LAT that the American military would be useless in a civil war: "When it's a fight of Iraqi Shia on Sunnis, our guys can't get in the middle. It would all be up to the Iraqis." The NYT fronts a piece on the power of Iraq's militias.
Guards at the Abqaiq oil refinery in Saudi Arabia fired on two explosives-filled cars, which blew up prematurely outside the refinery's security perimeter. Al-Qaida claimed responsibility on a Web site, the NYT reports. Abqaiq, on the Persian Gulf coast, is "the single most vital cog in the world petroleum system," according to the Journal, responsible for 8 percent of the world's oil consumption. The bombers failed to penetrate the outermost of three electrified fences surrounding the facility. The Journal says that Saudi spending on oil-plant security has risen 50 percent since 2003, to $5.5 billion, and experts tell both papers that terrorists would need either an army or a nuclear weapon to penetrate Abqaiq. The news caused oil prices to rise from about $60 to $62 a barrel.
Alan Greenspan decried the polarization of American politics in a private speech Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reports (online, at least). According to audience members at his address before an investment company, Greenspan said that both political parties are in thrall to extremists, whereas most voters are centrists. He argued that this current political disconnect leaves an opening for a third-party candidacy. He said he refused to endorse any particular candidate "for now."
Ted Turner has decided to step down from Time Warner's board, the papers report. The move completely severs him from CNN, the network he founded in 1980. Some speculate that he will re-enter the media business, but Turner says he will devote himself to philanthropy.
On the NYT op-ed page, Nikita Krushchev biographer William Taubman looks back on the former Soviet leader's famous anti-Stalin speech at the Communist Party Congress 50 years ago today. Krushchev intended to save communism, Taubman notes, not destroy it. Yet his speech provoked revolts in Poland and Hungary, and it set in motion a process that culminated in the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991. Moreover, although the speech was partly self-serving, it was also Krushchev's attempt to expiate the guilt he felt for his complicity in Stalin's crimes. In this sense, Taubman writes, the address marked Krushchev as the only one of Stalin's contemporaries to have both survived Stalin and retained his humanity.
The NYT fronts a great feature on the proliferation of traveling teenage basketball teams that pretend to represent real high schools. In fact, these teams—with names like Lutheran Christian Academy, Rise Academy, and Boys to Men Academy—either offer no real coursework or outsource their teaching to online schools. All of the students at these "schools" play basketball. "There were no classes," a former Lutheran Christian student tells the Times. "We went to basketball practice every single day. What we were told when we first went there was: How you perform on the court, that's what you do for your grades."
These Potemkin high schools are filling a market niche created by the NCAA, the Times notes. In the last few years, the NCAA has changed policy to 1) allow high-school administrators to determine the legitimacy of their own courses, and 2) allow students who flunk standardized tests to compensate with a decent G.P.A. Lutheran Christian told the NCAA that it was accredited by the state (untrue) and listed 35 courses it offers, including Latin 2, chemistry, and physics. The NCAA certified Lutheran's transcripts without question. Last year the "school" sent 11 "students" to Division I teams.
"On second thought, honey, let's use TurboTax this year." … The NYT business section brings word that H&R Block has been forced to restate earnings going back two and a half years. The reason? It made inaccurate estimates of its own tax liability.