For its lead, the New York Times has gotten its hands on a secret U.S. government report from June that estimates that Iraqi insurgent groups are raising $70 million to $200 million a year from a wide range of illegal activities. The Washington Post catches the NYT's scoop (putting the Reuters version of the story on page A21), but leads with an unsettling tour of Baghdad, as the city's inhabitants brace for more violence. The Los Angeles Times leads with the movement of methamphetamine labs from California's hinterlands to Mexico. A successful crackdown in the United States on the sale of chemicals used to produce the drug is seen as the main reason behind the migration.
The interagency report obtained by the NYT says the "groups responsible for many of the insurgent and terrorist attacks" in Iraq are now financially self-sustaining, thanks to a combination of oil smuggling, kidnapping, counterfeiting, corrupt charities, and other crimes. The problem with the Times piece, or perhaps the government report, is that there is no distinction made between the disparate groups fomenting violence in Iraq—the Shiite militias, Sunni militias, ex-Baathists, and foreign terrorist organizations are all grouped under the broad banner of the insurgency. According to the report, some of these groups "may have surplus funds with which to support other terrorist organizations outside of Iraq." But which groups? Members of the Sunni and Shiite militias seem perfectly content killing people in their own country.
Of course, such a conclusion conveniently fits with the administration's contention that the Iraq war is part of the larger war on terror. But terrorism experts who were shown the report said it was doubtful that insurgent money was flowing abroad and criticized the report for its "lack of precision and a reliance on speculation."
The NYT and WP run competing stories dealing with the Iraq Study Group, better known as the Baker commission. In a front-page piece, the NYT profiles James Baker, who friends say is trying to "seal his legacy in the realm of statesmen." The better WP piece, stuffed inside, gives a behind-the-scenes look at the commission's free-flowing deliberations. We learn of Sandra Day O'Connor's "thoughtful questions," Baker's "telltale body language, which could dismiss a comment with as little as a raised eyebrow," and two votes in which experts favored a stabilization option over gradual withdrawal. (For what it's worth, Chuck Hagel, not a member of the commission, favors the latter in a WP op-ed, and so do Iraq's clerics, also not members, according to the LAT.)
On the ground in Iraq, 47 Sunni militants were killed in fighting with Iraqi security forces in and around Baquba, while U.S. forces killed 22 insurgents north of Baghdad. But only the WP, in its lead story, succeeds in cutting through the banal treatment of the violence. Its descriptions of various disturbing scenes around Baghdad are well worth reading, as the civil war heats up.
Wait, did I say "civil war"? Angry administration officials would accuse me of mischaracterizing the conflict. But they probably don't read this column and, anyway, the NYT reports that "a growing number of American and Iraqi scholars, leaders and policy analysts say the fighting in Iraq meets the standard definition of civil war." Actually, the fighting has met this definition for some time. Are these experts just now getting up to speed, or is the NYT a bit late on this story?
In other international news, Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed to a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian president and prime minister said all armed groups would abide by the agreement, but the NYT reports that rockets and mortar fire continued to hit southern Israel after the initial deadline. It's a fragile truce, to say the least.
The citizens of Ecuador will vote for a new president today. The NYT says the entertaining and tight race will likely decide whether the country aligns itself with the anti-American alliance of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Cuba, or Andean countries like Colombia and Peru that have good relations with the United States.
Back home, the NYT runs down the problems at the polls during this month's midterm elections. Although few big problems were reported (Sarasota County, I'm looking in your direction), "election experts" say many problems may have been overlooked because most races were not close. Worried about 2008, the Times says Congress will probably get to work on stalled legislation that requires electronic voting machines to have a paper trail for easier recounts. The WP is also looking forward to 2008, providing readers with a brief overview of what seats will be in play.
On their front pages, the LAT and WP say it won't be easy for Democrats to tinker with Medicare's new prescription-drug benefit. During the campaign, many Democrats vowed to free the government to negotiate lower prices with drug makers. But the program "has proven cheaper and more popular than anyone imagined," and Republicans think negotiations may end up raising drug prices. The road ahead is unclear.