Today's Papers

Mumbai Under Siege

More than a day after groups of gunmen descended on southern Mumbai and carried out a string of highly coordinated attacks targeting “well-known symbols of India’s prosperity and places where Westerners and Israelis gather,” as the Washington Post summarizes, government forces were still working to gain control. The attacks have left at least 143 people dead, according to early-morning wire reports, and more than 300 injured. The New York Timeshighlights that there are widespread fears the death toll will rise since people who escaped the hotels reported “stepping around bodies.” It’s still not known who was behind the attacks, although it’s clear the gunmen were well-prepared. The Los Angeles Timeshears word the militants “struck after months of reconnaissance during which they set up ‘control rooms’ in the targeted hotels.” And the Wall Street Journalhears unconfirmed reports that the attackers had been renting an apartment for the past six months near the Jewish center that was attacked. USA Todayhighlights that whoever they were, the gunmen delivered “an unmistakable message: This U.S.-friendly democracy of 1.2 billion people has joined the front lines of the global war on terrorism.”

USAT goes big with the attacks in Mumbai but devotes its lead spot to a look at how Iraqi government officials who were involved in corruption that has cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars have gone unpunished, partly due to an Iraqi amnesty law. Although no one thinks it would be easy to pursue corruption charges in Iraq, as a result of the law, 690 corruption cases have been dismissed, and it has undermined efforts to make government officials accountable for their actions. Around $18 billion, more than half of which came from U.S. taxpayers, has vanished due to corruption.

There were signs that Indian commandos were gaining control of the hotels, but the situation remains far from clear. As the Associated Press details, less than an hour after an Indian official insisted their operations were almost over, loud explosions and gunfire could be heard at the luxurious Taj Mahal hotel. (To illustrate how volatile the situation has been all day, by the time TP published yesterday’s edition, it looked like the situation at the Taj was under control.) People who had been trapped in the hotel streamed out and told harrowing tales, but there appear to be several militants still at-large with a few hostages in at least one of the hotels. By the time the papers went to press, Indian commandos were launching a counterattack at the center run by the Orthodox Jewish group Chabad Lubavitch, where nine hostages believed to be Israeli citizens were being held. Early-morning wire stories report the raid on the Jewish center continues, while explosions could still be heard coming from the Taj Mahal hotel. The siege of the Oberoi hotel appears to have ended.

Even as the tense situation was still unfolding, India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, had no qualms about pointing fingers and affirming that those who organized the attacks were “based outside the country” in what everyone describes as a thinly veiled accusation that Pakistan was involved. In a separate front-page piece, the NYT says the attacks will almost certainly complicate U.S. efforts to improve the relationship between India and Pakistan. President-elect Barack Obama has made it clear he wants to continue with efforts to improve the relationship between the two nuclear-armed neighbors in an effort to get Pakistan to focus more on the militants in its tribal regions than on India. But if Indian authorities find even a hint of Pakistani involvement, and especially if there’s a connection to rogue elements of Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, “the slightly warmer relationship that has been fostered between the neighbors would no doubt return to a deep freeze,” says the NYT. And in the end that might actually have been the main goal of the attackers.

No one knows who was involved, but there are plenty of theories. In a separate front-page piece, the WP notes several experts said that the sophisticated nature of the attacks suggested the militants had received training abroad and had a connection with foreign Islamic extremists, perhaps even al-Qaida. “No indigenous Indian group has this level of capability,” one intelligence expert said. Several analysts were quick to see similarities between the attacks and previous actions by Lashkar-i-Taiba and Jaish-i-Muhammad, two networks of Muslim extremists that have targeted India in the past. A local newspaper reports that three of the suspects are members of Lashkar-i-Taiba, but the group issued a statement denying all involvement. Some speculate the attacks could mark a new front on the war against terrorism. “For the first time in a long time, you see the use of combatants who take hostages, like the Palestinians in the 1970s,” a former French counterterrorism chief tells the LAT. “They were ready to die, but they were not suicide attackers.”

In an interesting counterpoint to conventional wisdom, the WSJ suggests that the highly organized nature of the attacks, combined with the choice of targets, “appeared to point to a more insidious threat that the Indian government has been reluctant to acknowledge so far—the potential involvement of extremists within the country’s own Muslim community.” Even if there was foreign involvement, the attacks wouldn’t have been possible without the help of a deep local network of militants. “I think it’s very much a home-grown attack,” one expert tells the WSJ. “There are very deep and unresolved social justice issues for Indian Muslims. They have a lot of motivation.” India’s Muslim community of 150 million is the third-largest in the world, but they are one of the country’s most disadvantaged minorities, both politically and economically. Despite the focus on targets that were popular with foreigners, the vast majority of the victims were Indian.

In one interesting theory, some analysts say that the attackers didn’t pursue the high-profile operation to send a specific message but rather to impress Islamic militants around the world. “The motive is very, very clear,” an expert tells USAT. “This outfit wants to attract sponsors abroad. There’s a lot of money in it.”

The NYT, LAT, and WP front, while the rest go inside with, news that Iraqi lawmakers approved the security agreement with the United States that sets the end of 2011 as the withdrawal date for American troops. The agreement still has to be approved by the three members of Iraq’s presidency council. In a compromise, lawmakers also agreed to hold a national referendum on the agreement in July 2009. So, in theory, voters could still derail the agreement, but as the WP notes, it’s not clear whether it would even take place, since several mandated referendums haven’t gotten past the planning stage. As has been detailed before, despite the tough language, Iraq could still ask U.S. troops to stay beyond 2011. Regardless, getting the agreement through parliament marks a big victory for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who can now say he was responsible for setting a withdrawal date for the American forces.

The WP reports that student advocacy groups are trying to pressure the Treasury Department not to help private student lenders as part of its $200 billion effort to thaw the frozen consumer credit markets. Of course, the joint Fed-Treasury program isn’t just focused on student loans but some groups say it could help private student-loan providers who are often accused of taking advantage of students by charging high and variable interest rates. The impact that the program could have on the student-loan industry “highlights the potential unintended consequences from the enormous bailout program,” declares the Post. For its part, the Fed says its focus is just to prop up the economy and it has no interest in getting involved in a debate over student-loan policy. But lawmakers are unconvinced and say they will look into it. The chairman of the House education and labor committee tells the Post that his concern is that the administration may be “borrowing the good name of student loans to bail out some very bad actors.”

Want a job in the Obama administration? You’re going to have to get in line. The LAT says Obama’s transition team has received 290,000 applications, and some think that number could reach 1 million before Inauguration Day. As a comparison, President Bush received 44,000 applications in 2001, and former President Clinton received 125,000 applications in 1993. Meanwhile, people with the last name Obama may not have a leg-up in getting a job in the White House, but they’re certainly enjoying “a little low-watt glory of their own,” says the Post. People with famous last names have always had to put up with questions from strangers, but this time it could be magnified because the Obama name is quite rare. There might be fewer than 20 Obama families in the whole country. “I’m so glad Obama is finally a good guy,” Susie Obama, a real estate investor, said. “I really had a hard time for a while there with Osama.”