Dispatches > The Buzz


Issue: "Ten Commandments showdown," Aug. 30, 2003
terror's new target
It was the blast seen 'round the world. As Japanese TV cameras rolled during an Aug. 19 news conference at the UN's headquarters in Iraq, the picture suddenly shook, then went black. A crash was heard, followed by screams and cries. When the lights finally came back on, bleeding people stumbled around the dust-filled room, dazed and reeling. The rest of the world reeled, too. The UN, after all, had opposed the war in Iraq. It had overseen a massive food program that helped feed the Iraqi people for a decade. And it was back in Baghdad for humanitarian, not military, reasons. But none of that stopped a suicide bomber from driving up to the UN's offices in a flatbed pickup packed with 1,000 pounds of explosives. When the homemade bomb detonated, it tore the facade off the Canal Hotel, shattered windows up to two miles away, and left a crater five feet deep. It also killed more than 20 people, including the UN's chief diplomat in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was buried alive in the rubble for hours, according to reports, before dying at a nearby hospital. The blast signaled a new strategy by Muslim militants in Iraq, and a new sophistication, too. Sniper attacks require little coordination or planning, but suicide bombings like those at the UN and the Jordanian embassy may signal a more organized resistance. U.S. officials are uncertain whether that resistance is homegrown or imported: Some have suggested growing numbers of Muslim radicals are pouring in from Syria and Saudi Arabia. If the bombing was seen 'round the world, Washington hopes it will be felt 'round the world, as well. Hoping to take advantage of the near-universal outrage, Secretary of State Colin Powell quickly prepared a new resolution asking for more international peacekeepers in Iraq. That just might prove a turning point in the Iraqi struggle-not exactly the kind of fallout the bombers had in mind.
sniper scare, take two
The West Virginia countryside is a perfect illustration of the saying, "Guns don't kill people; people kill people." Despite a high incidence of pickup trucks with gun racks and 25,000 citizens with permits for concealed weapons, there's never been much gun violence along the twisty back roads of the Mountain State. Until last week. When three people in four days were shot to death outside gas stations and convenience stores, state and federal authorities quickly mounted a search for a serial sniper. Kanawha County Sheriff Dave Tucker said there were "striking similarities" between the West Virginia murders and last year's shooting spree in the Washington, D.C., area that left 10 people dead. Bullets fired from the same gun killed two of the West Virginia victims, while ballistics tests in the third shooting were inconclusive. Security cameras at two of the murder sites captured images of a dark-colored pickup truck, and witnesses described a heavyset white man behind the wheel. As police stepped up patrols throughout the remote area just east of the state capital, residents retreated indoors and avoided shopping after dark. Despite the apparent randomness of the shootings, officials said they would not become "myopically focused" on the serial sniper scenario. One alternative theory linking the three shootings: drugs. Rural West Virginia has seen an explosion of methamphetamine labs in recent years, leading to a sharp increase in drug-related violence. None of the victims was a known drug user, but police said they had not yet ruled out drugs as a possible motive.
hasta la vista, aclu
Yet one more legal obstacle cleared, Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign for governor surged last week. On Aug. 20, a federal judge refused to put off California's recall vote until March. The ACLU had sought the delay, arguing that the punch-card ballots to be used in some counties on Oct. 7 would somehow disenfranchise minority voters. But U.S. District Court Judge Stephen V. Wilson disagreed: "Because an election reflects a unique moment in time, the court is skeptical that an election held months after its scheduled date can in any sense be said to be the same election."
hands-on henchman
Just 48 hours after the UN bombing, when things in Iraq appeared at their lowest point, U.S. Central Command announced its biggest news since the deaths of Uday and Qusay: Ali Hassan al-Majid, Saddam Hussein's ruthless cousin better known as "Chemical Ali," had been captured alive. Mr. al-Majid, No. 5 on America's list of most-wanted Iraqis, earned his nickname by ordering poison-gas attacks that killed thousands of Kurds in Northern Iraq in 1988. Two years later, when Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait, he was named governor of the occupied territory for seven months. After Iraqi troops were routed by America and her allies, Mr. al-Majid led-and human-rights activists say in some cases carried out personally-a bloody crackdown on southern Shiites who rose up against the Baathist regime. A British human-rights group quotes one anonymous witness as describing Shiite prisoners brought blindfolded and bound before Mr. al-Majid: "He said to the first: 'What have you done?' The man replied that he had done nothing. Ali Hassan al-Majid told him that if that was the case he could go home. When the man turned around, Ali Hassan al-Majid shot him in the back. It seemed a big joke to him."

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