The New York Times leads with insurgency leader Moqtada Sadr's apparent intention to disband his militias and enter the political arena ahead of Iraq's upcoming elections. Such a move could eliminate a major—and so far, very deadly—obstacle to U.S. stabilization efforts; battles with Sadr's forces have cost hundreds of American lives and left several cities in ruins. The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times both lead (and the NYT fronts) more post-debate analysis. The WP looks at the updated strategies of both campaigns: Kerry will use his momentum (a Newsweek poll has the senator back in front, 47-45) to shift the discussion from Iraq back to domestic issues. The Bush team, meanwhile, will stay the course and continue to denounce Kerry for his tendency to "vacillate with the politics of the moment." The LAT's coverage focuses on its own phone poll, which reconfirmed what other polls have already confirmed: that Kerry did well in the debate.
Sadr has sought to widen his support base by approaching leaders from a variety of "disaffected political groups that did not cooperate with the American occupation," including Sunni, Kurdish, Christian, and other Shiite organizations, some of which appear eager to cooperate with a man who enjoys unrivaled support among Iraq's lower classes. But in order for him to go legit, Sadr's spokesman said, the United Nations would have to be much more involved in the January elections and U.S. and British forces much less. Coalition officials have their own concerns: Not only have all previous peace talks with Sadr broken down, but even if a cease-fire gets worked out, the problem of collecting thousands of mortars and rocket-propelled grenades from unfriendly ex-militants across Iraq appears nearly impossible. And would it even be fair? They are, after all, "personal rocket-propelled grenades," said the Sadr spokesman.
The NYT off-leads a long but extremely well-researched investigative piece about a cache of aluminum tubes that Iraq ordered from Jordan in 2000—the "irrefutable evidence" (Dick Cheney, '02) used by the Bush administration to build its case that Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program was operational. According to the piece, Cheney and others, already looking for an excuse to topple Hussein, picked up and ran with a CIA theory that the tubes were for use in uranium centrifuges. However, based on a mountain of evidence to the contrary, "leading centrifuge experts at the [U.S.] Energy Department strongly disagreed," with the CIA's take, saying the tubes were almost certainly for building conventional rockets. Still, Cheney went public with the discredited information, making it central to his case for preemptive war.
In a related piece, the LAT interviews Mahdi Obeidi, the Iraqi scientist who headed Iraq's nuke program until 1991 and who now lives on the taxpayer's dime in a Virginia suburb. Obeidi has a book coming out, The Bomb in My Garden, which details his career as a maverick weapons engineer and includes the episode in which he literally buries nuclear materials under a tree in his backyard.
The WP runs a front-line feature in which the reporter takes up with a three-man army patrol in dangerous Sadr City as it motors around in an armored hummer, hunting insurgents. Brief and somewhat colorless bios of each soldier are presented, and it becomes clear that nothing much happens on the reporter's watch—a good outcome for all concerned, but one that doesn't make for very provocative war coverage.
The LAT fronts a report on why the world has lost confidence in America: According to polls in 30 countries, the international community "no longer look[s] to the U.S. for leadership and sanctuary." Most of those interviewed believe the Bush administration's unilateralist action in Iraq has made the world more dangerous, and that the U.S. is falling further out of touch with global realities.
Another WP article finds that as thousands of troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan, a resource drought at the Department of Veterans Affairs has that organization strained nearly to the breaking point. Between 60,000 and 70,000 new claims come in each month, and with each one taking about 160 days to process, the backlog has now reached almost 300,000—with no relief in sight. "At the same time," the piece notes, "President Bush's budget for 2005 calls for cutting the Department of Veterans Affairs staff that handles benefits claims."
The NYT fronts John Kerry's clean bill of health, which is a must-read if you want to know the history of the senator's prostate. In brief, that gland was removed in 2003 when doctors detected cancer in it. Also of interest: X-rays revealed shrapnel embedded deep in Kerry's thigh, ending rumors that his war wounds were only superficial (or that he was hit with "rice, not metal").
"I'm metrosexual—he's a cowboy," "Didn't my nails and cuticles look great?" "Women should like me! I do manicures!"—these are quotes from an article on John Kerry in which the candidate evaluated his own performance in Thursday's debate. Oops, strike that! said Fox News, which posted the article on its Web site and then retracted it. Apparently star reporter Carl Cameron—seeing red after Bush's mediocre showing in Coral Gables—had a "lapse in judgment" and fabricated a bunch of quotes to make Kerry look bad. No word yet on whether Cameron will be brought up on charges by the Dorky Insult Police.