Today's Papers

Shalaan Out the Cash

The reverberations from President Bush’s inaugural speech continue to dominate the news, as the Washington Post leads with its likely effect on administration policy—not much—and the Los Angeles Times focuses on whether the president’s fighting words mean real war with alleged nuclear aspirant Iran. The New York Times leads with a doozy of a scandal out of Iraq: Apparently some $300 million in cash was recently withdrawn from the national bank at the directive of the country’s defense minister, and it may have disappeared.

According to the NYT piece, the $300 million was “taken out of Iraq’s Central Bank, put into boxes and quietly put on a charter jet bound for Lebanon.” Exactly what happened to the money after that is a matter of dispute. An aide to Iraqi Defense Minister Hazim al-Shalaan says the money was spent on arms and military equipment. Noted good-government crusader Ahmed Chalabi, who is aiming to become prime minister after this month’s elections, says the whole thing smells fishy and has seized on the missing loot as a campaign issue. Shalaan, in turn, has threatened to have Chalabi arrested. One anonymous “senior Iraqi financial official” has a succinct explanation for the big withdrawal: “The government here knows it is coming to an end. … This is what governments do when they are coming to an end.”

So, remember that line in Bush’s speech Thursday, the one that said “ending tyranny in our world” was the “ultimate goal” of his administration? Well … don’t get too excited. The WP’s lead reports that the speech “represents no significant shift in U.S. foreign policy,” basing its conclusion on interviews with White House officials. In a background briefing given to all the papers, seemingly intended to rein in the rhetoric with a little realpolitik, a “senior administration official” said that the speech doesn’t portend a major change in America’s relationship with less-than-democratic nations like Russia, China, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. “Do you want us to be rhetorical or to be effective?” the official asked the reporters, according to the NYT’s story, which runs inside. (In his inaugural analysis, Slate’s Chris Suellentrop predicted Bush would backtrack and argued that Democrats should hold him to his words.)

The LAT has the most apocalyptic reading of the speech, focusing mainly on the rising tensions with Iran. Bush’s words, along with Vice President Dick Cheney’s hints of possible Israeli airstrikes against Iranian nuclear installations, elicited a predictably bellicose reaction in Tehran, where one newspaper attacked the administration’s “belligerent, unilateralist policies.” Bush may not be as alone as he appears, however; a French analyst tells the paper that he believes Europe, which is pushing negotiations, is playing along with a “good-cop-bad-cop” strategy. This theory is undermined somewhat by an accompanying analysis that says the administration’s swashbuckling neoconservative faction is on the rise again.

The papers all do the obligatory round-ups of international reaction to Bush’s speech. The general feeling: We hope he doesn’t mean it. The WP focuses on the Arab world, where one commentator called the inaugural rhetoric “scary stuff,” while the NYT reports from Europe, where “the initial reaction was generally cool.” And then there’s Belarus, where dictatorial President Alexander Lukashenko gave a speech lambasting Bush, and the national television station pointedly aired Fahrenheit 9/11.

Everyone fronts word of Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell’s resignation. His departure was long expected. The WP, which scored an interview with the outgoing chairman, an “admitted gadget geek” who presided over the advent of satellite radio and Internet phones, says his tenure was nonetheless “often-rocky,” and will be best remembered for the $8.5 million in fines levied against broadcasters for violating decency standards. The NYT has a harsher assessment, saying that Powell “fell short” in his efforts to loosen regulations. Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” at last year Super Bowl merits mention in all the stories.

Woops! The WP fronts word that, after worrying all last fall about a shortage of the flu vaccine, public health officials now have a surplus of the stuff on hand. It turns out all those dire warnings worked all too well: So many people skipped their shots that much of this year’s stockpile will likely end up being thrown away.

The NYT goes high with a dispatch from Sri Lanka about a group of Christian relief workers who, in the course of conveying aid to victims of December’s tsunami, are also preaching the gospel. The story’s lede, which describes an evangelical group’s gift-giving, sermonizing, and faith healing, makes it sound as if Asia is awash with Bible-beaters. (Indonesia’s Aceh Province is “ripe for Jesus!!” reports the group’s Web site.) The story suggests that such efforts “could provoke a violent backlash against Christians in Sri Lanka, a predominantly Buddhist country that is already a religious tinderbox.” However, the more outrageous examples of proselytizing seem to be limited to a single aid organization, which has just 75 workers in the field. Some much larger Christian charities mentioned in the story, such as World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse, say they try to keep their relief efforts and religion separate. Are they being unfairly tarred with the same brush?

Today’s news from Iraq: Two car bombs exploded, one outside a mosque and another at a wedding party, killing at least 16 people, most of them apparently Shiite Muslims. An Iraqi soldier was beheaded in broad daylight in Ramadi. And, according to a story stuffed inside the WP, a delegation of foreign observers is making plans to keep a close eye on next week’s elections—from Jordan. Apparently, one intrepid observer may actually enter Iraq to witness the vote. No word on who’s drawn the short straw.

Dept. of Resurrections: Two weeks ago, the WP (and “Today’s Papers“) brought you the sad story of Ali Ghalib, an Iraqi government official who was dragged from his car by insurgents as he drove through an area known as the “triangle of death.” His body was reported to have been found later along the road, “riddled with bullets.” Today, the WP reports that Ghalib, alive and unriddled, returned to his hometown of Tikrit “in a hail of celebratory gunfire” Friday after having been released by his kidnappers. No word on the condition of Generalissimo Francisco Franco.