The Los Angeles Times leads with George W. Bush and Tony Blair's Friday meeting at the White House, where they affirmed their support for the June 30 deadline for the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq. The New York Times leads with an Al Jazeera broadcast of a videotape showing a captured (but apparently unhurt) American soldier. The Washington Post leads with disclosures from a forthcoming book by its own Bob Woodward that Bush had initiated planning for the Iraq war in November 2001 and made up his mind to invade by January of last year.
In a joint press conference, Bush and Blair also expressed support for the outlines of a U.N. plan that would create a caretaker government to replace the Iraqi Governing Council in time for the June 30 hand-over. The IGC is predictably less thrilled by the idea, objecting in part to the U.N.'s proposal to scale back de-Baathification efforts in order to avoid marginalizing talented (if tainted) personnel at a crucial moment.
The American GI pictured on the tape had disappeared along with another solider and seven civilian contractors a week ago after their convoy was ambushed west of Baghdad. (His captors could be heard saying they hoped to exchange him for Iraqi prisoners, but there was no sign of the others in the convoy.) Of the roughly 40 people being held hostage throughout Iraq, five were released Friday while a businessman from Denmark and another from the United Arab Emirates were reportedly taken captive.
Meanwhile, Muqtada Sadr, the young cleric who catalyzed the current Shiite uprising, made his first public appearance in two weeks Friday, delivering a sermon at a mosque in Kufa. In a direct rebuke to the U.S., Sadr refused to disband his militia and called for the release of all hostages not connected to countries actively supporting the occupation. Swathed in a white funeral shawl, he told the crowd, "I am ready to meet martyrdom for the sake of Iraq."
In Fallujah, where skirmishes persist despite a nominal cease-fire, negotiations began between CPA officials and local Iraqi leaders in hopes of ending a nearly two-week-old standoff there. It's not clear if they've made progress, and as the WP points out, it's an open question whether the Iraqi representatives (who refused to be ID'd or photographed) actually have any pull with the militants behind the unrest.
Not surprisingly, the WP gives the Woodward story the lengthiest play, a day after Plan of Attack's April 20 embargo was pre-empted by the Associated Press. (For its part, the NYT devotes a story to the fact that the early leaks may dilute the impact of the excerpts the Post has planned for five days next week.) Although the leaks add some color and depth to what is known of the run-up to war, they for the most part bolster pretty familiar CW: Cheney (with the help of zealous DoDers like Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith) assumed a central role in turning the focus from Afghanistan to Iraq while an increasingly frustrated Colin Powell counseled diplomacy and U.N. involvement.
According to Woodward, Bush asked Donald Rumsfeld to begin developing a war plan for Iraq in November 2001, 72 days after the 9/11 attacks and long before several senior officials would be brought into the loop. Among other highlights: After a subpar CIA briefing in December 2002, George Tenet reassured Bush that the intel on Iraqi WMD was nevertheless a "slam dunk," a position he would later retreat from. And although Bush had reportedly decided to invade by early January 2003, the NYT points out that he insisted that he hadn't made up his mind at a press conference in early March of that year. When Woodward asked Bush last December how history would view the war, he replied, "History. We don't know. We'll all be dead."
The generally positive treatment afforded Powell—who is quoted as reminding Bush of the "Pottery Barn rule": "you break it, you own it"—leads the NYT to wonder aloud if he might have been a significant source for the book. (Although Powell has cooperated with Woodward in the past, a State spokesman wasn't sure if they had spoken this time around.) Of the some 75 military and administration officials who talked to Woodward, only Bush and Rumsfeld are quoted on the record.
The WP fronts a finding by the 9/11 commission that the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon might have been delayed or prevented had the Aug. 17, 2001, arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui been publicized or more aggressively followed up upon. (The commission based its judgment largely on psychological profiles of the hijackers, who were revealed to be jumpy, controlling types.) Although Tenet had been briefed within a week of Moussaoui's arrest, neither Bush nor the acting director of the FBI heard about it before the attacks, and although British intelligence and terrorists in U.S. custody eventually linked Moussaoui to al-Qaida, they didn't do so until days after 9/11. The NYT, meanwhile, takes note of the panel's criticism of post-9/11 changes to U.S. immigration policies, saying that they have made few concrete gains and opened the door to abuses and bad PR.
The papers all note that in response to GOP ads questioning his national-security chops, John Kerry pointedly criticized Dick Cheney and Karl Rove at a rally Friday for having accepted student draft deferments instead of serving in Vietnam. (The WP chimes in with an op-ed by one of Kerry's fellow veterans, who points out that Kerry's term of service was relatively brief and that he had asked to be considered for Purple Hearts and a transfer home after his superiors initially doubted that his wounds merited such treatment.)
The NYT and WP run with news the LAT had yesterday—that the adult-film industry has agreed to a 60-day filming hiatus after two performers tested positive for HIV earlier in the week. Although porn stars are screened regularly for STDs, and many studios mandate condom use, performers are often paid more for having unprotected sex on camera.
Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the pop-cultural spectrum, the NYT takes a look at a recent shift in contemporary Christian music toward "praise and worship" songs, which address God directly and encourage audience participation, where third-Person hosannas had previously been the norm. Although fans say this development lends the music immediacy and much-needed theological rigor, not everyone is rejoicing. As one seminary professor told the paper: "The dominant word in these songs is I … It's `I enthrone you,' `I love you.' The focus is not on God but how I experience God. We congratulate God for being God."