The New York Times leads with American forces’ continued aerial and artillery bombardment of Fallujah as Ramadan began. The Los Angeles Times leads, and the NYT fronts, the deteriorating situation in Haiti, where pro-Aristide gangs shot at police and blocked relief shipments intended for some 300,000 people left homeless by Tropical Storm Jeanne. The NYT’s piece is longer, giving it room to more fully, vividly, and disturbingly describe “[t]hese twin crises, natural and political.” The Washington Post leads with polls it helped conduct showing that the presidential race in Florida is tied among both registered and likely voters—as well as among the growing, moderate population of non-Cuban Latino voters. Strangely, the paper does not even mention, much less reconcile, the preponderance of recent polls from the Sunshine State showing President Bush with a small but relatively consistent lead.
The NYT paints the Fallujah operation as one of intimidation: F-16s screamed overhead at low altitude as Marines encircled the city and American loudspeakers directed warnings at insurgents. Even as families fled, fearing the long-awaited U.S. assault, American commanders told the paper that the bombardment was not the beginning of a larger operation; the ops were merely meant to disrupt Ramadan attacks by Abu Musab Zarqawi, whom the U.S. says is holed up there. The WP, more convincingly, plays the story the other way around, quoting an official in Baghdad who called the bombardment part of “shaping operations” to prepare the battlefield, as American firepower targeted concrete blast walls U.S. forces left behind in April. “We’ll continue to do these operations for the next few days, and then we’ll see where we are,” the nameless official said.
One odd disagreement between the papers: The NYT says the Americans deny arresting a Fallujah cleric who headed the delegation that had, until recently, been negotiating for a peaceful handover of the city. Meanwhile the Post seems to have no doubts that the arrest occurred after prayers Friday evening and gets a rather inscrutable analysis from a U.S. diplomat: “I think it’s more military than political for sure,” he said of the arrest. “Not to say that when it’s done, this won’t be seen as a turning point in the political process here.”
The LAT and NYT front—and the others stuff—news that members of an Army Reserve quartermaster company in Iraq allegedly refused to drive a fuel convoy on Wednesday because they thought it was too dangerous. Some soldiers described the trek across central Iraq in unreliable fuel trucks without proper escort as a “suicide mission,” according to relatives. The WP says the Army called the incident a “temporary breakdown in discipline” and is investigating possible disciplinary action, which the LAT notes could possibly include mutiny or cowardice, but probably won’t. In its piece, the NYT interviews Slate contributor Phillip Carter, who says that such insubordination is uncommon these days, but maybe not for long. “The paradigm shift that’s happening is that a truck driver is just as likely to see combat as soldiers in an infantry unit,” Carter said “There are no rear units in Iraq any more.”
The papers’ Iraq stories all mention, very briefly, that 10 people were killed yesterday in southern Baghdad when a suicide car bomb detonated near a convoy of Iraqi police, leaving an 18-foot crater in the street. The LAT says that four of those dead were members of a family that was passing by in a car. Early morning wires all note that a series of pre-dawn blasts in Baghdad struck five churches, a hotel and a hospital, killing one.
The LAT and NYT note that Bush’s favorite member of the coalition of the willing, Poland, has decided to draw down its troops in Iraq beginning early next year. “Whether they change the number of troops or their profile, that’s up to them,” said a State Department spokesman, who gamely added, “We don’t see in this announcement any lessening of the commitment.”
The papers all say the U.S. has grudgingly agreed to give Germany, France, and Britain time to woo Iran back to the bargaining table before pushing the matter of its nuclear program to the Security Council. “They said they really wanted to do it,” an administration official said in the NYT. “We said, it sounds like you’re going to do it anyway, so go ahead.” The European plan would entail Iran’s immediate agreement to cease all efforts to develop an independent nuclear fuel cycle for its first reactor, which could go online as early as next year. Following verification by the IAEA before then end of November, the Europeans would then discuss a wide range of security and economic issues, including trade cooperation and aid; the WP says it’s assumed the U.S. would eventually take part in the talks. Not that the administration has its hopes up, according to an anonymous State Department official: “[U]nfortunately, our feeling is that the Iranians are still Iranians.”
Everyone notes that a rare poll of U.S. troops and their families shows that they favor Bush over Sen. John Kerry by an almost three-to-one margin. Because it is for some reason illegal to poll troops about their voting intentions, the poll actually asked whom they trusted more to handle the responsibilities of commander in chief. More surprisingly, only 55 percent of those troops who have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan believe the Iraq war to be worth it, and 48 percent of all troops, a plurality, say Bush lacks a clear plan for Iraq.
The papers all note that Karl Rove spent two hours testifying yesterday before the federal grand jury probing whether administration officials illegally leaked the identity of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame. Rove’s lawyer said that his client is not a target of the investigation.
Brent would? … The WP picks up on a surprisingly blunt interview Brent Scowcroft gave this week to the Financial Times. Although the Scowcroft, former national security adviser for Bush the Elder, later said in a statement to the WP that he endorses the current President Bush for a second term, he took George W. to task for his foreign policy, calling the Iraq war a “failing venture.” Scowcroft also accused Bush of being “mesmerized” by Ariel Sharon. “Sharon just has him wrapped around his little finger.”