Everybody leads with what appears to be the first shot in the battle for Baghdad. Early Saturday morning, U.S. forces “suddenly” veered toward the heart of the Iraqi capital, entering the city from the south and apparently coming within just a few miles of downtown. The surprise attack—led by a battalion of up to 60 tanks and other vehicles—sparked a three-hour rolling firefight with thousands of “disorganized” Iraqi soldiers and militiamen, who were “tenacious, but outgunned,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
One American died, and at least 1,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed in the advance, along with an undetermined number of civilians. According to the LAT, U.S. officials initially said that American forces had reached the “heart” of Baghdad and were there to stay. But folks at Central Command later backed off those statements, withdrawing troops and calling the exercise “a strategic display of force” meant to send the message that Saddam is losing his grip on power, the New York Times notes. “We’re not ready to go in and occupy the city,” one commander tells the NYT. “We just wanted to let them know we’re here.”
Meanwhile, the Washington Post, which describes the advance as an “in-your-face gesture,” reports that American warplanes will now be patrolling the skies over Baghdad 24 hours a day, presumably to bomb urban targets at a moment’s notice.
A Page One story in the LAT says Saturday’s attack was a part of an emerging U.S. strategy to test Iraqi resistance in various parts of Baghdad. The hope is to gain military control of the city one section at a time. The plan was devised to “avoid bloody urban battles and encourage cooperation from the Iraqi populace,” the paper notes. While analysts call the strategy “creative,” some believe the plan could be undermined by the same type of guerrilla warfare that has plagued the rest of the war strategy.
Outside Basra, British forces yesterday discovered the remains of hundreds of people in bags and boxes at an abandoned Iraqi military base. According to the NYT, the bodies were found along with documents and photos showing that the victims had been tortured and disfigured. Meanwhile, in Basra, coalition aircraft struck the home of Ali Hassan al-Majid, the Iraqi general known as “Chemical Ali.” According to early morning wire reports in the WP, Centcom officials believe that al-Majid was home at the time of the bombing and might have been killed in the attack.
A news analysis in the WP looks at the similarities between President Bush’s approach to the war and how he ran his first presidential campaign. Among other things, both featured an aggressive “early burst” to intimidate opponents and repeated claims of inevitability. “Events play into his hands,” an unnamed Republican member of Congress tells the paper. “There is a period of inflated expectations … then the chattering classes say everything is wrong. When there’s a turnaround, Bush cashes in all his chips and is even stronger.”
A piece in the NYT looks at what the current administration’s policy on Iraq might mean for other countries, such as North Korea, Iran, or Syria. Preventive war, the piece notes, might have the unintended effect of encouraging an arms race among countries that believe a substantial arsenal of weapons might ward off an attack from Washington.
In related news, the NYT stuffs word that, despite earlier predictions to the contrary, the war with Iraq has not encouraged new terrorist attacks against America. While anti-American sentiment continues to be high internationally, senior intelligence officials say no plots are imminent—a development that some credit to the arrest of Khalid Sheik Mohammad, a top al-Qaida operative. But some believe it won’t be quiet for long. “I can’t believe that they are going to do nothing after Iraq,” said one senior counterterrorism official. “I’ve been frankly astonished at how quiet it’s been. I’ve got to believe that somehow, some way they are going to try to hit us. It’s just a matter of time.”
Both the NYT and WP this morning stuff continued coverage over who will control the rebuilding of a post-Saddam Iraq. The WP sticks with domestic feuds: President Bush has given the Defense Department primary control over the process of appointing an interim government—a move that has State Department officials fuming. They fear the Pentagon will stack an advisory panel determining who will control the country with Iraqi exiles and other outsiders at the expense of potential leaders within the country, thus undermining legitimacy of the new regime. Meanwhile, the NYT sticks with the issue of United Nations involvement. Everyone agrees the U.N. should handle the country’s looming humanitarian crisis, but when it comes to the future of Iraq’s oil industry, the latest word is that the U.N. is a “non-player,” according to the NYT.
Finally, coverage of the war in Iraq nearly overshadowed a major romantic development in Washington this week. As the WP reported yesterday, Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, the National Zoo’s giant pandas, mated for the first time on Friday—though zoo staffers almost missed it. The encounter lasted just 15 seconds, forcing curators to study an instant replay of the exhibit’s security cameras to confirm it actually happened.