Today's Papers

Ambush League

The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today lead with word from the military that U.S. troops killed 46 Iraqi guerrillas while fending off simultaneous attacks on two American convoys about 60 miles north of Baghdad, around the town of Samarra. Military spokesmen said at least five GIs and 18 guerrillas were wounded and another eight guerrillas were captured, in what appears to have been the largest battle since Baghdad was captured. Also, three foreign reconstruction workers were killed yesterday by guerrillas, two South Koreans and a Colombian. The Washington Post off-leads the attacks and leads with word that in a bid to head off a trade war with Europe, the White House appears to have decided to repeal its 20-month old steel tariffs.

Most of the papers’ leads are filed from Baghdad and have little detail on the fighting. But probably benefiting from its later press time, the LAT gets a report from Samarra and says a hospital near there reported that only nine people were killed. Military officials also changed their number of guerrillas KIA, raising it to 54.

The LAT fronts word from unnamed Saudi and U.S. officials that Saudi Arabia has decided to withhold its $1 billion in credits and loans to Iraq until the security situation gets better. The Times says that’s part of a trend of Arab governments being less than fully responsive to the United States’ requests for various kinds of help with Iraq. “The first thing [Arab governments] need to do is stop messing things up,” said one anonymous U.S. official.

The NYT says inside that the Iraqi Governing Council announced that having national elections by June would be a really good idea. But rather than committing itself to such elections, as Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric has called for, the GC appointed a committee to study the issue and report back in a few weeks.

As one GC member explained, there would be “political and technical difficulties” to pulling off the elections in time. One of those difficulties might be the GC itself, which doesn’t want to give up power and announced this weekend that it will stay in business after a new government is formed, despite promises to dissolve itself.

Most members of the Governing Council have also opposed direct elections. The NYTimes essentially skips that point. But yesterday’s Post didn’t. It explained, “Because many of the 24 council members probably would not fare well in open elections, they pressured Bremer to establish an indirect three-step system. … The U.S. plan effectively gives the Governing Council a kind of remote control because it will have the deciding vote in local caucuses that will pick a national assembly.” One former U.S. occupation official described the setup as “an insane selection system of caucuses, like the Iowa caucus selecting those who will vote in New Hampshire.”

All of this makes the NYT’s headline remarkably misleading: “IRAQI COUNCIL AGREES ON NATIONAL ELECTIONS.” None of the other papers give the council’s announcement significant coverage.

The NYT says inside that Saddam had been trying to buy a complete missile production system from North Korea, rather than just some preassembled missiles as previously reported. After a $10 million down payment, Kim Jong Il stiffed him, arguing that the United States was watching too closely. The story, which relies on “computer files discovered by international inspectors and the accounts of Bush administration officials,” says Saddam and the Dear Leader used Syria as a middleman. (Syrian President Assad told the Times, “This is the first time I have heard this story.”) The article says the failed missile deal is the “most serious violation” weapons searchers have come across. After the long search for chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs, one unnamed official said, “We’ve learned this much: Kim Jong Il took Saddam to the cleaners.”

In a front-page NYT interview, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad makes a lot of nice talk, including saying that he’s ready to restart peace negotiations with Israel and that he’d like the United States to push things along. The NYT has excerpts of the interview online. *

As everybody notes inside, Syria sent Turkey 22 people wanted in connection with the recent bombings in Istanbul.

Most of the papers tease on Page One news that the U.S. is about to release roughly 100 prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. The Pentagon is apparently talking with various detainees’ home countries about whether the prisoners will be freed or sent to local jails. Time magazine first reported the impending release.

Holiday rush … to judgment: The NYT reports, “EARLY SALES APPEAR MODEST AS HOLIDAY SEASON BEGINS.” The story begins, “Estimates of post-Thanksgiving retail sales ranged yesterday from flat to modest.” Meanwhile, USAT announces, “HOLIDAY BUYING STARTS HOT.” Unlike the NYT, USAT has figures to back up its headline.

Correction, Dec. 1, 2003: In the original version of this edition of Today’s Papers, Eric Umansky wrote that the New York Times didn’t publish the full transcript of its interview with Syrian President President Bashar al-Assad. In fact, the Times did post such a transcript early in the morning. Return to the corrected sentence.