Today's Papers

Unsafe Sects

The Washington Postand New York Times lead with yesterday’s sectarian fighting in Iraq, a pitched battle between the national army and the Shiite militia allied to Muqtada Sadr. The fighting, which the NYT calls “the most brazen clashes in recent memory,” once again raises the possibility of an all-out civil war. It’s also the top nonlocal story in the Los Angeles Times. The Wall Street Journaltops its world-wide newsbox with signs of shakiness in the truce between Israel and Hezbollah. USA Today leads with the exoneration of the man who’d been arrested in connection with the JonBenet Ramsey murder case.

At least 40 people, including 25 soldiers in the Iraqi Army, were killed in street battles that took place in the southern city of Diwaniyah, according to the LAT, which appears to have the latest casualty numbers. The NYT has the best explanation of what sparked the fighting. A week ago, at least two Iraqi soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb that the army believes was planted by Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army. The army responded with arrests, after which militiamen took to the streets and skirmished with police. That led to military raids on three neighborhoods, which sparked yesterday’s gunfights and shelling.

It was soon clear who had won,” says the WP—Sadr’s militia. Several papers mention that an Iraqi general said a group of soldiers who’d run out of ammunition were executed in front of residents in a public square. “Some Iraqi soldiers were captured and beheaded,” says the WP.

This is not the first time the radical cleric’s men have caused trouble, of course. But they’ve become more aggressive of late. The papers note that the Iraqi government is not likely to crack down on Sadr anytime soon: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s parliamentary coalition includes members of Sadr’s political party.

It’s been an exceptionally bloody couple of days everywhere in Iraq: “Over all, more than 100 Iraqis were killed Sunday and Monday,” according to the NYT, including at least 13 in a Baghdad car bombing. Which somewhat takes the wind out of yesterday’s lead LAT story, headlined: “Deaths Drop in Iraqi Capital.”

In a not-so-unexpected turn of events that nonetheless gets front-page attention all around, prosecutors in Boulder, Col., dropped the murder charges they’d filed against John Mark Karr his DNA did not match genetic material left behind by JonBenet Ramsey’s killer. Karr, who’d histrionically “confessed” to the crime after being arrested in Thailand, will be sent to California, where he faces a misdemeanor child pornography charge. Now let us never speak of him again.

The LAT fronts what appears to be the decisive conclusion to the long court battle over Mexico’s recent presidential election. The country’s top electoral court ruled that there was no evidence of widespread fraud, clearing the way for conservative Felipe Calderón to be declared the (very narrow) victor. According to the WSJ, which carries a good piece inside, Calderón’s opponent, leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, remains defiant, saying Mexico “needs a revolution,” and promising to declare himself president at a rally on Mexico’s Independence Day, Sept. 16. Some fear his behavior could provoke a “bloody confrontation,” the WSJ says.

The WP gives big play to President Bush’s tour of the Gulf Coast to mark the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Meanwhile, according a Harvard medical study the storm either took a “big psychological toll” (the WSJ’s headline) or left survivors feeling “mostly optimistic” (the WP’s headline).

The NYT fronts an engrossing feature on a devout Islamic women’s group in Syria. A sort of amalgam of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Junior League, initiates of the secret society, Qubaisiate, come largely from affluent backgrounds and recognize each other by the distinctive way they knot their headscarves.

The LAT fronts a feature on Congolese children who are cast out by their families because of accusations of witchcraft. Many Africans believe that humans can manipulate supernatural spirits to create good and bad luck—just as many Americans, say, believe in astrology or homeopathy—and in Congo, the story says, children often fall under suspicion when their families experience sickness or misfortune. It’s a very horrible phenomenon. However, as the piece mentions in passing, it really has less to do with religion than with simple economics. “In interviews we conducted with accused children,” Human Rights Watch writes in a recent report on the subject, “every one of them had lost one or both parents and had been living with extended family members who were facing extremely difficult economic problems.” So, a question: If this were a story about the consequences of poverty instead of a lurid African superstition, would it still make the front page?

Meanwhile, Bill Clinton is trying to cure AIDS in Africa, after somewhat ignoring the problem while he was in office, according to the NYT.

The WP fronts a piece on Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who’s been accused in an American court of taking $78 million in bribes and who will be paying a visit to the White House next week—and the Bush family compound in Maine. The story isn’t quite as damning as it appears at first glance, however. According to some Central Asia area specialists, Nazarbayev has actually been making some recent efforts to clean up corruption. No word on whether he plans to take in a screening of Borat while he’s here, though it seems unlikely.

Usually TP leaves the nether sections of the papers to aldaily, but NYT book critic Michiko Kakutani’s review of Jonathan Franzen’s new memoir, The Discomfort Zone, is really worth a look. A sampling of the adjectives employed: “odious,” “petulant,” “pompous,” “overwhelmingly self-absorbed,” “incredibly annoying,” “mean-spirited,” “self-important and self-promoting,” “solipsistic,” and “doomed.” Whew—time for someone to pop an Aslan!

Finally, the NYT reefers a big piece on arid conditions in the Great Plains, which have left “farmers and ranchers with conditions that they compare to those of the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s.” It’s the worst drought since … well, maybe 2003, “an extremely dry summer that … brought back memories of the 1930’s Dust Bowl” (NYT, Sept. 5, 2003). Or maybe 2002, when “farmers shrug[ed] and wonder[ed] if a new Dust Bowl [would] soon be upon them” (NYT, May 3, 2002). Or 1998: “a dry spell that officials say shows signs of developing into the costliest and most devastating the region has seen since the Dust Bowl years” (NYT, Aug. 12, 1998). Or 1996: “Coming after two years of low rainfall and a number of other weather problems, the ferocity of this year’s drought has slowly begun to evoke memories for some here of the Depression-era Dust Bowl” (NYT, May 20, 1996).  Or 1988: “Since the spring’s dry weather evolved into the worst drought since the Dust Bowl, the farm policy has been turned upside down” (NYT, July 10, 1988). Or 1982: “And when the winds come, turning the sky dark with dust and burying fence rows under shifting dunes of soil and thistle, those who are old enough remember the bleak days of the Dust Bowl.” (NYT, May 14, 1982). Or 1980: “Is the nation in for a new Dust Bowl or at least a succession of scorching summers?” (NYT, July 17, 1980).