Today's Papers

A Sadr Story

Everybody leads with clashes across Iraq between coalition troops and militiamen as well as other supporters of a young radical Shiite cleric, Muqtada Sadr. In Sadr City, a sprawling Shiite slum in Baghdad (named for Sadr’s murdered father), seven GIs were killed as militiamen seized government buildings and set up roadblocks. In the holy city of Najaf, one Salvadoran soldier along with perhaps one American GI was killed and another dozen coalition troops wounded. Twenty Iraqis were killed there and about 200 wounded. USA Today says, overall, at least 50 Iraqis were killed. Two Marines were killed in unrelated violence in western Iraq.

According to overnight reports, one U.S. soldier was killed and another wounded by a roadside bomb in northern Iraq. The Los Angeles Times’ off-lead says one Marine was killed by mortar or rocket fire as troops prepared to head into Fallujah.

The Washington Post notes that around the heaviest fighting near Najaf, “much of [the] American-trained police force joined the side of the Sadr forces.” The New York Times says Iraqi police near all the major clashes abandoned their posts, “punching a huge hole in American hopes that American-trained Iraqis can be relied on increasingly to take over from American troops.”

Sadr, a wannabe rival to the more moderate Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, raised his rhetoric over the weekend after one of his top aides was arrested Saturday in connection with the murder last year of a pro-American cleric. The U.S. also shut down Sadr’s newspaper last week, saying it had been inciting violence.

The papers have differing accounts about whether the attacks were planned, though there’s no question that Sadr ordered his people into the streets. The NYT’s John Burns calls the attacks “carefully orchestrated” and says they were part of a “coordinated Shiite militia uprising.” Sadr called for supporters to “terrorize your enemy,” and Burns says that within hours thousands of demonstrators in at least four cities had begun battling troops. But the Post says that Sadr didn’t make that statement until hours after the clashes started. Citing journalists at the scene in Najaf, it also suggests that coalition troops there fired first—as Sadr’s men were marching on a base. A U.S. spokesman said troops only returned fire.

It’s also hard to tell whether the fighting is dying down. The NYT emphasizes that, as of last night, the U.S. was sending in reinforcements to take back Sadr City and other spots. But the Post says many militiamen went home on Sadr’s orders. The paper says that rather than risk all-out war, the fighting might be Sadr’s way of giving the U.S. a shot across the bow.

Whatever the specifics of the fighting and who started it, everybody sees it as a likely turning point. As the Times’ Burns puts it, “In effect, the militia attacks confronted the American military command with what has been its worst nightmare as it has struggled to pacify Iraq: the spread of an insurgency that has stretched a force of 130,000 American troops from the minority Sunni population to the majority Shiites.” According to an editorial in last week’s Post,U.S. troop levels are “dropping by 20 percent.”

In a statement made through an aide, Ayatollah Sistani, who is considered to have far more support than Sadr, called on Sadr’s supporters to “remain calm, to keep a cool head and allow the problem to be resolved through negotiation.” He also reportedly said the “demonstrators’ demands are legitimate.”

The LAT, which seems to have the papers’ only hands-on reporting from Fallujah, says Marines are about to launch “one of the biggest offensives” since the fall of Baghdad and have encircled the town and “barricaded [the roads] with tanks and concertina wire.” Though the Marines haven’t gone in yet, fighting has already started: Guerrillas have been firing on the Marines’ positions while U.S. airstrikes, according to witnesses, have hit at least four homes.

The Post off-leads and others go inside with Spain’s announcement that the suspected mastermind of last month’s Madrid bombings was among at least four men who blew themselves up Saturday after police surrounded their apartment.

The WP notices that President Bush has allowed many of his high-profile proposals to languish in Congress. Questioning the administration’s lack of interest in pushing its proposed immigration reform package, Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel said, “It is going to require intense presidential leadership. And so my question would be, what is the administration doing?”

Meanwhile, inside the Post notes says that Bush is going to announce a plan today to double the number of workers who complete federally funded job training—from 200,000 to 400,000—but won’t propose increased funding. Instead, the administration said it will pay for the extra training through cuts in “federal red tape.”

The NYT’s Burns takes a moment to contrast the reality of yesterday’s fighting with the somewhat more sanguine spin offered by U.S. spokesmen. Burns says a “senior American officer rushed into a news briefing inside the American headquarters compound in central Baghdad wearing a helmet,” and said, the fighting represented “a fairly significant event,” adding, “At this point, it’s pretty settled down.”