The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal world-wide newsbox, and USA Today all lead with the latest from Najaf, where Moqtada Sadr refused to meet a visiting peace delegation. The New York Timesoff-leads Najaf and leads with British police charging eight men in connection with conspiracy to commit terrorism. Two of the men, who've been held for two weeks, apparently had some of the infamous surveillance info on East Coast financial buildings. The Times says police "made no assertion" that they had interrupted an active plot. Nor have they ruled it out. "The British were very concerned," said a European counterterrorism official. "They have apprehended what they feel is a live cell."
Sadr's aides blamed the U.S. for their boss's absence, explaining that ongoing shooting made it unsafe for the cleric to venture out. The Post says there was indeed fire from the U.S. side as the delegation arrived. Then it died down, the delegation waited for three hours, and Sadr still was a no-show.
With reporters accompanying the delegation into the Imam Ali shrine, the papers get a glimpse of the rebels' HQ. Despite U.S. commanders' insistence that they've decimated Sadr's supporters, the NYT says the atmosphere inside "seemed almost festive." About 1,000 gunmen lounged around and occasionally broke out into chants of, "Yes! Yes! Moqtada!"
Fighting seemed to heat up yesterday. The NYT says Marine snipers killed 62 people. Apparently it was almost 64: The Times says, "A Western reporter and photographer who moved through the southern half of the Old City on Tuesday morning encountered sniper fire."
As everybody mentions, seven Iraqis were killed in Baghdad in a mortar attack by guerrilla that hit a business neighborhood. Forty-seven people were wounded.
Detailing how the battle in Najaf started, the NYT suggests the U.S. stumbled into it without a plan. The Marines arrived in town a few weeks ago, did some aggressive patrolling, got attacked, and then decided to try a quick dash to overwhelm Sadr's men. "We just did it," said one Marine officer. The Times says the Marines didn't ask civilian leaders for permission on their specific plan, but the paper also suggests that after the Marines came under attack, top U.S. officials gave the OK for a general push against Sadr.
An op-ed in the NYT urges the White House to begin making moves to withdraw from Iraq. Not that actually withdrawing is a great idea, but threatening to do so is: "For geographic reasons, many other countries have more to lose from an American debacle in Iraq than does the United States itself. The time has come to take advantage of that difference."
Everybody notes inside that Israeli Prime Minister Sharon approved the building of 1,000 new homes in the West Bank, in violation of the White House's so-called road map peace plan, which calls for a freeze on all settlement building. Also, Israeli troops killed five Palestinians, including three militants, overnight in a failed assassination attempt of a Hamas leader.
An op-ed in the Post wonders why many states bar ex-felons from voting even after they've cleared probation. About 4.7 million Americans are denied a ballot under state laws, including 13 percent of African-American men. The history of such disenfranchisement traces back to the days of slavery. Not that the practice is totally antiquated. "As frank as I can be," Alabama's GOP chairman said last year, "we're opposed to it because felons don't tend to vote Republican."