Today's Papers

Surround Sounds

The Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and USA Today lead with Pakistani officials saying they have al-Qaida’s No.2, Ayman al-Zawahiri,surrounded in a small hamlet of villages. As of last night, fighting involved about 500 militants and about 7,000 Pakistani troops. At least five soldiers were killed yesterday. The Washington Post fronts the search, but leads with U.S. officers in Iraq saying that foreign and Iraqi Islamic militants have eclipsed former regime holdouts as the source of attacks on civilians and security forces. “The Baathist money has dried up, and the leadership is largely gone,” said one named officer. “The new money and leadership is coming from the extremists.” (Note: USAT declined to release its paper last night, explaining that they had a story they didn’t want anybody to see until the morning.)

According to overnight news caught by the LAT, Taiwan’s president and vice president have been shot, the day before elections there. Taiwanese officials say both are in stable condition, and neither wound is serious, with the president shot in the stomach and the vice president shot in the knee.

There’s something curious about the Zawahiri coverage. Despite most of the papers leading with it, the articles themselves generally go to great lengths to play down the report. The NYT and Post’spieces are particularly skeptical. The WP notes Pakistani officials say they have “no specific information on the whereabouts of Zawahiri.” One unnamed Pakistani military official told the Post that there were “solid reports” Zawahiri was in the area about three months ago. He added, “We are not sure if he was still hanging out.”

The LAT, though, cites U.S. intel sources saying the Pakistanis’ belief “was based on more than the fact that their troops had encountered unusually fierce resistance. The officials said they could not provide details.” But even the LAT adds that both U.S. and Pakistani officials “downplayed widespread media speculation that Zawahiri had been positively identified as the quarry and that he had been cornered by Pakistani forces in such a way that capture or even containment was imminent.”

And what exactly does “surrounded” mean? According to the last paragraph of the NYT’s piece, it “should be understood to mean that the target was inside a several-square-mile area.”

As the NYT notes up high, news—or perhaps rumor—of Zawahiri’s impending capture came hours after Secretary of State Powell, who’s visiting the region, announced that the U.S. has upgraded Pakistan to “major non-NATO ally” status, making it easier for the country to buy American weapons.

Unlike many intel stories, the Post’s lead about the rise of Islamic militants in Iraq doesn’t just take the word of top officials. It’s better reported than that and includes quotes from named and unnamed intel officers stationed throughout Iraq. Among the tidbits in the piece, intel officials fret about how hard the militants are to track. “The Baathists had a clearer structure,” said one officer. The story also questions the role played by AQ fellow traveler Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whom the administration has fingered as Iraq’s top terrorist. “He is probably just one of several ringleaders,” said one intel officer. Yesterday’s TP mentioned a recent LAT story that also cast doubt on the portrayal of Zarqawi. The LAT has been kind enough to re-post that article.

On the other hand: Citing European officials as well as police documents, the Journal says links have been found between Zarqawi and the Madrid attacks. For instance, one of the key suspects in the case was close with one of Zarqawi’s lieutenants.

As the Wall Street Journal says at the top of its world-wide newsbox, there appear to have been an unusually high number of attacks yesterday in Iraq, with at least 10 Iraqis killed and eight GIs wounded. Among the incidents, a bomb exploded outside a Basra hotel, where the British give briefings (three Iraqis were killed), and GIs were in a firefight in Fallujah. One Arab journalist was also killed mistakenly by U.S. forces at a roadblock.

The Journal reports that congressional investigators believe that Saddam skimmed about $10 billion from the U.N.’s oil-for-food program, $4.5 billion more than previously believed.

Nobody fronts the continued Albanian rioting in Kosovo, where at least 22 people have been killed and 500 injured. NATO has sent in about 1,000 reinforcements. But peacekeepers have been targeted as well. “There’s a considerable degree of frustration among ethnic Albanians toward the United Nations,” said one analyst. “The ethnic Albanians see a failure of getting independence. There’s a great feeling of being let down.” Some Serbs in Belgrade also continued to riot against Albanians, burning down another mosque.

Most of the papers front Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s unusual public defense, via a 21-page memo, against calls that he recuse himself in a case involving Vice President Cheney, whom Scalia duck-hunted with recently. “A rule that required Members of this Court to remove themselves from cases in which the official actions of friends were at issue would be utterly disabling,” Scalia wrote. (Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick hopes Scalia’s letter becomes a trend in the court toward long-needed transparency.)

The Post and NYT front Republican Sen. John McCain defending Sen. Kerry against Bush campaign charges. “I do not believe that he is, quote, ‘weak on defense,’ ” said McCain, adding, “This kind of rhetoric, I think, is not helpful in educating and helping the American people make a choice.”

The WP and NYT also front the collapse of settlement talks between the European Union and Microsoft (which owns … me). As the Times says, the breakdown “virtually assures” that the European court will rule against Microsoft next week, requiring it to sell two versions of Windows, one with its Media Player and one without.

Happy anniversary… The Post uses the one-year mark of the invasion to look at President Bush’s prewar expectations versus the now postwar reality. It’s not pretty: “The invasion and occupation of Iraq, his administration predicted, would come at little financial cost and would materially improve the lives of Iraqis. Americans would be greeted as liberators, Bush officials predicted, and the toppling of Saddam Hussein would spread peace and democracy throughout the Middle East.” The Post notes, The White House “did not respond to requests for information for this report.”