Today's Papers

A Comeback for Saddam’s Baath Party?

The New York Timesleads with word that “up to 35” officials, including four generals, from Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior have been arrested, and some have been accused of trying to reconstitute Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. There’s talk that some of them were in the early stages of planning a coup, but details are scant. The Washington Postleads with Chrysler’s announcement that it will suspend production at its 30 U.S. factories for one month beginning Friday. The automaker was already planning to stop production for two weeks, but extended the production halt in order to save cash at a time when it’s struggling to survive and Washington has yet to award the company the billions of dollars in loans it says it needs to continue operating. “If I were a Chrysler worker, I’d be worried that the plant won’t reopen,” an industry analyst said.

USA Todayleads with an analysis of the federal government’s first ratings of nursing homes that found nonprofit homes generally provide better care. The new ratings system assigns homes one to five stars based on a complicated formula that takes into account several factors. Overall, 27 percent of for-profit homes were given one star, while 13 percent of nonprofit homes received the same rating. Also, 19 percent of nonprofit homes received five stars, compared with only 9 percent of for-profit homes. The Wall Street Journal leads with President-elect Barack Obama’s choice of a veteran regulator to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission. Mary Schapiro, the chief executive of the National Association of Securities Dealers, will take over an agency that has been under heavy criticism lately for failing to prevent the financial crisis and not catching Bernard Madoff’s alleged Ponzi scheme. In addition, Obama will nominate Rep. Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican, to head the Department of Transportation. The Los Angeles Timesleads locally and goes high with a look at Teodoro Garcia Simental, one of Mexico’s most feared crime bosses. Even though he’s thought to be responsible for most of the gang-related violence that has been plaguing Tijuana *, most people have no idea what he looks like, and many police officers and prosecutors don’t even dare utter his name for fear of reprisal.

While the arrests in Iraq show how Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been trying to protect himself from political rivals, critics are quick to claim that he’s using arrests as a tool to consolidate his power. Talk of potential coups in Iraq is increasing these days with a little more than a month to go before provincial elections, but it’s far from clear whether any of the supposed plans are serious. Still, Iraqi officials insist that those arrested, two of whom appeared on the “most wanted” deck of cards that became famous during the invasion, were involved in widespread political corruption. The interior minister hasn’t been implicated, but Maliki could very well see him as a threat because he has kept himself busy trying to expand his secular party.

In a piece inside, the LAT confirms the arrests, which it says included “up to six” generals in the Interior Ministry, and hears word that all those arrested were police officials accused of being affiliated with Al Awda, or the Return, an offshoot of the Baath Party. In the past, Shiite politicians have used claims of membership in the Baath Party to conveniently “settle political or personal scores,” says the LAT.

Production cuts are now widespread throughout the auto industry and hardly limited to the Big Three. Honda and Toyota have also announced cuts as the downturn in the economy coupled with the credit crunch have been devastating auto sales. While the White House has made it clear it wants to help the U.S. auto industry after the Senate failed to approve a package of loans, negotiations continue. The administration wants to come to an agreement with automakers before Christmas, but no one knows whether all the details can be worked out by then. In a piece inside, the NYT says that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has effectively become the “auto czar” envisioned in the bill that passed the House.

While Paulson and his team carefully examine the automakers’ financials and negotiations continue in Washington, the WSJ gets word that Chrysler and General Motors are once again talking about a merger. Cerberus Capital Management, which owns Chrysler, apparently took the initiative to restart the talks in a move that could be a way to show Washington it is serious about helping to restructure the industry. Cerberus has so far rejected pressure to put more money in Chrysler but now is signaling that it could give away some of its stakes in the automaker as part of a restructuring deal.

The portrait that the LAT paints of Teodoro Garcia Simental seems ripped out of a movie. He apparently loves to dissolve his victims in lye and is so ruthless that he has killed people at parties, “laughing at their stunned reactions.” Garcia runs a vast criminal network that is largely funded by kidnappings and extortion. Despite his notoriety, few people know what he looks like because Mexican authorities don’t publicize his picture. “That tells you that you don’t want to be the one responsible for putting Teo’s picture in public,” an American law enforcement source tells the paper. “There’s no future in it.”

The WSJ fronts a detailed look at Harry Markopolos and his “nearly decadelong campaign” to convince the SEC that Madoff wasn’t being honest about his investment strategy. Markopolos, who used to work for a Madoff rival, became convinced that something wasn’t right in 1999 and in early 2000 shared his concerns with the SEC’s office in Boston. Although a staff member at the SEC’s Boston office took a deep interest in Markopolos’ allegations, capturing the interest of officials in New York appeared to be an insurmountable challenge. Markopolos continued to press his case over and over again until an investigation was finally opened in 2006. And while the SEC found that Madoff was misleading investors and that he violated technical rules, investigators failed to dig deeper and missed a clear opportunity to  discover Madoff’s alleged Ponzi scheme.

The LAT and NYT both dedicate stories in their inside pages to news that the Rev. Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life, will deliver the invocation at Obama’s inauguration. The NYT says that the role positions Warren “to succeed Billy Graham as the nation’s pre-eminent minister.” The choice immediately raised the ire of gay rights groups that are angry about Warren’s support for California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriages. The director of a gay rights organization characterized the decision to include Warren in the inauguration as a “slap in the face to millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who donated for, worked for and helped elect Barack Obama president.”

The WSJ gives big front-page play to OPEC’s decision to reduce production by 2.2 million barrels a day, or 7 percent—the cartel’s biggest cut ever. Although the reduction was more than expected, it didn’t stop the plunge in oil prices, which fell 8 percent yesterday and closed at $40.06 a barrel. The decreasing prices are good news for countries dealing with a recession but a horrible development for oil producers that have seen prices fall by more than two-thirds since July.

The greenback also took a beating yesterday, notes the WP. After a month of gains, the dollar suffered huge losses yesterday and fell to a 13-year low against the Japanese yen. Investors are fleeing from the dollar out of fear that it will be dropping in value due to the Fed’s plans to print money in order to stimulate the economy. A plunge in the value of the dollar is good news for U.S. exporters but could make it more difficult for the economies of Europe and Japan to recover since their exports would be more expensive for American consumers.

The LAT’s Rosa Brooks, who contributes  to Slate’s “XX Factor” blog, says that it’s easy to understand why the journalist who threw his shoes at Bush “became an instant hero around much of the globe.” In that highly symbolic act, Muntadhar al-Zaidi expressed the anger that many people feel. This anger is not just about Bush but also about a general feeling of powerlessness that makes people feel they need to do something extreme in order to make a point. Throwing a shoe is not exactly nonviolent resistance. “But if Zaidi inspires a new global trend of shoe throwing, I’ll take that over bomb throwing any day.”

Correction, Dec. 18, 2008: This article originally stated that Teodoro Garcia Simental is thought to be responsible for most of the gang violence in Mexico. He is principally suspected of the gang activity only in Tijuana. (Return to the corrected sentence.)