The Washington Post leads with Iran’s apparent agreement to suspend its uranium enrichment program as long as talks with the EU continue, defusing a possible Security Council showdown later this month. Tehran detailed its intentions in a letter delivered to the IAEA, as well as to the trio of European countries spearheading the negotiations. The New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal world-wide newsbox lead with Iraq catch-alls, as the Fallujah mop-up continues and battles flare in a host of other Iraqi cities. The Los Angeles Times’ lead concentrates, however, on the daunting task of rebuilding Fallujah. “The challenge is to get a civil administration up and running, and they are starting from zero,” said a senior U.S. diplomat. “They have to do everything from getting the director of the waterworks to come back to work to getting a chief of police.”
The WP and LAT play the uranium agreement as a done deal; European diplomats are merely reviewing Iran’s letter before making an announcement, and the IAEA is already dispatching inspectors to seal and tag all facilities for enriching raw uranium—known as yellowcake—before the group’s Thanksgiving Day meeting. But USAT is less convinced, and the NYT is downright skeptical, implying that the Iranian letter may differ from what had been agreed upon in talks. “All three governments need to examine the text carefully to see if this is what we want,” a British official said in the NYT. A statement from one of Iran’s negotiators doesn’t inspire confidence either. “We have accepted the suspension as a voluntary step,” he said on Iranian state television, “and it does not create any obligations for us.”
The WP’s off-lead gives the best summary of how, fanned by Fallujah, the insurgency has flamed elsewhere—in Mosul, where the regional governor has appealed to Kurdish militias for help; in Baiji, where insurgents destroyed a key bridge and claimed control of the city; and in Samarra, where, after once pacifying the city, U.S. and Iraqi forces have re-instituted a curfew that allows residents outside for only four hours every morning. Even in Baghdad, attacks on U.S. forces have doubled from a week ago. “We never believed a fight in Fallujah would mean an end to the insurgency,” a U.S. official in Baghdad told the Post. “We’ve never defined success that way.”
The NYT’s Mosul story says, in passing, that a military intelligence report has suggested Abu Musab Zarqawi may have moved to this northern city, Iraq’s third largest. In any case, the papers say heavy fighting continued there yesterday, with government soldiers battling for over five hours with insurgents holed up in a police station while the U.S. Stryker Brigade rushed to provide reinforcements. In the city’s western half, a taxi driver told the NYT that insurgents are in control. “I saw the fighters capture a man on a motorbike and shoot him dead after calling him a spy,” he said. “This is martial law from the mujahedeen.”
Meanwhile, the battle for Fallujah is turning somewhat rhetorical, with soldiers in the NYT reluctant to claim victory but those in the Post less wary. “The city has been seized,” said the commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. “We have liberated the city of Fallujah.”
Either way, the papers’ best Iraq reporting is still coming from the smoldering city, where reporters are in the thick of things. The WP finds an Iraqi guardsman to recount the battle, with the upshot being mostly positive. “I’ve seen nightmares for the last few days, all about the fighting in Fallujah, but when I think of the results, I feel better.” Although an LAT piece from Baghdad quotes a defense official saying that as many as 1,600 insurgents were killed and Fallujah is littered with an “alarming” number of bodies, USAT’s reporters in the city couldn’t confirm the counts and the NYT’s lead actually calls the lack of bodies “an enduring mystery.” In a separate embed piece on the mop-up operation, a Marine officer is likewise puzzled. “I was hoping that as we searched these houses, we would find dead bodies,” he says.
One grisly discovery everyone mentions: the disemboweled body of an unidentified blonde woman, possibly a westerner, in the bombed-out city’s streets.
Another mystery: Everyone mentions official figures that say 38 U.S. troops died and 275 were wounded in the assault. But stories in the NYT and USAT say that 419 wounded troops, mostly from Fallujah, have been medevaced to Germany since the battle began on Nov. 8. TP wonders: Do the 275 then only include those wounded directly in combat? Or are other hotspots generating significant numbers of serious injuries?
In what may be a herald of a power struggle to come, some 20 armed gunmen burst into Yasser Arafat’s mourning tent in Gaza yesterday, chanting and firing guns into the air as PLO leader and probable presidential candidate Mahmoud Abbas arrived. “Abbas and Dahlan are agents for the Americans!” the men shouted, referring to former Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan. Two security officers died, but Abbas was unharmed. The NYT says casualties would have been much higher in such close quarters if the two sides hadn’t mostly been shooting into the air.
According to the WP, witnesses described the men as members of Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the terror wing of the mainstream Fatah party, which had reportedly chosen Abbas as its candidate in the Jan. 9 election. (The NYT says the Brigades denounced the shooting.) Now, even Abbas says the announcement was “premature,” and the WP suggests Fatah is wrestling with whether to nominate him or Marwan Barghouti, the jailed leader and reputed founder of the Brigades who remains very popular among its younger contingent.
The papers note that Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, who is (at least nominally) in line to become chairman of the judiciary committee, is still being beaten into submission for suggesting that Supreme Court nominees who want to undo abortion rights will face tough confirmation battles. Although Sens. Richard Lugar and John McCain said they support him, Sen. Bill Frist, the majority leader, refused to commit himself. Frist also decried the “tyranny of the minority” and implied Republicans would be willing, for example, to change Senate rules to ban filibusters for judicial appointments.
The WSJ,LAT, and NYT all run previews of the lame-duck Congress that will convene on Tuesday. The two main orders of business: raising the debt ceiling, which will otherwise be breached by Thursday, and passing a slew of behind-schedule appropriations bills for the coming year. The WSJ says everyone, including Bush, is likely to get less money for his or her pet programs, but the LAT paints what may be a more confusingly accurate picture. “Everyone seems to be in a celebratory mood on the Hill,” said the president of a spending watchdog group. “Why not celebrate with someone else’s money?”