Today's Papers

Guess Who Didn’t Come to Dinner

The New York Timesand the Washington Post’s late editionlead with a first look at what the Iraq Study Group will include in its final report, as it finished deliberations in Washington yesterday. Although no specific timelines will be mentioned, the commission will recommend a gradual withdrawal of troops from Iraq, implying that this drawdown should begin next year. The final report will be released next week. The Los Angeles Timesleads locally but takes advantage of its late deadline and goes high with the breakfast meeting between President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki in Jordan. The two were scheduled to have dinner yesterday with King Abdullah, but Maliki abruptly canceled. There was no clear reason given for the cancellation, although several possibilities have been raised.  The Wall Street Journal tops its worldwide newsbox with the no-show prime minister, saying it meant Bush’s trip to the Middle East “got off to a rocky start.”

USA Todayleads with news that British investigators looking into the death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko found “very low traces” of radiation on two British Airways jetliners. Another plane is grounded in Moscow but so far has yielded no traces of radiation. Authorities emphasized the risk to passengers is very low, while they didn’t specify whether polonium-210 was the substance found. The three planes had recently flown from London to Moscow, but they had also flown to other cities, including Athens, Frankfurt, and Madrid. In recent weeks, 33,000 passengers flew in these planes. 

The WP recognizes the NYT had the Iraq Study Group story first. In terms of sources, the Post seems to have only one, which it describes as “a source familiar with the deliberations,” while the NYT gets its material from “four people involved in the debate.” But in the end, quantity doesn’t seem to much matter since the gist of both stories is the same.

The ISG’s final report, which had unanimous approval, will focus in large part on recommending the Bush administration should pursue a more agressive diplomacy, which should include, as expected, direct talks with Iran and Syria. There seems to have been little disagreement among commission members on the diplomatic front, and most of the debate was centered on whether the ISG should recommend a specific timeline for troop withdrawal.

In the end, commission members decided against mentioning specifics, citing fears that any dates would merely bolster the insurgency. Democratic members of the commission also said they got the feeling James Baker didn’t want to put forth a recommendation that Bush has specifically rejected numerous times.  “What they ended up with appears to be a classic Washington compromise: a report that sets no explicit timetable but, between the lines, appears to have one built in,” the NYT states near the end of its story.

Barring any unexpected revelations next week, it’s pretty safe to say a common reaction might be: Is this it? And that is exactly the kind of reaction some commission members seem to have before the release, says the LAT. “I think expectations of our group are seriously overrated,” former Sen. Alan K. Simpson, a commission member, said. The Pentagon and the White House are also creating their own reviews, but they’re all faced with pretty much three main options, which the USAT helpfully outlines for those needing a refresher. Apparently worried that the Pentagon review would also be the victim of high expectations, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff warned yesterday the country should not  anticipate any definitive conclusions.

After their meeting, Bush and Maliki held a news conference where they agreed to speed the training of Iraq’s security forces and vowed to cooperate to help end the violence in Iraq.

There are several theories as to why the original dinner meeting was canceled. Administration officials insisted it had nothing to do with the leaked memo that was published by the NYT yesterday, which called into question Maliki’s ability as a leader. Some think Maliki wanted to embarrass Bush as payback for the leak. But Maliki also faced upheaval at home, where politicians allied with Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr began a boycott of the government to protest the meetings with the Bush. The WSJ mentions the possibility that Maliki canceled to show his dissatisfaction that the agenda would include talk of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Regardless of whether there’s a clear answer on the impact of the memo, none of the papers seems to look into exactly why it was leaked at such a convenient time, right before the president’s trip. Did the White House want to send Maliki a message? And if so, did Maliki’s abrupt cancellation mean the plan backfired?

The WP mentions in an analysis inside that by calling a protest, Sadr was able to send a reminder that he is the one with the real power in Iraq, and not Maliki. “It was a way to make both Maliki and Washington understand that he holds a lot of cards,” an analyst tells the Post.

The WSJ is alone in prominently mentioning in the top spot of its worldwide newsbox that 105 Iraqis and two U.S. troops died yesterday.

The NYT reefers, and everyone else mentions, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad released a letter yesterday addressed to the “Noble Americans.” In the letter, Ahmadinejad says he knows Americans disagree with Bush’s policies and emphasized troops should be withdrawn from Iraq. The Iranian president also went on to criticize the “Zionist regime” and its influences on the United States. The NYT notes Ahmadinejad may have taken a cue from Bush, who addressed the Iranian people directly at the U.N. General Assembly in September.

The Post off-leads and USAT fronts a federal judge ordering FEMA to continue payments to those who lost their homes during Hurricane Katrina. The judge criticized FEMA for what it described as a “Kafkaesque” process that made it unclear when someone would lose their funding and what he or she would have to do in order to reapply. 

Everybody notes the federal government agreed to pay $2 million to an Oregon lawyer, whom the FBI falsely named as a suspect in the 2004 train bombings in Madrid. The lawyer, who was wrongly imprisoned due to a fingerprinting mistake, also received an apology from the government.

Headline of the day … From the WP:“Hitting Kim Jong Il Right In The Cognac”