Iraq's leading power broker, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, demanded direct elections by the end of the year and a Security Council resolution to back up his timetable, according to the leads in the New York Times and USA Today, the off-lead in the Washington Post, and a fronter in the Los Angeles Times. The declaration, which tops the Wall Street Journal's world-wide news box, represents a victory of sorts for the United States because Sistani accepted the idea of a June 30 transition to an unelected caretaker government, provided it does little apart from planning the election. The Washington Post leads, and everyone else stuffs, President Bush's announcement that the U.S. will phase out some, but not all, of its land mines, as had been promised by Bill Clinton in 1997. TheLos Angeles Times devotes the top non-local story to yesterday's Democratic debate in L.A., the second-to-last * before Super Tuesday.
While U.N. chief Kofi Annan said last week that it is theoretically possible to hold Iraqi elections by the end of the year if preparations begin right away, no progress has been made in planning. Moreover, the papers all mention that the Governing Council is still bogged down crafting an interim constitution and is not expected to finish by its deadline on Saturday. To make matters worse, the occupation is having major problems fixing basic services like the water system.
"We're looking forward to the U.N.'s input in terms of what they think is possible between now and the end of the year," L. Paul Bremer's spokesman snarked to the Post in its off-lead. Still, the American military commander in Iraq is preparing to pull his forces out of major cities by mid- to late April, according to the NYT. "Is it possible the country could move to civil war, and U.S. forces could end up having to separate ethnic groups?" he asked. "I think it's possible, but I don't think it's likely."
Despite the obstacles in arranging elections within six months of a hand-over, USAT notes that Sistani warned (in Germany's Der Spiegel) of a popular uprising if his demands are not met. "The people know what they have to do," he said.
According to the WP's land mine lead, which the LAT, NYT, and WSJ pretty much replicate inside, Bush will bar the U.S. military from using so-called "dumb" mines after 2010 but decided to allow the Pentagon to keep its more sophisticated mines, which are designed to automatically disarm after a number of hours or days. Human rights groups are outraged at the plan, which they call a step back from Clinton's commitment to eliminate all antipersonnel mines from the U.S. arsenal and sign the international treaty banning such devices by 2006.
The papers all use the word "lively" to describe last night's debate at USC, as Sen. John Kerry and Sen. John Edwards each jockeyed to appear the most electable. Both candidates came out against gay marriage but also against attacked Bush for pushing a federal amendment to ban it. What the papers don't mention is that, as it stands, the amendment has little chance of passing Congress. OxBlog has spearheaded a Senate nose count and found that 41 senators are currently opposed, which could render the proposal dead, even if a few eventually change their minds.
But, according to a NYT front-page piece, conservatives don't plan to wait for a federal amendment anyway. They're busy amending 19 state constitutions in the meantime.
The WP and NYT both front Colin Powell's oblique suggestion that embattled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide should consider resigning to preserve democratic order. But, as the LAT fronts (and USAT reefers), Aristide took offense at the suggestion, saying that his departure would amount to a coup d'état. Nevertheless, that appears to be precisely what he'll have on his hands if he doesn't take the hint. According to the Post, a rebel leader has ordered his troops to surround the capital, Port-au-Prince, and hopes to take it by Sunday. Asked if he would let Aristide stay, he replied, "No way Jose."
The LAT fronts and the NYT goes inside with an extensive report by Catholic bishops showing that 4 percent of all Catholic priests have been accused of abusing a total of 10,000 minors since 1950. The WP's abuse story focuses only on Boston, where as many as 7 percent of clerics had been accused. According to the NYT, the national claims are highest against the ordination class of 1970, 10 percent of which has faced accusations.
The WP fronts the FDA's approval of a new tumor-starving cancer drug called Avastin, which will be available in a matter of days and can extend life expectancies by an average of five months. That doesn't sound so great, but it's better than most cancer drugs, and experts speculate that drugs like Avastin may eventually be part of cocktails that could make cancer survivable for years. "In many ways, you're talking about turning these diseases that people think of as death sentences into chronic illnesses," one expert told the Post. The catch: According to a piece inside the WSJ, a year of Avastin will set you back approximately $50,000. Still, that's less than ImClone's recently approved Erbitux, which runs $120,000 a year.
A former British Cabinet minister alleged yesterday that her government bugged Kofi Annan's office at U.N. headquarters in the diplomatic wrangling leading up to the Iraq war, according to NYT and LAT fronters and stories the other papers run inside. But a separate piece in the WP explains that the charges aren't so shocking. "It used to be a shame; now it's a matter of status," the Spanish ambassador to the U.N. explained to the Post. "If your mission is not bugged, then you are really worth nothing." In fact, when the Russian ambassador, Sergey Lavrov, told the WP that Russia would never bug Annan, another Security Council ambassador scoffed. "On the record, if Lavrov says so, I have to believe Lavrov," the anonymous diplomat said. "Off the record: Is he joking?"