The Washington Post leads, and the Wall Street Journal tops its worldwide news box, with the purported Osama Bin Laden audiotape offering a "truce" to any European country that ends military operations in Muslim nations. European leaders rejected the idea, which they obviously interpreted as an attempt to cleave U.S.-European alliances strained by the war. Stuffing news of the recording, the New York Times leads with the Bush administration's acceptance of a proposal to replace the Iraqi Governing Council on July 1 with a "caretaker government" of leaders appointed by the U.N. Forget Tenet, Mueller, and Condi, says the Los Angeles Times' lead: Sources "familiar with the [9/11] commission's inner workings" say the panel is increasingly skeptical of the Pentagon's approach to al-Qaida before Sept. 11, 2001. USA Today reefers the tape and leads instead with word that as demand in Iraq increases, fewer U.S. soldiers are re-enlisting. In a 10 percent drop from last year, the Army is about 1,000 GIs short of meeting its retention goal of 26,000.
Going above the fold with an analysis of the seven-minute audiotape (which the CIA says is probably authentic), the WP notes that Bin Laden is stepping up his psy ops against the U.S. with "an adaptable propaganda machine that understands the nature of Western democracies, seeks to exploit political dissent and knows how to disseminate its message worldwide without being caught." In a break from precedent, Bin Laden directed his message at Europeans rather than jihadists and refrained from mentioning the Quran. The NYT alone notes that by publicly spurning the al-Qaida leader's offer, "European governments may be giving Mr. Bin Laden a status disproportionate to the actual power of a man on the run." In any case, the Times goes inside with the fact that there's been none of the "chatter" among militants that usually signals an imminent attack.
Though the U.N. proposal has "many details to be worked out" and doesn't specify how "it would balance religious and regional rivalries," the NYT hints that it would dilute American influence over the Iraqi political process. For example, U.S. officials tell the paper that given the U.N. envoy to Iraq's dislike for Pentagon pet Ahmad Chalabi, they expect the former Iraqi exile to be shunted aside. Still, "administration officials" emphasized that the U.S. would have a heavy hand in the election and the drafting of the constitution, "not least because the United States is to remain in charge of military and security matters, and will be the country's main source of economic aid."
The LAT leads that among other Clinton and Bush DoD lapses detailed in the 9/11 commission report, Donald Rumsfeld was never briefed by the outgoing Pentagon counterterrorist adviser, and the position was left open for seven months preceding the attacks. Privately, "the commission is raising questions about the Defense Department's apparent lack of readiness on Sept. 11 to protect Americans from a military-style attack."
USAT off-leads with the recent abductions by Iraqi guerrillas, noting that 28 foreign nationals have been seized in the past eight days. (In its Iraq round-up, which it stuffs, the NYT estimates 40.) USA Today calls the kidnappings—apparently carried out by rival Sunni and Shiite factions, among others—a "technique that may be even more effective than ambushes or bombings at terrifying the coalition's vital civilian workers." News of the three Japanese hostages released yesterday appears in all the papers.
Everyone notes that an Iranian diplomat was shot and killed in his car near the embassy in Baghdad. It was not clear if his death was related to the role of the Iranian delegation in talks with radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr in Najaf.
Chasing Ron Brownstein's piece in the LAT earlier this week, the WP fronts below the fold, and USAT reefers, Sen. John Kerry's upcoming TV advertising offensive, timed to fill the void left by the Bush-Cheney cutback to just one TV ad a week. Responding to a rise in unfavorable ratings and to focus groups showing that voters don't know him, Kerry will spend millions presenting his candidacy as strong on military and veterans issues and fiscally Clintonesque.
The Post's Pamela Constable continues to provide gripping reports from Fallujah, where U.S. Marines were ordered to suspend offensive operations nearly a week ago, only to come under repeated fire since then. An uneasy calm seems to have settled upon the city, punctuated only by sporadic shooting and the occasional mortar. One of the restless Marines tells her, "Now we are here to win a battle. Frankly, it lifted the battalion's spirits to be pushing instead of smiling and waving."
In anticipation of a critical report from the 9/11 commission this summer, the White House might create a new "director of national intelligence," says the NYT's off-lead. According to the paper, it isn't exactly a new-fangled idea: The joint congressional committee that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks and ex-National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft's presidential advisory panel—as well as Sen. John Kerry—have all endorsed similar proposals.
The WP goes below the fold with a backstage look at the negotiations leading to a U.S. endorsement of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza and keep certain settlements in the West Bank. The LAT fronts a piece gauging the reaction in the Arab street and finds that Colin Powell has had to do some serious damage control. The WSJ goes high in its news box with a similar report.
From an AP wire story quoting Bill Rancic, The Apprentice:
"The American Dream is still alive out there."