Today's Papers

Secret Weapons

The New York Times leads with word of a secret arms deal in which Iraqi officials sought to obtain $833 million worth of guns and aircraft from Serbia; officials say the deal underscores the corruption and inefficiency that have plagued the army’s efforts to procure military equipment. The Los Angeles Times eyes heightening tension in Afghanistan, where both insurgents and NATO troops are girding for a spring offensive. The Washington Post leads with a look back on the tenure of Housing Secretary Alphonso Jackson, who leaves office this week; officials say he’ll likely be remembered for encouraging policies that exacerbated the current mortgage crisis.

U.S. officials say the Iraqi army has still got a lot to learn about how to spend its money wisely. Back in 2005, the army squandered $1.3 billion on shoddy military equipment, much of which was never delivered; now officials have inked a secret deal with Serbia that appears designed to sidestep anti-corruption measures. “You can only explain it in two ways,” said one Western official. “A desire to avoid oversight, and a desire to offer opportunities for graft and corruption.” Officials said the deal raised questions about the Iraqi military’s readiness to stand alone; it also came as a snub to the Pentagon’s military sales program, which has struggled to deliver equipment fast enough to meet demand.

In Afghanistan, troops are preparing for an uptick in violence as Taliban fighters return from their winter shelters in Pakistan. Nearly 2,300 U.S. Marines have been deployed at the country’s main NATO base, in the hope of striking a conclusive blow against insurgents in Helmand province, an opium-production hotspot. Taliban commanders say they aren’t worried about the Marines’ arrival. “We have heard all about these Americans, and we are waiting - let them come,” said one. “They will learn what others before them have learned.”

The Post goes above the fold with a splashy look at the state of America’s “impassioned but independent” Catholic Church ahead of Pope Benedict’s U.S. tour. “Christianity is stronger here than anywhere else in the West, but we are at the frontier of the encounter between faith and modernity,” says one U.S. Catholic theologian. The NYT also fronts a look ahead to the pope’s visit, predicting that the doctrinal hard-liner will seek to win over Americans by showing his softer side.

Barack Obama attempted yesterday to dampen the row over his claim that economic problems had driven small-town voters to “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” The NYT fronts a report noting that the Illinois senator admitted his phrasing had been clunky, but he stood by his central point about the economic plight of small-town America. That might not be enough to kill off the Clinton campaign’s criticism; the Post points out that the brouhaha is likely to set the tone for Wednesday’s debate between the two candidates in Pennsylvania.

Still, Hillary has problems of her own: The LAT fronts word that Bill Clinton had a “fundraising relationship” with a Chinese Internet company accused of abetting government censorship and collaborating with the Chinese government’s crackdown on Tibetan protesters. The news came as Chinese President Hu Jintao defended his handling of the Tibetan demonstrations, saying the protesters had sought to undermine Chinese sovereignty. The Post notes that China showed a degree of restraint in using police, not soldiers, to rein in protesters; still, the clashes have kept China and Tibet in the spotlight ahead of this year’s Olympic Games. On the NYT’s op-ed page, Matthew Forney writes that many young Chinese people strongly support their government’s suppression of the Tibetan uprising, while Elliot Sperling recaps the historical justification for Tibetan independence.

Haiti’s President René Préval announced new food subsidies yesterday, reports the NYT, hoping that a 15 percent drop in the cost of rice would be enough to put an end to the violent protests that have rocked Haiti in recent weeks. Still, as the LAT notes, the move wasn’t enough to keep Haitian lawmakers from sacking Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis, a close ally of the president, in protest at the recent chaos.

Schadenfreude alert: The NYT has word that Alberto Gonzales, the former attorney general who was forced to quit earlier this year, has so far been unable to convince any private law firm to hire him.

Recession-hit restaurants are looking to make a quick buck by cutting portion sizes, reports the Post, using tricks that range from skewering shrimp (“It straightens them out so when you cook them they look bigger!”) to shaving an ounce or two off expensive steaks.

The world could end this summer, according to the LAT, when European scientists power up a massive new particle accelerator. The boffins hope to gain new insights into the sub-atomic particles that make up our world—but some fear the vast amounts of energy at work could create a miniature black hole that would grow and ultimately swallow the Earth. “That would be an extremely spectacular result,” says one of the project’s researchers.