The New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times lead with the crash of two U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters in Mosul that killed at least 17 soldiers in the deadliest single incident involving U.S. troops since the start of the Iraq war. Officials said that the two choppers collided in midair when one ascended suddenly to avoid ground fire. The accident brings to five the number of U.S. helicopters downed by hostile fire in the past three weeks.
The papers all front the nearly simultaneous truck-bomb explosions outside two synagogues in Istanbul that killed at least 20 people and left more than 300 wounded. There's no firm word yet on who carried out the attacks, although the Turkish foreign minister said he suspected international involvement, and al-Qaida has emerged as a likely candidate. A Turkish militant Islamic group reportedly claimed responsibility for the blasts, but officials dismissed that possibility, saying that the bombings seemed too sophisticated to be the work of home-grown terrorists.
The papers also give prominent play to the Iraqi Governing Council's affirmation of the Bush administration's newly accelerated timetable for the transfer of authority in Iraq, which would cede power to a provisional government by the end of June. The plan, specifics of which were widely reported yesterday, puts off drafting a constitution for a couple of years, but calls for a "basic law" to be enacted by February that would enshrine freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and an independent judiciary, among other liberal principles, as foundations of the system-to-be. Provincial councils would elect an assembly of roughly 250 representatives during the spring, and the assembly would then create a transitional executive branch from within its own ranks by July 1. A constitutional convention would be called by mid-March 2005, with elections for a permanent national government to follow before the end of that year.
To hear the current president of the IGC tell it, under the new plan, the U.S. occupation "shall end" by July, which, as the papers note, would allow for a reduction in American forces just as the 2004 presidential campaign will be heating up back home. (Pentagon officials, however, have said that "tens of thousands" of troops would likely remain in Iraq for several years as "invited guests" of the new government.)
U.S. and IGC officials struck a predictably upbeat chord about the new plan, but the papers also detect a muted chorus of "I told you so" among some U.N. officials and European leaders, who view the revised timetable more as a calculated retreat by the U.S. than an advance by Iraqis. A front-page LAT piece airs doubts about whether Iraqi soldiers and police officers would be able to shoulder the burden as the U.S. reduces its role. Among the red flags are the Bush administration's rapidly fluctuating estimates of the size of the Iraqi security forces (which recently reached as high as 130,000), a trend that TP noted with a raised eyebrow earlier this week. Only 1,500 soldiers have officially been trained for and inducted into the reconstituted Iraqi army, according to the LAT.
Citing concerns that the accelerated plan could short-circuit the development of civil society in Iraq, the NYT editorializes in favor of a more gradual approach that would turn the occupation over to the U.N. An op-ed in the same paper counters that Iraqis wouldn't trust the U.N. either, and suggests that soldiers from Arab League nations would be the best fit as peacekeepers.
The papers also note that one American soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad and that another was killed by a similar device in northeastern Afghanistan.
The papers front word that congressional leaders have agreed "in principle" on a $400 billion Medicare reform plan that would create a federal prescription-drug benefit for seniors and allow private health plans greater latitude in competing with Medicare. Elsewhere on the health beat, the NYT checks in on the 43 million Americans who don't have health insurance, a group that the paper says is increasingly middle class and growing quickly, its numbers swelled by job losses and cutbacks in state health subsidies.
Everybody goes with the deaths of 13 people in a gangway collapse onboard the Queen Mary 2, the world's largest ocean liner, which is tied up at a dry dock in western France. (The WP's "Travel" section runs a detailed piece about the ship that the paper says was printed before the accident.)
The papers note that Democrat Kathleen Babineaux Blanco was elected governor of Louisiana in a runoff Saturday, becoming the first woman to hold that office.
The WP's "Style" section takes a long, creepy look at Gary Ridgway, who murdered at least 48 people in Washington state over the course of 20 years, a spree of unparalleled breadth and length in the annals of American serial killing. Despite the extent of his crimes, Ridgway avoided suspicion by leading a bland, apparently normal life much at odds with the standard serial killer's M.O. When asked by a psychologist after his capture to rate the degree of his own evil on a scale of 1 to 5, Ridgway scored himself a middling 3.
And the NYT's "Sunday Styles" section profiles 25-year-old John Buffalo Mailer, who in addition to being Norman Mailer's son and one of People's sexiest men alive, has recently been named executive editor of the marijuana fanzine High Times. In his new post Mailer is attempting to broaden the magazine's focus beyond its parochial roots, and he hopes that the revamped product—if not quite the Granta of ganja—will at least gain respectability and a wider audience: "With the new High Times we're using [marijuana] as a metaphor. … So it's not a magazine about pot, it's a magazine about our civil liberties, and our tag line is 'Celebrating Freedom.' Our feeling is it's patriotic to be in High Times."