Everyone leads with yesterday's twin car bombings in Shiite holy cities Najaf and Karbala, where at least 64 died and more than twice that number were wounded. The second blast, in Najaf, was far more deadly, killing at least 50 near a central square packed with people attending a tribal leader's funeral procession. The Washington Post paints a dark scene: "Streets were strewn with the twisted and charred wreckage of cars, as crowds wandered along the destruction with dazed, uncomprehending looks. Chunks of concrete were ripped from buildings and hurled onto ground soaked in rain, blood and cinder, framed in gray, stormy skies." (Early morning wires report that authorities have rounded up 50 suspects in the attacks.)
The papers all note that these attacks are part of a pre-election surge of violence in the relatively quiet Shiite areas—something Shiite leaders call a Sunni ploy to ignite a sectarian civil war. "They have failed before, and they will fail again," a moderate Shiite cleric is quoted as saying in the New York Times and USA Today. "The Shiites are committed not to respond with violence, which will only lead to more violence."
The NYT's story puts the attacks in context in its second graf, noting that the combined death toll was the second-worst since the interim government took over almost six months ago. (In the worst, on July 28, some 70 people died after a minibus packed with explosives plowed into a line of 500 job applicants waiting outside a police station in Baqubah, north of Baghdad.)
The papers' Iraq leads also mention another ghastly incident along what the NYT describes as Baghdad's "notoriously lawless Haifa Street": Some 30 gunmen ambushed a car carrying three Iraqi elections workers, dragging them into the wide boulevard, and killing them in broad daylight. The Los Angeles Times, WP,NYT, and USAT all front strange, harrowing AP photos of gunmen standing over a man in a fetal position just before the executions, which occurred in the middle of morning traffic.
Displaying a (relatively) reassuring grasp of the obvious, the State Department, the CIA, and even the Defense Intelligence Agency have told President Bush that the U.S. "isn't winning" the battle against the Iraqi insurgency, according to Knight-Ridder's Washington bureau. One such warning was apparently delivered last week by Bush's new CIA chief, Porter Goss.
Certainly, a group of battle-hardened sergeants from the 3rd ID, which helped win the Battle of Baghdad early last year, says they never expected they would be shipping back out. "The first Gulf War was in and out. I thought this would be pretty much the same," says one in a long USAT story on the new deployment, which is slated to begin after the Jan. 30 election. The piece details the preparations, from flatbed trains ferrying hundreds of freshly painted tanks and troop carriers, to the Arabic phrase cheat sheets troops are taping to the stocks of their assault rifles.
With a growing chorus of prominent Republicans bashing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Sens. John Warner and Richard Lugar came to his somewhat qualified defense yesterday on NBC's Meet the Press. "The president makes the choice," Warner said, "and we're going to back the president."
And regarding the wildfire rumor that the president might not be backing Rummy anymore: It seems to have been debunked. Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol denied a report that he'd told "everyone within earshot" that the White House had encouraged him, sotto voce, to write a scathing WP op-ed urging the SecDef's ouster last week. "I maybe said that if [Bush] pats me on the back and says, 'Good op-ed, Bill,' that would indicate something," Kristol clarified.
Also on yesterday's talk shows, and noted, as far as TP can see, only in a USAT news brief: White House Chief of Staff Andy Card told ABC's This Week that the administration was, in fact, aware of many of Bernard Kerik's "issues" when Bush nominated him. He didn't say which ones and when they may have decided to push the eject button.
The Wall Street Journal and LAT both mention a GAO report stating that, including the prescription drug benefit, Medicare may cost some, um, $27 trillion over the next 75 years, more than seven times the estimated cost of Social Security over that period. Meanwhile, the NYT reports that the administration is looking for ways to cut growth in federal spending on Medicaid, the health insurance program for poor people.
On their front pages, both USAT and the WP handicap upcoming tussles between Bush and GOP congressmen, whose boldness has grown in tandem with their majority, opposing Bush's push for guest-worker visas and calling in right-wing chits in return for supporting Social Security privatization. While the Post kind of muddles the framing until the end, USAT does much better: "CONSERVATIVES TO CHALLENGE BUSH."
And the NYT returns to the question of who poisoned Viktor Yushchenko, invoking the hallowed name of Agatha Christie as it builds a long, suspenseful story around the boiled crayfish and beer dinner he had with the head of Ukraine's security service the night before he fell seriously ill. Unfortunately, the premise starts to fall apart when the paper speaks—as has the WP and even this TPer—with Arnold Schecter, one of the most prominent U.S. experts on dioxin poisoning. The poison takes between three days and two weeks to generate symptoms, he says, making the dinner guests unlikely suspects: "It doesn't make sense, medically."