Today's Papers

Martial Plan

The Los Angeles Times leads with at least eight Palestinians killed when Israeli tanks and a helicopter opened fire on what appeared to be a peaceful march in Gaza. Another 10 Palestinians were killed in separate incidents. USA Today leads with a U.S. air attack in Iraq near the Syrian border that killed about 40 people. Witnesses as well as local Iraqis said all those killed were civilians who had been at a wedding celebration. U.S. commanders defended the attack. “We operated within our rules of engagement,” said a military spokesman, asserting that the strike came as troops were going after foreign fighters. “We took ground fire, and we returned fire.” The New York Times and Washington Post lead with the first court-martial of a soldier involved in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse. Specialist Jeremy Sivits, who pleaded guilty and will testify against other defendants, was sentenced to a year in jail. Reporters were allowed in to the trial, but cameras weren’t, nor were human rights observers.

Israel said it only fired into abandoned areas and said there were gunmen in the crowd. But the New York Times says a “reporter who was present” didn’t see any guns in the crowd. The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution condemning Israel, and the U.S. didn’t veto as it usually does and instead abstained.

Though none of the papers file from the scene of the U.S. air attack, they all seem skeptical of the Pentagon’s account. Associated Press video showed a few children’s corpses. Citing “witnesses, Iraqi police officers, and provincial health officials,” the Post says “most” of the casualties were women and children. USAT’s article has similar details and an early headline conveyed that: “IRAQIS SAY 40 KILLED AT WEDDING; U.S. Disputes Circumstances.” The paper’s final edition states: “U.S. DOUBTS IRAQI CLAIM ON ATTACK; Wedding Allegedly Hit.”

The court-martial seemed to have earned lead-story status by virtue of its symbolism, not its news value, of which there isn’t much. Sivits played a very peripheral role in the abuse—basically, he once took a photo. And it has already widely reported that he would plead guilty.

The papers would have been better off leading with something only a Post editorial and a piece inside the LAT hit on: In congressional testimony yesterday, top military officials acknowledged there were interrogation rules for Iraq that were MIA. As the Army’s top legal officer in Iraq told the Senate committee, “We, as a task force, did not have” an interrogation policy. As the Wall Street Journal mentions in passing, the top commander in Iraq, Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, said he didn’t see the list of harsh interrogation techniques that the Pentagon released last week and said Sanchez had approved. Sanchez also said he didn’t know until recently about a November Red Cross report, even though his top legal aide signed off on a response to it in December.

With most of the papers stumbling past the heart of the testimony, it’s left to the WP’s editorial to notice a crucial bit: The Army legal officer said that with units left to wing it; they often just followed the interrogations methods they used elsewhere, notably from Afghanistan where the White House had ruled that the Geneva Conventions didn’t apply.

The WP fronts an interview with the same intelligence soldier at Abu Ghraib who told ABC News that, contrary to senior defense officials’ assertions, intelligence officers were behind the abuse and that the current investigation into that issue is lackluster.

The Financial Times has a poll of Iraqis showing outlaw cleric Muqtada Sadr as the second-most popular figure in the country, right behind Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Sixty-eight percent of respondents strongly or somewhat support Sadr. The poll—taken before the prison abuse scandal broke—says that “more than half” of Iraqis want the U.S. to leave, up from about 20 percent in October.

Citing Bush administration “planners,” the NYT says inside that “about 200 American and international advisers will continue to work at 26 Iraqi ministries as consultants after the June 30 transfer of authority to Iraq.” The piece reads like a mix between an administration press release—”We want the Iraqis to understand that we are not abandoning them,” said a State Department official—and a real estate section dispatch: “It is still unclear whether the administration will try to buy or rent the properties it now occupies or otherwise negotiate a deal with Iraq.” The Journal had the first, and actually reported, version of this last week, saying the U.S. has set up American-staffed “commissions” that will largely control many Iraqi ministries.

The Post fronts the GAO’s declaration that the administration violated federal law by making faux news dispatches promoting the Medicare drug law. Though it called the videos “covert propaganda,” the congressional watchdog agency doesn’t have enforcement powers to do anything about it.

The Post says on Page One that the Agriculture Department let American meat-packers import Canadian beef despite a ban that had been imposed because of mad cow disease. In April, a court re-imposed the ban, noting that the government was ignoring its own rules.

Iraq’s new export: kidnappings! The NYT’s James Bennet writes the following at the end of his dispatch from Gaza:

In a highly unusual incident, at least three Palestinian men attempted to kidnap this reporter here Wednesday night. The reporter, who had identified himself at Al Najar hospital as an American, was speaking on a cellular telephone in the street in front of the hospital when a stranger approached offering a handshake, a smile and the word, “Welcome.” When the reporter took his hand, the stranger and another man grabbed him and attempted to shove him into an aging Mercedes sedan that pulled up, its rear door open. A struggle and cries for help brought Palestinian police officers at the hospital running, and after a further struggle, the men jumped in the car and disappeared.Anger at Americans has been building here for three years over the Bush administration’s perceived tilt toward Israel, the occupation of Iraq and, most recently, images of prisoner abuse in Iraq.