Today's Papers

Hysteric Cleric

The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today all lead with the U.S. announcement of a warrant for the arrest of Muqtada Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric whose supporters revolted against coalition troops over the weekend. Initially U.S. commanders were coy about when they would serve the warrant, which was actually issued several months ago for the murder of a rival cleric. But by last night American soldiers were moving into the area around Kufa, 100 miles south of Baghdad, where Sadr had holed up in a mosque surrounded by hundreds of militiamen with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. The NYT goes above the fold with the announcement and leads instead with the Pentagon’s possible contingency plans to add to the U.S. force of 135,000 troops in Iraq, a scenario that the LAT’s lead briefly mentions.

As U.S. officials declared Sadr an outlaw, a second day of violence continued to rile Shiite-populated areas in southern Iraq. The WP, LAT, and WSJ point out that the uprisings signal a second front for coalition troops, who have battled heretofore a mostly Sunni Muslim insurgency. U.S. Marines and Iraqi troops moved into Fallujah in an operation aimed at hunting down those involved in the killing of four American civilian contractors last week. The Post pegs the number involved in the op at around 1,000; USAT estimates 1,300; and the Journal’s lead highballs the figure in the thousands.

In its lead, the NYT juxtaposes the possibility of higher troop numbers with quotations from administration officials who downplay concerns that the recent violence will cause a civil war. Officials did concede, however, that the rebellion could stymie a smooth transition of power to the interim government this summer. Speaking in Charlotte, N.C., President Bush said he intended to stick to the June 30 deadline; the WP stuffs that announcement. Tucked in USAT’s lead is word that the Pentagon is extending the tours of certain military units who were slated to leave Iraq in the next few weeks. The Post is mum on the subject, but reveals that U.S. commanders deemed the battle for Sadr City the heaviest fighting since the fall of Baghdad nearly a year ago.

In a frightening dispatch from Kufa stuffed by the NYT, Jeffrey Gettleman reports that Sadr’s militiamen have occupied government buildings and police stations, are driving Iraqi police trucks, and have even set up their own religious courts and prisons. The city has become “basically an occupation-free zone.” He points out that while it has long been a hotbed of conservative Shiite teachings, it’s the first city to slip completely out of coalition control. “This is just the beginning,” said one of Sadr’s followers. Echoed a commander in Sadr’s army, which the Times estimates in the tens of thousands, “If they come for our leader, they will ignite all of Iraq.”

On that note, the papers all ponder Sadr’s capacity for mobilizing the moderate Shiite establishment. In its thorough Page One analysis, the LAT is alone in pointing out that the timing of the cleric’s arrest—just before the beginning of an Islamic holy day—could incense middle-of-the-road Iraqis, blinding them to Sadr’s radical bent. The Post chimes in with potential for Sadr’s martyrdom, noting that although his rhetoric initially fell on deaf ears, “U.S. standing among Shiites has suffered as clerics and their followers have become more assertive in their demands for elections and reforms.” The Journal’s world-wide news box is more apprehensive, however, claiming that Sadr’s militancy has cost him support among the mainstream Shiite population. An accompanying WSJ off-lead presents scant evidence of this claim.

In a below-the-fold scoop, the WP reports that the Sunday attack on coalition headquarters in Najaf was repelled by eight commandos from Blackwater Security Consulting—the company that employed the four slain civilian contractors—rather than the U.S. military. As the paper points out, the role of Blackwater’s employees in defending the headquarters further blurs the distinction between their nominal title of “bodyguards” and their actual duties in a war zone. According to “informal after-action reports,” there are thousands of armed private security contractors currently serving in Iraq.

The WP off-leads, and the NYT reefers, word that a year-old deal providing AIDS drugs at discounted rates has been expanded from 16 to more than 100 countries, which could ultimately offer 3 million people antiretroviral therapy by 2005. Absent from the list of donors is the United States, which “has its own plan to help AIDS patients in poor countries.”

The NYT fronts a study of this year’s renaissance in grass-roots campaigning, one of the few themes that the camps of President Bush and Sen. John Kerry agree on. Says the political director of one prominent political action committee that helps elect Democratic women, “We’re going back to the 1950’s.”

The USAT and NYT front—and the Journal goes inside—with news of the joint U.S-Canadian report that last summer’s blackout could have been localized if an Ohio power company had simply cut off electricity to most of Cleveland. Yet more importantly, as the USAT and WSJ point out, legislation to overhaul the industry and secure the national power grid has stalled in Congress. Curiously, none of the papers explore why.

David Colman reports in the NYT that Hillary is on the runway, in a manner of speaking:

But the latest T-shirt at [Marc Jacobs’] Bleecker Street store has even veteran fashion-watchers scratching their heads. Emblazoned with a Warhol-style silkscreen of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s face, the shirt strikes an odd note: It is an election year but not for Senator Clinton. … Ms. Clinton was glad to cooperate … as long as the shirts were made in the United States by union labor. Proceeds from the shirts, which come in assorted colors and sell for $55, go to Friends of Hillary, the senator’s re-election committee. Customer reaction, Mr. Duffy said, has been mixed.