Everybody leads with previews and predictions for today's historic elections in Iraq. A rocket attack killed two Americans in the U.S. Embassy Saturday night, marking an inauspicious beginning to Iraq's first free vote in half a century. Iraqis are heading to the polls to choose the 275 members of a transitional parliament who will oversee the drafting of a national constitution. Also up for grabs are seats on councils in the country's 18 provinces and on the regional assembly that serves the Kurdish north.
The Los Angeles Times catches late word of some polls opening as scheduled around 7:00 a.m. Sporadic violence broke out in several cities—including Baghdad—Sunday morning but, according to the New York Times (at least online), "two hours after polls opened, voters appeared to be turning out in large numbers in the capital."
Iraqi officials have optimistically forecast a national voter turnout of about 57 percent, or 8 million out of 14 million eligible voters. But intense threats from insurgents, Sunni opposition, and an abbreviated campaign season remain significant variables in Election Day success. The Washington Postnotes the serious security clampdown that began a few days ago and included strict curfews, checkpoints, and patrolling by attack helicopters and jets. U.S. and Iraqi officials are particularly worried about the 5,000 or so polling stations located throughout the country. And although most vehicles have been barred from the main roads, the NYT grimly points out that several police cars and flak jackets have been stolen recently, "raising the possibility that insurgents could stage attacks on polling places ... using one of the few types of cars that will be permitted to move freely on the streets."
In related pieces, the Post manages to canvas most of the country, offering compelling pre-election dispatches from Kirkuk, Najaf, and Baghdad, while the NYT fronts a brooding reflection on the project of democratization and its Iraqi supporters and detractors.
The WP goes above the fold with word that the Iraqi elections have not prompted the Bush administration to draw up longterm plans for withdrawing American troops. Military brass indicates that "optimal conditions" in Iraq could allow for a reduction of about 15,000 troops by spring or summer, but it will be at least a year until a more significant pullout occurs. Withdrawal is a sore spot for many members of Congress, including vocal Democrats and Republicans who "privately fret that the administration has no exit strategy."
Qatar is eager to sell off its stake in the Arab news channel Al Jazeera, the NYT reports. The small Persian Gulf country is an American ally, but its ownership of the controversial station has long irritated U.S. officials. Al Jazeera draws 30 million to 50 million viewers, trampling its competitors, including the U.S.-launched Al Hurra network. Bush administration officials admit that they are in an ongoing debate over whether to shut down Al Jazeera's incendiary programming or permit it to make a point about American respect for free speech. The Times chalks this dilemma up to problems with "public diplomacy," otherwise known as America's efforts to sell its policies abroad.
Both the LAT and WP front the impending start of the Michael Jackson child-molestation trial in Santa Maria, Calif. Jury selection is set to begin on Monday after thousands of summonses were issued to potential jurors. The Post dwells on the upcoming media circus, which promises to be tricky since cameras have been barred from the courtroom. (However, "the cable channel E! Entertainment announced it would employ actors to reenact testimony from court transcripts each day.") For its part, the LAT considers the no-nonsense approach of presiding Superior Court Judge Rodney S. Melville and notes how he stacks up against O.J. Simpson Judge Lance Ito.
A combination of better drugs and higher awareness has helped drastically reduce the number of babies in the U.S. born with HIV, the New York Times says in a Page One report. Around 200 babies a year are born with the virus now, compared with 2,000 in 1990. The drop is so encouraging that "public health officials now talk about wiping [mother-to-child H.I.V. transmission] out." It's also seen as one of many "stunning" advances in AIDS treatment in America.
The Post takes a front-page look at how Bush's second-term agenda will attempt to establish a strong Republican legacy while continuing to erode traditional Democratic issues and causes. Tort reform, weakened organized labor, and personal Social Security accounts are among several GOP priorities that carry "sharp political overtones." While party identity is important to all presidents, the WP notices that the Bush agenda is particularly "crafted with an eye toward the long-term partisan implications."
Hail to the Chief ... Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia may be angling for a promotion, the Post's Charles Lane reports inside. Scalia has been polishing his image and putting on a friendly face at recent public events, supposedly in the hopes of replacing the ailing William Rehnquist as chief justice. One skeptical observer dismissed the behavior as a "charm initiative," but that shouldn't hurt Scalia's chances. Reports are circulating that the other conservative favorite, Clarence Thomas, doesn't want the job.