All the papers lead with the U.S.'s rapid, two-pronged advance to the outskirts of Baghdad, seizing most of the international airport in the southwest, and reversing last week's conventional wisdom that the U.S.-British invasion is getting bogged down by clever, guerrilla-style Iraqi resistance. Everyone's lead mentions up high (the New York Times' in its banner headline) that Baghdad has been blacked-out for the first time in the war and that the U.S. denies it targeted the electrical grid. The Washington Post even devotes its off-lead to the blackout, reporting that "Baghdadis responded to the darkness with foreboding."
All the leads speculate that the Iraqi regime is close to collapse—both the Los Angeles Times and NYT front headlines that allude to a tightening "NOOSE." The papers all base this theory on the U.S.'s speedy advance toward Baghdad, reports from CENTCOM that the Iraqi response has been disorganized at best, and increasingly absurd and unrealistic statements from the Iraqi information minister, who claimed yesterday that U.S. and British advances are all "an illusion" and that "the Americans aren't even 100 miles from Baghdad." According to the Wall Street Journal, such rhetoric might further undermine the government's control, considering that many Iraqis are monitoring the war on short-wave radio, and U.S. artillery fire is now audible in Baghdad.
Everyone's lead also notes that the Pentagon and battlefield commanders are uncertain whether a significant number of Iraqi Republican Guard troops have retreated into the city to force a protracted battle. Also, as everyone mentions, Rumsfeld and military officials have warned that Saddam might finally use some of his conspicuously absent chemical weapons. The LAT follows up with a piece inside that quotes a "U.S. official" in Washington as saying there is increased "chatter" on Iraqi military radio alluding to a chem attack.
The WP's, LAT's and WSJ's leads provide the best overall battlefield coverage of the U.S. advance, as two division-sized forces close in on Iraq's capital. While elements of the 3rd Infantry pushed up from the south, others took parts of the airport yesterday (early morning wires report that some fighting continues). According to the WP's lead, 3rd Infantry troops engaged in a four-hour battle with Republican Guard tanks on the southern approach to the city, and an LAT embed reports another two-and-a-half-hour firefight along that route. The 1st Marine Division, which last week was rushing to catch up with the Army, closed on the city from the southeast, along the Tigris, according to the WSJ.
To the north, the LAT reports that U.S. troops, after being attacked, joined their first major battle alongside Kurdish troops. According to the NYT's lead, the Kurds say they won't try to take oil-rich Kirkuk without the U.S. because they don't want to upset Turkey, nor, presumably, the delicate arrangement the U.S. seems to have made with it to sit out the war.
Now that U.S. troops are massed on the edge of Baghdad and last week's quagmire talk is passé, the papers all speculate about strategy with renewed zeal. Will there be a siege? Will the U.S. wait for the 4th Infantry? Who knows, really? Everyone agrees the capture of Baghdad's airport would be a strategic coup, and the LAT conjectures it will allow the U.S. to fly in a brigade-sized portion of the 4th, although the WSJ points out that U.S. commanders are still too wary of anti-aircraft fire to do so just yet. (And, hey, it might be nice to capture the whole airport first, too.) The NYT reminds us that U.S. commanders say it isn't necessary to wait for the 4th Infantry to start the offensive, but that they're rushing to get it ready anyway. The WP's front-page analysis argues that it all depends on the kind of welcome the troops receive: While the troops in place right now are not powerful enough to take Baghdad against stiff opposition, if initial probes into the city turn up weak resistance or strong support from residents, the bulk of the attacking force might go into the city to end things soon.
The hope that Baghdad might fall relatively quickly was bolstered yesterday when, as everyone notes in their leads, one of the most prominent Shiite clerics in Iraq issued a fatwa urging Muslims to remain calm and not to interfere with U.S. and British forces.
And even if Baghdad does take a while to fall, the U.S. isn't going to wait around before declaring victory. Despite George Bush's claim yesterday that he would accept nothing less than "complete and total victory," the LAT's off-lead declares that the "U.S. PLANS A PARALLEL REGIME," and the WP reports inside that the administration has devised the concept of a "rolling victory," in which the U.S. will establish a base of operations, perhaps outside Baghdad, and declare that a new era has begun—even if the Saddam Hussein's government never surrenders.
Colin Powell continued to meet with estranged Euorpean allies yesterday and continues to insist that the U.S., not the U.N., will take the lead in any post-war rebuilding effort. But the LAT fronts a piece that makes the financial situation in Iraq look especially dire: Just servicing the country's debt could eat up all the oil revenues that the administration hopes to use to fund reconstruction. According to the WP, a U.N. official says the mounting costs will force the U.S. to accept a much greater mandate for the United Nations after all.
Money woes aside, everyone goes inside with news that Congress passed the supplementary war spending bill late last night. Both the House and Senate tried to make it difficult for France, Germany, Russia, or Syria to get post-war rebuilding contracts, but only the House passed such an amendment and the NYT hinted it wouldn't make it through conference committee with the Senate.
The papers all note in their leads that a Navy F/A-18 fighter jet that was reportedly shot down by Iraq on Wednesday might have actually been downed by a Patriot missile.
A piece deep inside the Post says that the Brits have demonstrated a rather different, more "touchy-feely" fighting style than their American counterparts, whom they refer to as "Ninja Turtles," because of the Americans' helmets, body armor, and ubiquitous wrap-around sunglasses. For one thing, some Royal Marines took time out the other day to play soccer with local civilians south of Basra (the Iraqis won 9 to 3). The British strategy is simple: "First, we have football matches, then we have tea parties, and then somehow our soldiers go out and meet the local ladies," a retired colonel told the WP. "It's amazing how quickly they do that."