All the papers lead with the White House's decision to cede sovereignty to a new Iraqi government next summer. The New York Times and Washington Post off-lead, and the Los Angeles Times fronts, agreement among Republicans in Congress on the most significant energy bill in a decade. Note: According to wire stories early this morning, suicide bombers attacked two Istanbul synagogues during Sabbath prayers, killing 15.
Under the new U.S. timeline for putative Iraqi independence, the Governing Council will draft the structure of an interim government by March. This government will likely consist of a streamlined executive and a legislature (200 members, according to the NYT) and will be chosen by yet-to-be-determined provincial leaders at town meetings across Iraq. The U.S. will grant sovereignty to this new government in June. American troops will remain in Iraq, but only at the invitation of the transitional government. (This "invitation" may not be optional: Yesterday President Bush insisted that "we're not going to pull out [of Iraq and Afghanistan] until the job is done. Period.") The transitional government will take a census and then hold an election, in late 2004 or early 2005, for representatives to a constitutional convention. After the constitution is written, Iraqis will elect their first constitutional government, possibly in 2006. Once this timeline is accepted by the Governing Council (every Iraqi leader quoted seems enthusiastic), it will go to the U.N. Security Council for approval.
The original U.S. plan, which demanded the adoption of a constitution while the U.S. remained in power, might have delayed the transfer of sovereignty until 2005. The papers attribute Washington's reversal to the accumulated toll of the terrorist insurgency and the Shiites' unyielding demand that a constitution be created by an independent Iraq. The Post, as is its wont, goes deepest into the plan's political ramifications. It says the White House felt pressure to grant Iraqi independence before the 2004 presidential election, and it casts the creation of a transitional government through local meetings as a concession to Sunni and Kurd leaders, who fear that zealous Shiites would dominate a proper election.
Congress' energy bill consists largely of $18 billion in tax breaks to encourage domestic fuel production, token conservation measures, and incentives to invest in the power grid. Democrats killed a provision to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. To appeal to colleagues from farm states, Republican conferees loaded the bill with ethanol subsidies. The papers quote Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., threatening a filibuster, but the NYT adds that this will happen only if farm-state Democratic leader Tom Dashcle agrees to it. Democrats complained that they were excluded from negotiations, but none of the papers explain whether it is typical to exclude the minority party. The president will sign the measure if it passes. (The Post notes that the bill would, for the first time, put nuclear power on the same tax footing as renewable power such as wind and solar; elsewhere, the paper runs a wire dispatch on Germany's intent to shutter all 19 of its nuclear power plants by 2020.)
Four former domestic security chiefs of Israel rebuked Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for punitive military tactics against Palestinian terrorism. "We must once and for all admit that there is another side, that it has feelings and that it is suffering, and that we are behaving disgracefully," one of them said as part of a collective interview with Israel's largest Hebrew-language paper, Yedioth Aharonoth. The four men, who put together ran the Shin Bet security agency from 1980 to 2000, criticized Sharon's exclusion of Yasser Arafat from peace negotiations, his new anti-terror fence around the West Bank, and the proliferation of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. The Post, which fronts the story, says that polls show Sharon's popularity is "plummeting"; the NYT, on the other hand, reminds readers that Sharon has won two elections by a landslide.
The Post reports inside that the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. John Abizaid, said that combat operations in Afghanistan are "every bit as much and every bit as difficult as those that go on in Iraq." A U.S. soldier was killed in Afghanistan yesterday, and three U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq Thursday and Friday. The LAT and WP both run photos of military funerals above the fold.
On the Post opinion page, the chairman and vice chairman of the federal 9/11 investigative commission defend the agreement they struck to access the president's classified daily intelligence briefs. (A Democratic member of the commission and relatives of 9/11 victims have criticized the White House's stipulation that only two of the commission's 10 members have full access.) "The commission will have access to everything—we repeat, everything—it asked to see," they write. "If the commission had subpoenaed these documents … [it] might have seen no documents and could have been tied up in the courts past its date of expiration."
The NYT and WP both front word that John Kerry has followed Howard Dean and President Bush in declining $18.5 million in public subsidies to avoid the $45 million primary-season spending cap. "I am not going to fight with one hand tied behind my back," he said.
Speaking of ways to get your message across, it seems that the governor of Louisiana has hit upon the ideal way to bring his wetlands-preservation awareness campaign to his Cajun-food-lovin' constituents: attach leaflets to bottles of Tabasco sauce.