Today's Papers

Dead-End Ali

Everybody leads with a big incursion by about 150 U.S. tanks and lighter Bradley Fighting Vehicles into the center of Baghdad, where American troops took control of the Information Ministry, at least one presidential palace, and the Al-Rashid Hotel, until recently the home of most foreign journalists. Unlike last weekend’s probe, it’s not clear when, or if, the GIs are heading back out of town. “We’ll see how it pans out and how long we’ll stay,” one officer told the New York Times. A captain gave USA Today a different assessment: “I do believe this city is freakin’ ours.”

The Los Angeles Times says that the tanks are mostly just encountering small arms fire, and the paper concludes that the regime appears to be “entering its death throes, tipping on the verge of collapse.” One “government functionary” (a minder?) said that his colleagues “feel that this will be over soon, maybe in three or four days.”

Despite the huge gains downtown, the papers do suggest that not everything was going smoothly. The NYT says that full encirclement of the city “proved elusive.” And the  Wall Street Journal goes up high with late-breaking reports that Iraqi artillery destroyed a bridge and killed four or five Marines crossing the Tigris.

The papers all cite reports from the Red Cross that about 100 wounded a day have been entering Baghdad’s hospitals, with the Washington Post, citing health officials, suggesting that the number “reached 100 an hour in pitched battles Friday.”

According to early-morning reports, British officials say they’ve found the body of Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known as “Chemical Ali,” the commander of all Iraqi forces in the south. He earned the nickname after ordering the gassing of Kurds in the 1980s.

In a related development, everybody notices that Basra appears to be on the verge on falling, with the NYT giving the development banner headline play. A large contingent of British tanks and troops made their way to the city center and decided to stay. Three British soldiers have been killed during the operation. The Brits now control about half the city, says the NYT.

The Post’s front-page piece on Basra highlights what happened after the British went in: Lots of locals looting. “Factories, shops and municipal offices all became targets,” says the Post. “Looters drove off in four-wheel-drive vehicles, trucks, even a fire engine.” “The Baath, the Fedayeen, no more!” shouted one resident. “Now it’s just the thieves, stealing everything!”

Everybody mentions the worst friendly-fire incident of the war: 17 Kurdish fighters and one American special ops soldier were killed when an American fighter mistakenly bombed their convoy. The LAT and USAT both mention that Pentagon officials said the number of casualties might actually be much lower, only three killed. But, as only the LAT mentions, a BBC reporter who had been traveling with the convoy confirmed the first number.

Also yesterday, a Russian diplomatic convoy got caught in crossfire between U.S. and Iraqi troops, and five people were injured. A Russian reporter traveling with the convoy said U.S. troops started the shooting, despite what he said was the obvious presence of a civilian convoy: “Naturally the Iraqis started to return fire. So we found ourselves caught in the crossfire, basically.” A Pentagon spokesman disputed that account.

The LAT, WP, and USAT front word that the Pentagon, in a controversial move, airlifted a major Iraqi exile and about 500 of his supporters into the southern city of Nasiriyah. Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress are supported by the Pentagon but more or less hated by the State Dept. and CIA who think that the INC is made up of armchair exiles who don’t have support in Iraq itself. And though the papers skip over it, the INC has had a few Enron-esque money moments. Oh, and for what it’s worth, Chalabi was convicted of embezzlement  10 years ago in Jordan—a bit only the LAT mentions.

The Pentagon and others downplayed the significance of the insertion, saying that it shouldn’t be read as a sign that Chalabi has a lock on a top post. It looks like more of a job tryout. “This is a put-up-or-shut-up move for Chalabi,” one “U.S. official” told the LAT. “He’s been claiming he has all these guys. Let’s see them and see what they can do.”

The Post notes inside that as the U.S. 101st Division consolidated its hold on Karbala, they were met by cheering residents. “Saddam donkey,” chanted the crowd. “We love you United States.” They also had some complaints, “Night and day, no water.” Meanwhile, the WSJ’s embed with the 101st notes that officials at a local hospital say that about 100 civilians have been killed by U.S. airstrikes in and around the city. Still, many of the doctors said they support the invasion.

The NYT declares, “RULE BY U.S. AND BRITAIN MAY PASS 6 MONTHS, WOLFOWITZ ASSERTS.” Presumably, the Times’ editors decided that this is news because it sounds like a long time. But it’s not, really. Previous reports, including some in the Times, have suggested the U.S.’s military or interim government will last a year or more.

For those of you who spent too much this weekend watching Wolf and Christiane, here’s a little reality check: The Post and NYT both mention inside that, contrary to  much-hyped TV reports, 300 buried bodies found at a base near Basra are, as one officer put it, “consistent with combat deaths, not a war crime.” They appear to be soldiers who died during the Iran-Iraq war.

Most of the papers notice the latest virtuoso performance by everybody’s favorite propagandist, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf. “They say they brought 65 tanks into center of city. I say to you this talk is not true. This is part of their sick mind,” he explained from the roof the Palestine Hotel. “There is no presence of American infidels in the city of Baghdad at all.” He had to speak loudly—to project over the noise of gunfire.