The New York Times leads with the weapons buyback program in Sadr City, which Iraqi officials say has been successful enough to warrant a two-day extension. The Washington Post leads with a letter written last December by Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, in which he complained that the supply situation was so bad that the Army "could not sustain readiness" without high-level intervention from the Pentagon. The Los Angeles Times—at least online—and the Wall Street Journal's world-wide newsbox lead with the surging violence in Iraq, where U.S. aircraft and tanks conducted a nine-hour firefight against insurgents in Fallujah, and a car bomb in Baghdad killed a dozen Iraqi police officers. USA Today leads with Bush's 8-percent edge in their in-house poll.
Coalition forces have collected about 700 rocket-propelled grenades, 400 mortar shells, and hundreds of lighter weapons, all apparently from Moqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army. Ignoring a recent AP story that called the plan's effectiveness into doubt, the NYT fawningly accepts the above figures as evidence of the program's success and hands the mic to Prime Minister Ayad Allawi: "I am very thrilled and pleased that things are moving in the right direction." (Minutes before he was to arrive at the stadium where the weapons were being collected, a mortar hit the field and killed three people.) The Post buries a few paragraphs on the buyback in the middle of its war coverage on Page 14, perhaps because the tale they tell is less sanguine: "Members of Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, have been slow to hand in weapons, U.S. military officials said." One commander in Sadr City said the effort had fallen "very short" and added, "I would say it certainly isn't a success."
In his December letter, Lt. Gen. Sanchez wrote that Army units were "struggling just to maintain ... relatively low readiness rates" for crucial equipment including Bradley fighting vehicles, Blackhawk helicopters, and M1 tanks. He warned that with nearly half of key spare parts out of stock at supply depots, the waiting period for critical components was about 40 days, "almost three times the Army's average." Both of the two Army officials quoted say that "most of Sanchez's concerns have been addressed" in the intervening months, but the article offers little to corroborate the claim, and since the reporter couldn't get hold of Sanchez for an updated opinion, the story gets a C+ for thoroughness.
The NYT fronts a related piece on the Army platoon that refused to perform a mission it decided was too dangerous. The soldiers, who are "described as devoted to the military and unabashedly patriotic," probably had reasonable objections. According to their families, "[The soldiers] said their trucks were unsafe and lacked a proper armed escort, problems that have plagued them" for nine months. In a recent flood of mail and calls to the advocacy group Military Families Speak Out, stateside families reported that the kinds of shortages and equipment deficiencies alleged in this episode may be widespread, especially among reservist units.
In addition to the fighting in Fallujah, the attack on the soccer field, and the car bombing, nine more Iraqi police were killed in an ambush in Latifiyah, and, according to the Post, "witnesses reported that U.S. forces fired on a vehicle carrying a family fleeing the fighting, killing all five passengers." Peace talks in Fallujah broke down on Thursday when local clerics refused Allawi's demand to hand over "foreign terrorists" including al-Qaida sympathizer Abu Masab al-Zarqawi. A statement on the Internet from Zarqawi's group included a pledge of allegiance to "the chief of all fighters, Osama bin Laden." The WSJ coverage noted that "as the Iraqis try to reach a peaceful end to the Fallujah standoff, the U.S. military is believed to be drafting plans for an all-out assault on the city if negotiations fail."
The WP fronts a report on the eight races Democrats will have to win to regain control of the Senate. Five of those seats are already owned by Democrats and will have to be defended—one each in the Carolinas, Louisiana, Florida, and South Dakota (Tom Daschle's seat). Donkeys would also have to garner new seats in Oklahoma and Colorado, where Republicans are retiring, and in Alaska, where incumbent Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, is facing a tough challenge. (Aside: both Murkowski and Democratic candidate Tony Knowles have pledged to open ANWR for drilling.)
Another NYT front looks at the massive legal preparations both parties are making in advance of the election, especially in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. Many of the suits will involve allegations of fraud or voter intimidation. Republicans claim they've "established the most extensive legal operation in their history," while Democrats are bragging that they've hired 10,000 lawyers.
Endorse-O-Rama: Editor and Publisher follows this weekend's endorsement rush, saying that by picking up nods from 30 more papers on Sunday, John Kerry improved his lead in that department to 45-30.