Everybody leads with President Bush’s speech-then-press conference, where he acknowledged “a tough, tough series of weeks” in Iraq but announced no changes in strategy or policy.
Bush reiterated that “sovereignty” will be transferred June 30, though there’s still no plan for doing so. The president also said he will send more troops to Iraq “if that’s what [Centcom commander Gen. Abizaid] wants.” The WashingtonPost and New York Timessee this as enough of a verbal commitment to merit subhead play. The Los Angeles Times’ Ron Brownstein sees it as evidence that Bush was trying to fob off responsibility. Earlier this week, the New York Daily News quoted Pentagon officers saying that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld had discouraged Abizaid from asking for more troops.
“My message today to those in Iraq is, we’ll stay the course,” said Bush. “Now is the time and Iraq is the place in which the enemies of the civilized world are testing the will of the civilized world.” The president said banned weapons may still be found, and even if they are not, Iraq “was a threat to the United States.” Bush also said the “violence we are seeing in Iraq … is serving the same ideology of murder that kills innocent people on trains in Madrid, and murders children on buses in Jerusalem, and blows up a nightclub in Bali, and cuts the throat of a young reporter for being a Jew.”
Only the Wall Street Journal highlights Bush’s effort to “blur the lines between the fight in Iraq and the global war against al-Qaida.” In an article about Iraqi guerrilla tactics, one U.S. field commander told the Post that foreign fighters make up “about 2 percent” of the insurgents.
The LAT’s Brownstein declared Bush’s statements “long on goals and short on means.”
Mulling Bush’s sweeping language, the NYT’s David Sanger says, “He never used the word ‘crusade.’ … But he described one.”
Though the papers are too polite to dwell on it, reporters were not given the opportunity to follow up or push the president when he avoided a question. There was one exception: The Post’s Mike Allen asked Bush why he insisted on meeting the 9/11 commission with Cheney in the room. When Bush essentially ignored the question, Allen repeated it. (Bush, again, avoided it.)
Everybody fronts 9/11 commission testimony that focused on the FBI and included Attorney General Ashcroft. The WP highlights that an FBI official told the panel that prior to 9/11, Ashcroft said he wasn’t interested in hearing counterterrorism updates. Ashcroft disputes that—and as Slate’s Fred Kaplan notes, the panel didn’t try to resolve the discrepancy. The NYT emphasizes that the FBI itself came under withering criticism. “It failed and it failed and it failed and it failed,” said the Republican chair of the commission.
The LAT and USA Today front Ashcroft seeming to blame the Clinton administration for the supposed lack of counterterrorism efforts. “We did not know an attack was coming because for nearly a decade our government had blinded itself to its enemies,” Ashcroft said. He was referring to the “wall” that had been created between intelligence services and law enforcement agencies. While most of the coverage lets the Ashcroft digs hang in the air, the NYT actually looks into them and clarifies that the “wall” was created well before the Clinton administration and says before 9/11, they were endorsed by the Bush administration.
The Post fronts and others briefly mention that the commission staff reports noted that the president and his advisers saw plenty of dire-sounding intelligence reports about al-Qaida during the lead-up to 9/11. The reports included: “Bin Laden threats are real,” and “Bin Laden planning high profile attacks.” One alert warned of near-term “spectacular attacks” that would “cause the world to be in turmoil.” The staff reports say that the administration took steps to try to head off the threats. The CIA, for instance, launched “disruption operations” in 20 countries.
The NYT suggests there’s an increasing chance of a deal with radical cleric Muqtada Sadr. The paper briefly mentions that a Shiite cleric negotiating with Sadr told the BBC that they have a tentative deal: The U.S. wouldn’t arrest Sadr, and in turn Sadr would disarm his militia. U.S. forces continued to gather outside the holy city of Najaf, where Sadr is holed up. Sadr himself seemed to be in a negotiating mood. In a TV interview, he said, “I open any door that would bring about relief.” The Post gets a different read, saying Sadr “gave no indication that he expected a peaceful ending to the impasse.”
According to a mix of the papers and early morning reports, five Marines, one GI, and one American contractor have been killed in the past 48 hours, including in one attack in Fallujah, where despite a U.S.-declared cease-fire, there’s plenty of fighting. The NYT’s Jeffrey Gettleman, filing from the Marines’ base in the area, describes a static war of attrition. The Marines are allowed to fire at any Iraqi holding a gun. Asked whether they knew who the insurgents were, one colonel paused and said, “We don’t.”
The WP mentions that guerrillas in Fallujah fired on cars carrying local politicians who were trying to negotiate a cease-fire. The marines also said guerrillas fired on a food convoy.
Another five foreigners were reported missing, a French journalist and four Italian security guards. Eight Russians and Ukrainians who were kidnapped earlier this week were released. Four burnt bodies were also found yesterday near where a U.S. convoy was attacked last week and seven contractors went missing. U.S. headquarters in Baghdad said 40 international workers are now missing or being held hostage.
A front-page piece in the Post says that the guerrillas “have sharply increased the sophistication, coordination and aggressiveness of their tactics over the past week.” In the clearest of indication of that, says the Post, three bridges were blown up as U.S. forces approached. The guess is that some former officers in Saddam’s army—after having sat out the invasion—have now decided to join in.
The papers all offer the military’s latest numbers on U.S. casualties in Iraq since April 1: At least 83 troops killed, about 560 wounded, and two missing.