Today's Papers

Mid-Seizing Replacements

The Washington Post leads with a potential agreement to replace U.S. Marines in and around Fallujah with an Iraqi force led by four Saddam-era generals—a development the New York Times and Los Angeles Times front, USA Today teases in an above-the-fold hed, and the Wall Street Journal places atop its world-wide news box. The NYT leads with the few scraps of information available from President Bush and Vice-President Cheney’s “cordial,” three-hour-long meeting with the 9/11 Commission, a story LAT gives its top non-local slot and the WP fronts. USAT reefers the meeting and leads instead with the U.S. economy’s continued expansion, highlighting new figures showing that the GDP grew at an annual, seasonally adjusted rate of 4.2 percent in the first quarter of 2004. The NYT and WP both tease the economic report, which also indicates inflation is rising slightly, leading to speculation that the Fed may raise interest rates before the end of the year. The NYT is alone in pointing out that military spending contributed significantly to the growth; without it, the GDP would have only expanded 3.5 percent.

The idea for the Fallujah fallback plan came—according to the NYT and USAT—from former Iraqi military leaders who approached Marine field commanders. Both the NYT and the WP report that the deal, brokered on the scene and then filtered up the chain of command, took officials in Baghdad and Washington by surprise; judging by the papers’ schizophrenic coverage, military officials still had not worked out by press time what the pullback might entail or whether it was just one of many plans on the table. “It’s very confusing right now,” a senior Pentagon official told the Post. “There’s a disconnect here and we can’t figure it out.”

The WP,NYT,LAT, and USAT—all with Fallujah datelines—agree on certain basics: The agreement calls for the Marines, who number around 7,000, to pull back from positions in and around the city and be replaced by an approximately 1,000-strong Iraqi force that will ultimately report to Marine commanders. Depending on whom you ask, the not-yet-assembled force will be called the “Fallujah Protection Army” (WP and WSJ), the “Fallujah Protective Army” (USAT), the “Fallujah Self Protection Army” (LAT), or the “First Battalion of the Fallujah Brigade” (NYT). The differences aren’t only in name: A Marine general behind the plan told the NYT that the force would be made up of “mostly former Iraqi Army officers and men,” while the WP suggests that conscripts might be ordinary residents, including former insurgents—the paper even calls the group a “militia” in its headline. And while the NYT says the proposal is far from approved, the LAT recounts hand-shaking scene in which the deal was done and the WP reports that Marines inside the city already have orders to start the pullback today.

Despite progress in the negotiations, fighting continued in Fallujah yesterday, with Navy warplanes dropping sophisticated bombs and Marine tanks demolishing several buildings. Although no U.S. troops were lost in Fallujah or Najaf—where militants loyal to Muqtada Sadr continue to take pot shots—10 U.S. soldiers were killed yesterday, eight by a roadside car bomb south of Baghdad. As this bloody month draws to a close, USAT devotes half of its front page to a cover story on U.S. casualties in Iraq, illustrated by canvas of 116 headshots out of the 134 soldiers killed so far in April. Next to its lead story, the WP does a photo-reefer of its own periodic “Faces of the Fallen” feature, while both the Post and the LAT run separate stories on the mounting death toll inside.

The WP off-leads a long look at revelations from a House hearing yesterday that less than five percent of the $18.4 billion Congress earmarked for Iraq’s reconstruction has been spent because of what one Republican lawmaker called “loss of central command and control.” In addition, the Post reports that more than $300 million has been shifted away from aid projects. For example, $184 million for drinking-water will go instead to support the new U.S. embassy in Baghdad; $29 million for “democracy building” will cover administrative expenses.

The papers’$2 9/11 Commission stories all say the Bush administration strived to make the Oval Office encounter appear casual—seating Bush and Cheney in wing-back chairs in front of the fireplace, while commissioners and staff piled onto couches and chairs arranged in a semi-circle. The NYT does future cinematographers a favor, noting “the day’s strong sunlight streaming in from the windows behind them.” (As a surprisingly Berkeleyan piece in the NYT notes, all this information is entirely second-hand; there was no visual documentation of the meeting itself.)

The NYT’s lead earns its placement by offering some of the most substantive detail (rote as it is), citing administration and commission sources who say that Bush simply backed up previous administration accounts: The Aug. 6 PDB was historical, and during the summer of 2001, the danger appeared to be overseas. “There was information that we did not have,” the commission’s chairman said in the NYT. “But it was not information that was a surprise.”

More surprising (to some, at least) may be the papers’ agreement that Bush didn’t lean too much on Cheney or White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, who was also present along with two members of his staff. While the WP reports that Cheney elaborated a little on a few of the president’s answers, the commission’s chairman told the NYT that Bush fielded about three quarters of the questions and the WSJ supplies a convincing vote of confidence from a Democratic commissioner, too. “The president and vice president added valuable information to our questions and the president was very direct in his answers,” he said. According to the Journal, Bush let the session run over so the commissioners could ask a second round of questions.

Despite the secrecy, there was one topic that the administration did say was discussed, a point the WP and USAT explain in their stories and the LAT and NYT cover in separate articles inside. During the session, Bush apparently said he was disappointed the Justice Department had used its Web site to post documents drafted by 9/11 commissioner Jamie Gorelick when she was serving in the department under Bill Clinton. According to some Republicans, the documents show that Gorelick, a Democrat, was responsible for a policy that limited pre-9/11 intelligence sharing. But WH Press Secretary Scott McClellan said, “The President looks at this and doesn’t believe there ought to be finger-pointing.” (Josh Marshall, to his credit, posts the whole Briefing Room exchange.)

The NYT off-leads Google’s much-anticipated announcement yesterday, in an SEC filing, that it will publicly offer stock later this year, a story that rates two Page- One pieces in the WSJ (subscription required), and one each in the LAT and WP. In every case, the love-fest continues inside, with soft-focus pieces on the company’s unconventional, anti-Wall Street approach to the offering.

Buried in the Post, halfway into a piece on the new book by Niger uranium story debunker Joseph Wilson, is a nice little fact: Saddam Hussein’s former information minister, the comically pugnacious Mohammed Sahhaf, has since found another gig as a “broadcast correspondent” in Abu Dhabi. Although he was “interviewed” by U.S. forces after Baghdad fell, Sahhaf was never held captive. “He wasn’t wanted for anything,” a U.S. official explained. “Unfortunately, being a bad spokesman is not a crime.”