The New York Times leads with the Russian prime minister’s vocal break with his government over its recent decision to freeze nearly half the shares of Russia’s largest oil company and to jail its top executive. The Washington Post leads with a federal judge’s approval of a reorganization plan for the bankrupt telecom giant WorldCom. The Los Angeles Times leads with the wintry weather conditions that have taken hold in parts of California, slowing for the moment the wildfires that have recently ravaged 740,000 acres of land, destroying more than 3,300 homes and claiming 20 lives. (High winds and warmer temperatures are expected to return next week.)
Russian PM Mikhail Kasyanov (long seen as a friend of business) told the Interfax news agency that he was “deeply concerned” by the government’s seizures, in comments that came after President Vladimir Putin had explicitly warned members of his Cabinet to keep mum if they had nothing nice to say about his campaign against the Yukos Oil Co. (Putin’s chief of staff had resigned in protest on Thursday, similarly displeased with the situation.) The White House response to the dust-up has thus far been confined to back-channel scolding, but officials suggested to the LAT that President Bush may soon call Putin to talk things over.
After its swan dive last year into the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history, WorldCom is now poised to return phoenixlike to solvency, retaining most of its assets but relieved of some $35 billion in debt. The company, which will soon be officially renamed MCI, also reached a separate $750 million settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission to resolve outstanding fraud charges; a Justice Department investigation of irregular accounting practices is ongoing.
The NYT off-leads a report sourced to “senior counterterrorism officials” from six countries, who say that hundreds of would-be jihadis from the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe have been flocking to Iraq since late summer to take up arms against U.S. troops there. But despite their apparent numbers, it’s not clear how many groups (if any) may be coordinating the influx of foreigners, and one European official described the fighters as “foot soldiers with little or no training.”
From Iraq, the papers all note that a U.S. soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in Khaldiya on Friday, and the LAT cites wire reports that three more GI’s were killed by a landmine in Mosul early Saturday, apparently bringing the American combat death toll to 121 since President Bush declared an end to major hostilities in May. (According to the NYT, at least 33 U.S. soldiers were killed by hostile fire during October, more than twice as many as had been in September.) The papers also check in from Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad, where a pro-Saddam rally gave way to an hourslong firefight with American forces on Friday.
Meanwhile, troops in Iraq are digging in for what could be a long weekend, amid rumors of stepped-up guerrilla and terrorist attacks planned for Saturday and Sunday, and leaflets (apparently distributed by lingering Baathists) calling for a three-day general strike by Iraqis. Among other precautions, soldiers have cordoned off Saddam’s home village outside of Tikrit and issued new ID cards to the people who live there.
Looking at the big picture, the NYT goes inside with a just-released Congressional Budget Office projection of the long-term costs of occupying Iraq. Under the CBO’s leanest scenario, which assumes that the U.S. will withdraw from Iraq by 2008, total military costs (not counting reconstruction and classified intelligence ops) are expected to reach $85 billion. The CBO’s most drawn-out hypothetical, which assumes that at least 50,000 troops would stay in Iraq through 2013, sees a $200 billion tab overall.
The NYT also reports inside on a recent rash of revenge killings in Basra, where more than a dozen former senior Baath Party officials have been assassinated in the past month, including two in the past few days. Such incidents had apparently tapered off since the immediate aftermath of major combat in the spring, and officials aren’t certain who has been carrying out these attacks, although the paper points out that four new Islamic fundamentalist groups have recently set up shop in the area.
The WP reefers word that Senate intelligence committee officials were “generally pleased” by the response of various government agencies to a Friday deadline it had set for turning over certain requested intel documents from the run-up to the Iraq war. The CIA, State Dept., and Defense Dept. will reportedly share additional info with the committee in the near future, but the White House has demurred thus far and is expected to invoke executive privilege if prodded further.
The WP fronts and the NYT reefers word that scientists in St. Louis, Mo., have synthesized a strain of mousepox (a disease similar to smallpox but harmless to humans) so virulent that it can kill lab mice who have already been vaccinated against the disease. Although researchers claim that the advance doesn’t pose a risk to people, critics worry that pushing such envelopes could unwittingly help terrorists perfect bioweapons of their own.
A surprising op-ed in the NYT looks at the prevalence of mental illness in American prisons. As an unintended consequence of deinstitutionalization reforms in the 1960s, the number of mentally ill people in prison has been rising for decades, to the point where the Los Angeles County jail and New York’s Riker’s Island are now the two largest de facto inpatient psychiatric facilities in the U.S.
And, finally, in its “Saturday Profile,” the NYT writes up Wolfram Siebeck, the “Martha Stewart of Germany,” a food critic for the newspaper Die Zeit whose bully pulpit has been credited with single-handedly nudging German cuisine beyond wurst. Siebeck sees his country’s relative culinary backwardness as a high-stakes affair with deep historical roots, reaching all the way back to the cultural trauma of the Thirty Years’ War, and despite more recent advances, his ardor hasn’t yet cooled: “People prefer their food to be mild. … That’s something that gets me on the barricades, because mildness in food—it’s a castration.” Bon appetit …