British and Iraqi troops raid a police station in Basra.

British and Iraqi troops raid a police station in Basra.

British and Iraqi troops raid a police station in Basra.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Dec. 26 2006 5:05 AM

Prison Breakdown

The New York Timesleads with more than 1,000 British and Iraqi soldiers raiding a police station in the city of Basra, killing seven gunmen and transferring custody of the 127 prisoners. The police unit that ran the station was so highly infiltrated by militias and criminals that British officials said the prisoners were going to be executed. The Washington Postleads, and the Wall Street Journal tops its world-wide newsbox, with the escalation of the conflict between Ethiopia and the Islamic Courts movement in Somalia. Ethiopia bombed two Somali airports, and thousands are fleeing their homes and farms in order to avoid the fighting.

The Los Angeles Timesleads with fears that the increasing availability of potent heroin from Afghanistan is causing more addiction and overdoses. In Los Angeles County, heroin-related deaths increased from 137 in 2002 to 239 in 2005. USA Todayleads with word that the number of incidents relating to trafficking and mishandling of radioactive material reported to U.S. intelligence officials has more than doubled since the early 1990s. According to the Department of Homeland Security, there have been approximately 200 to 250 incidents a year since 2000. But that doesn't mean there's some specified threat, since most of the incidents involve mishandling by officials, not trafficking. There have also been no reports of terrorist groups getting their hands on nuclear material.

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After British and Iraqi troops went inside the police station, which was run by a squad known as the "serious crime unit," they found prisoners were being held in "appalling" conditions. The prisoners were cramped into extremely small spaces, and many showed signs of having been tortured. Some local officials criticized the raid, but the Washington Post talks to some residents who are glad someone put a stop to the group that many say terrorized Basra's residents. The police unit "was in fact living up to its name," a spokesman for British troops said. "It was conducting serious crimes rather than preventing it." Although this unit may have been particularly heinous, it is further evidence of the extent that some Iraqi security forces have been infiltrated by militias and insurgents who want to provide anything but security. British forces later blew up the station.

Ethiopian ground troops captured a "strategically important" border town and three villages in Somalia. Officials vowed to push on toward Mogadishu and remove the Islamic fighters from every town in the next five days. Meanwhile, thousands of Somalis went out into the street to protest the presence of Ethiopian troops, whom many believe are being supported by the U.S. government. In the front lines of the fighting, sources report fighters from Eritrea and Pakistan have joined the battle against Ethiopian troops.

As Ethiopia is busy trying to demonstrate its superior military strength, the LAT emphasizes how it runs the danger of encountering similar problems to the ones currently being faced by the United States in Iraq. Even if the Ethiopian military is successful, this will only make the Islamic movement "more motivated to pursue a guerilla-style war or terrorist attacks across the region."

The LAT got a copy of a report by the Drug Enforcement Administration that reveals heroin from Afghanistan accounted for 14 percent of the U.S. market in 2004, which was twice as much as in 2001. Despite these figures, DEA officials deny there is an increase in the amount of heroin from Afghanistan entering the United States. Because Afghan heroin is more potent, addicts are being told to reduce the amount of the drug they use.

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The WP fronts a look at how Sen. John McCain's call to send more troops to Iraq is more personal than most realize. His 18-year-old son has recently become a Marine. McCain almost never mentions his son publicly and did not agree to talk to the WP reporter about his family. "I get a feeling that he sometimes must think he's seeing an old movie being played back," said George "Bud" Day, who was McCain's cellmate in Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, McCain's father commanded the Pacific forces and ordered airstrikes on Hanoi even knowing that his son was imprisoned there.

The NYT looks into the prison population in the Kurdish-controlled area of Iraq, where those who are being held seem to have very little chance of ever getting out. Although the Kurdish government insists those in prison are dangerous individuals, and accuses most of being terrorists and insurgents, none have gone through any form of trial. Human Rights Watch, which estimates that there are around 2,500 people being held, is encouraging Kurdish authorities to set up some sort of commission to review the cases. The U.S. military says it has no role in the Kurdish prison system.

Meanwhile, the LAT reports that the U.S. military announced the death of six more U.S. troops in Iraq. Approximately 60 Iraqis were killed yesterday in assorted violence.

The LAT fronts word that in three high-profile cases, federal prosecutors have been trying to use anonymous Israeli government witnesses, which is raising complaints from defense attorneys who say this clearly violates the Sixth Amendment. Although courts have previously allowed witnesses to testify without revealing their identities, some experts say the difference now is that federal prosecutors want to keep even the defense attorneys in the dark.

Congressional earmarks are usually seen as a good way for lawmakers to get positive reviews from their home states, but the WSJ reports that some local officials see them as a burden and would be happy to get rid of them. As opposed to what most people think, earmarks don't usually bring extra money; "they merely dictate how agencies must spend federal money they were already counting on." This means local officials sometimes have to put aside projects they consider high priority in order to carry out what are often seen as lawmakers' pet projects.

The LAT fronts a dispatch from Namibia that looks into Africa's latest cash crop: hoodia gordonii. The highly sought-after plant, which goes for $40 an ounce, is said to reduce thirst and hunger and has become an extremely popular dieting supplement. The high demand, coupled with hoodia's upcoming commercialization by Unilever, means people are scrambling to get as many plants as possible into the market. This has resulted in fake products as well as smuggling. South African officials fear organized crime might get involved. 

Yesterday, only the LAT managed to include a short wire story on the early-morning death of James Brown. Today, everybody fronts the news that the Godfather of Soul died of congestive heart failure. "You could build a case that Brown was also the 'Godfather of Disco,' the 'Godfather of Rap,' and the 'Godfather of Funk,' because his electrifying beats powered so many genres," writes Robert Hilburn in a Page One appreciation. President Bush called Brown "an American original" in a statement yesterday. According to Brown's agent, the "Hardest Working Man in Show Business" was planning on appearing in New York on New Year's Eve.

The LAT reports it won't be a very happy New Year's Eve for bars in Atlanta, and across Georgia, this year. In fact, most of them won't even be able to open. Dec. 31 falls on a Sunday and, according to Georgia law, bars aren't allowed to serve alcohol on Sundays. Georgia is one of 15 states with this law, and some places are working on making exceptions this year to allow people to celebrate the beginning of 2007.

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the Today’s Papers column from 2006 to 2009. Follow him on Twitter.