The New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times all lead with news that an Afghan assembly approved a constitution for the country. The loya jirga repeatedly came close to collapsing, but delegates eventually agreed on a constitution that envisions a directly elected president, a two-chamber national assembly, independent courts, and equal rights for women. It also says that while Afghanistan will be based on civil laws, "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam." Elections are scheduled to be held in six months. USA Today leads with the landing of NASA's Spirit rover on Mars, the first successful landing there since 1997. Scientists said they saw all sorts of cool stuff around Spirit. Geologists were particularly pumped about a depression near the landing site. "We hit the sweet spot," said a researcher. The craft, which landed in a huge crater, is also near a channel that appears to have been carved by water. Black-and-white pictures are available now and color shots should be online soon. NASA's hip name for the project: M2K4.
The LAT, alone among the papers, emphasizes that actually putting the constitution into practice will be a bit dicey, given the "dearth of such institutions as a police force, judiciary and army." The paper adds that "instability has been spreading" in the country.
Citing unnamed administration officials, the NYT goes Page One with word that the White House will support the Kurdish region of Iraq remaining semi-independent. With the transfer of sovereignty just six months away the issue will soon be up to the Iraqi government to decide. As the Times explains, the U.S. will just be pushing its position as a "friendly outside power that happens to have 100,000 troops on the ground."
Administration officials said their position was largely motivated by the recognition that the de facto Kurdish state couldn't be dismantled in a few months anyway. "Once we struck the Nov. 15 agreement [to turn over power by summer], there was a realization that it was best not to touch too heavily on the status quo," said one official. The Times notices that the U.S. is also cutting back on other to-do list items such as the plan to privatize Iraqi industries.
Some analysts have suggested splitting Iraq along ethnic lines. Bad idea, said one Iraqi analyst. "You know what the largest Kurdish city in Iraq is? It's Baghdad," he told the NYT. "It isn't like you could draw a line in Iraq and say the Kurds live here or the Assyrians, the Chaldeans, or the Turkomans or the Shiites or the Sunnis live there. In the supposedly Shiite south, there are a million Sunnis in Basra."
The WP fronts varied criticism of how the U.S. is using special ops troops. Some in the Pentagon want a more aggressive approach with more special ops teams authorized to capture and/or kill al-Qaida leaders and other targets. "Sources, all of whom advise [Secretary of Defense] Rumsfeld's senior aides," complained that commandos repeatedly had intel about seemingly close-by AQ figures but had to hold off attacking because only specialized teams are authorized to go on such raids. Others think the special ops troops are already going on too many such raids. "Their focus is to capture and kill. It's easier, it's quick, and more glamorous," said one former commando who has traveled to Afghanistan and interviewed special ops troops there. "Based on what I saw, clearly no, it's not working." Those critics want the soldiers to focus on softer tools such as building relationships with locals.
The NYT says state officials are "beginning to detect signs that the "worst may be over" with budget shortfalls. "The good news is it appears most states have hit bottom and are slowly climbing out, but boy, the bottom was deep," said one official. The Times details the various cuts states have made over the past few years—34 of them have slashed spending on health insurance programs—and decides to call the glass half-empty: "DESPITE REBOUND, STATES' BUDGETS ARE STILL REELING."
The Post off-leads the latest Democratic presidential debate, where most of the contenders railed against Howard Dean for, among other things, having suggested that the U.S. is no safer now that Saddam is locked up. Dean didn't back down. Slightly mangling a well-known quote, he retorted, "A gaffe in Washington is when you tell the truth and the Washington establishment thinks you shouldn't have."