Today's Papers

Fatwa for Fatah?

USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Timesand the Wall Street Journal’sworldwide newsbox all lead with Israel’s decision to sever ties with Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, a day after terrorist attacks killed 10 Israelis. The Washington Post, interestingly, stuffs this story (at least in early editions) and leads with a report, based on interviews with Afghan commanders, that the “U.S. military operatives stepped in today to oppose a surrender deal offered by Osama bin Laden’s fighters, pressuring Afghan leaders to instead renew their attack on the cornered holdouts.” The deal would have allowed al-Qaida troops to surrender to diplomats from their own countries or to the U.N. The other papers are more equivocal. As the LAT puts it, “The U.S. role in a possible al-Qaida surrender is murky.”

In one of the attacks in Israel yesterday, a bomb was detonated under a passenger bus, then when ambulances arrived, Palestinian gunmen opened fire.

Israel’s security Cabinet quickly issued a statement: “Arafat is no longer relevant as far as the State of Israel is concerned and there will be no more contact with him.” It added that Arafat was “directly responsible’” for the attacks.

The Cabinet also announced that Israeli troops will deploy in “military operations in cities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to carry out arrests and confiscate weapons.” Israel tanks soon moved into Ramallah, where Arafat has his headquarters. 

“We have no intention to assassinate Arafat or to hurt him,” said Israel’s justice minister. “We simply see him as having no value as a partner.” 

The LAT reports that Israeli authorities said the terrorists who carried out yesterday’s attack had been on a list of alleged militants whom Israel wanted Arafat to arrest. The Palestinian Authority denied that.

“The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an underground militia affiliated with Arafat’s Fatah group, took credit for the attack,” reports USAT. “The brigade said it took part in the attack with Hamas.” The West Coast Times disputes that, saying Hamas claimed sole responsibility. (Question: If Hamas and Fatah members did indeed work together on the attacks, would it be the first such joint operation between the two groups? Because that would certainly be a notable development.)

After the attacks, Arafat ordered the closure of the offices of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The WSJ says, “the decision brings to a head the confrontation between Mr. Arafat and the Islamist movement, whose popularity has soared on a combination of social-welfare programs and suicide bomb attacks.”

The NYT, in a front-page news analysis, says, “though Israel said it was fed up, it stopped well short of actually declaring the Oslo peace agreement dead.” The papers adds, “The practical consequences of isolating Mr. Arafat were unclear. As it is, the Israelis have had little to no contact with him during the last 14 months.” The piece says that the real question is whether Israel will also cut off contact with mid-level Palestinian Authority officials, who, even this past week, have been meeting with Israeli officials.

“The Americans won’t accept [al-Qaida’s] surrender,” said Hazrat Ali, the security chief in eastern Afghanistan, after he left a meeting with U.S. officials. “They want to kill them.”

The Pentagon says that’s not true, sort of. “I’m sure our guys are saying, ‘Look, you continue until there’s some resolution,’ ” said one anonymous U.S. official. 

Tucked under the Post’s lead is a news analysis—really a thinly veiled op-ed—saying that the bombing “onslaught is raising questions about whether the ultimate American aim should be defeating the terrorist forces—or annihilating them.” Who, one wonders, might be raising those questions? Could it be, say, the Post?

While none of the other papers follow the Post’s lead, they do report that some Afghan commanders said that al-Qaida troops were ready to surrender, but that the United States started bombing and thus messed everything up. “The bombardment cost us the surrender,” said one of the area’s top commanders. Another commander, though, said that the offer to surrender “just a fraud.”

Some of the commanders said that if the United States wants to dictate the terms of surrender, it needs to walk the talk. “The Americans have to go to the front now themselves,” said one.

The Afghans fighting al-Qaida aren’t exactly unified. “We’re dealing with factions within factions,” said one Pentagon official.   

The NYT reports that the Pentagon believes U.S. bombs killed three al-Qaida leaders, though not the No. 2 man, Ayman Al-Zawahiri.

The NYT goes inside with a report that two Northern Alliance forces engaged in a turf scuffle, exchanging gunfire and artillery rounds. The paper reports, at length, that one of the warlords claimed U.S. planes joined the fight and bombed his troops. The Pentagon says that didn’t happen.

The NYT and WP report that U.S. officials acknowledged yesterday that the government has been producing small amounts of powered—and thus aerosolizable—anthrax over the last decade, though only enough to study it for defensive purposes. The Post emphasizes that only U.S. military labs could have produced the finely powered anthrax found in October’s attacks. But one expert disagreed. “The quality of the product contained in the letter to Senator Daschle was better than that found in the Soviet, U.S. or Iraqi programs,” he said.

The Times, but not the Post, credits the Baltimore Sun for breaking the news that the labs are still making aerosolizable anthrax. [Editor’s note: In fact, the Post story credited the Sun in its seventh paragraph.] But is that really news? In a piece last month, a New Yorker reporter wrote, “In a sense, Army scientists have, in recent years, ‘weaponized’ the Ames strain [of anthrax] whenever they have tested anthrax vaccines on monkeys. They make an aerosol of the Ames strain and spray into the monkeys.”

The LAT catches late-breaking news that gunmen stormed India’s Parliament building, murdering at least twelve people. Indian police said the attackers were all killed. 

A B1-B bomber crashed yesterday, the first U.S. airplane lost in the war in Afghanistan. According to the plane’s pilot, shortly after takeoff the bomber suffered “multiple malfunctions.” The crew ejected and was rescued. The papers, except the NYT, note that the B-1B has had a long history of mechanical problems. As it turns out, Today’s Papers recently spent a few minutes pondering why the Air Force’s weapons are less reliable than the Navy’s.