The Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal worldwide news box lead with a potential peace deal between U.S. forces and rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr. Brokered by Iraqi Shiite leaders, the agreement calls for a Fallujah-like solution in which most U.S. forces will pull out of the city while members of Sadr’s Mahdi Army will simply return home. USA Today fronts the agreement but leads instead with a “Special Report” on intelligence folks’ sneaky penchant for using aliases like “James Bond” at Abu Ghraib, a practice mentioned earlier this week in the NYT.
(CNN is reporting this morning that Sadr’s forces have attacked U.S. positions in Najaf; there’s no word yet how that might affect the truce or ongoing negotiations. Perhaps someone could have seen that coming, though: The WP says that implementation was already spotty last night, noting that dozens of gunmen were hanging around the Imam Ali mosque, with American troops stationed not far away. “We have orders to hide armed appearances in the city, but not to withdraw,” Sadr’s belligerent spokesman told the NYT yesterday. “There is no Mahdi Army withdrawal.”)
Excluding the LAT, the papers all file their Najaf stories from Baghdad, and it shows: The differences mostly reflect their varying levels of credulity about the news conference emceed yesterday by CPA spokesman Dan Senor and military spokesman Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt. The NYT rejects the party line, painting the agreement as a package deal that the U.S. was forced to accept while the WP’s lede and head push the more mealy notion that the U.S. simply “suspended” its attacks on Sadr’s militia. It’s not until the end of the Post piece that the paper explains its reticence: The spin-conscious American spokesmen “carefully avoided using the word ‘agreement’ to describe the moves by each side.” Instead, Senor leaned on the passive voice, saying a letter from Sadr “was issued,” and “we responded to it.”
The NYT gets the best detail on how the agreement was brokered. Sadr had already floated the proposal earlier in the week—as reported in the Christian Science Monitor on Tuesday—but the U.S. dragged its feet until it received a “forceful note” on Wednesday from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urging them to sign on. “The religious leadership passed a strong warning to the Americans yesterday to end the standoff in Najaf peacefully,” Sistani’s spokesman said. Had Americans not agreed, Sistani “would not stay silent,” he said in an apparent threat.
Elsewhere in Iraq, the papers briefly mention that one of three female Governing Counsel members survived an ambush on her way to Baghdad from Najaf, where she had taken part in the peace negotiations. … Two Japanese journalists are missing after gunmen attacked their car and set it afire 20 miles south of Baghdad. … The WP follows up on Hussain Shahristani, the independent humanitarian activist who, it was reported yesterday, turned down the chance to head Iraq’s caretaker government. After weeks of talks with U.N. Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, he yanked his name from the hat because he couldn’t win the approval of former exiles, like Ahmad Chalabi, who thought he wasn’t political enough. “What’s happening here is the fully blown breakout of politics,” a “senior Bush administration official” said.
Everyone reports—the NYT, WP, and LAT on Page One—that Scotland Yard seized militant Muslim cleric Abu Hamza Masri after the U.S. issued a warrant for his extradition. The handless, one-eyed cleric’s fiery rhetoric has long made him a target of the British government, which suspects his (now closed) mosque was a terrorist recruitment center. Asked in a London court yesterday if he would voluntarily go to the U.S. to face trial, Masri answered, simply, “No.” (For some reason that TP’s feeble imagination cannot fathom, the WP’s Masri story is datelined “BERLIN.”)
The NYT fronts, and the WP reefers, continued flooding and devastation in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. So far at least 900 have perished in the torrential spring rains, which dropped 5 feet of water in 36 hours on one village and swept many others off deforested hillsides. Government officials estimated casualties might rise to 2,000. “We have nothing left,” a 67-year-old grandmother told the Times for its “Quote of the Day.” “The river took everything, even the dead in the cemetery.”
Computer colossus NEC pleaded guilty yesterday to charges that it bribed school officials and overcharged school districts by tens of millions of dollars; it was ordered to pay $20.7 million in fines and restitution. The paper says that even larger companies may soon be nailed with settlements for more scams involving the phone-bill-tax-funded E-Rate program to buy computer equipment for schools.
Going away this Memorial weekend? A big WP fronter warns you to get on the road by noon today, as travel finally returns to pre-9/11 levels.
Kissinger and tell? … Inside, the NYT manages to read through some of the 20,000 pages (i.e., 10 cubic feet) of phone conversations between Henry Kissinger and President Richard M. Nixon that the National Archives released this week. One call, following the overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende * by Gen. Augusto Pinochet in 1973, implies that the U.S. may have been more involved than Kissinger has so far admitted. At one point, Kissinger said, “[T]he newspapers are bleeding because a pro-Communist government has been overthrown,” adding that, by contrast, he and Nixon would have been heroes in “the Eisenhower period.”
“Well, we didn’t, as you know—our hand doesn’t show on this one, though,” Nixon replied.
“We didn’t do it. I mean we helped them,” Kissinger then said in a passage where a long dash apparently indicates a deleted word or several deleted words. The transcript picks up again with: “… created the conditions as great as possible.”