There's soul-searching over America's direction in Iraq on all the front pages today, as the papers weigh the surge strategy and eye the gathering debate over troop withdrawals. The New York Timesleads news that the surge has led to a sharp increase in the number of detainees held by U.S. forces in Iraq, while both the Washington Post and the NYT off-lead growing tensions between generals at the Pentagon, who favor early withdrawal, and commanders on the ground, who want a more gradual pullback. The Wall Street Journal tops its world-wide newsbox on claims that civilians were killed in a U.S. attack on militants yesterday, putting further strain on Nouri al-Maliki's government.
The Post leads on news that the government's terrorist screening database flagged 20,000 people as suspected terrorists last year, but led to only a handful of arrests. Critics say the figures reveal a "staggeringly high" rate of false positives, raising concerns about the program's accuracy and efficacy. Government officials said the database, which contains almost 250,000 names, would shortly be made available to select private companies "with a substantial bearing on homeland security", but refused to provide details. The Los Angeles Times leads local, with word that the city's school district's $95 million payroll system is plagued by bugs, leaving tens of thousands of teachers and aides underpaid, overpaid, or not paid at all.
The number of Iraqis held by U.S. troops has swollen from 16,000 in February to 24,500 today, the NYT reports, thanks to increased U.S. troop numbers and greater cooperation from Iraqi citizens; overwhelmingly, the detainees are angry, uneducated, unemployed young men who fell victim to ideological, religiously motivated extremists. Meanwhile, with Gen. David Petraeus due to report next month, fault lines are emerging in the debate over troop withdrawals; the NYT off-leads with a report—heavily influenced by yesterday's LAT scoop—on tensions between senior generals at the Pentagon and commanders on the ground, while both the Post and the LAT report inside on a senior US commander's claims that troop cuts would be "a massive step backwards". The Post reports that the White House hopes to maintain current troop levels for the immediate future.
The LAT fronts a report on declining morale among U.S. troops, arguing that policy-makers are out of touch with the reality on the ground; almost half of U.S. soliders in Iraq now rate their morale as low or very low, and Army suicide rates are at their highest for 23 years. Meanwhile, the Post paints a bleak picture of U.S. reconstruction efforts in Iraq, with undertrained troops struggling to scrutinize contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Picking over the latest National Intelligence Estimate, the NYT concludes that the surge has done little to help reconcile Iraq's feuding political factions. In a further blow, three secular lawmakers will resign their Cabinet posts today; the men had been boycotting Cabinet meetings for several weeks to protest Nouri al-Maliki's combative leadership style. Fighting continued across the country, with U.S. troops killing 18 people in an air assault on Shiite positions in northern Baghdad.
Three British soldiers were killed in southern Afghanistan on Thursday, the NYT reports, after an American bomb fell too close to their position while they battled Taliban forces. The Post notes that Afghan authorities have registered deep dismay at the growing use of air power in recent months, amid spiraling civilian casualties.
Back home, the Democratic National Committee will vote today on whether to invalidate Florida's presidential primary in retaliation for the state's attempt to hold the vote earlier than party rules allow. The Post fronts a look at the scuffle, which at worst could see Florida's delegates denied access to the Democratic convention and candidates prohibited from campaigning or fund-raising in the state.
The Post notes that Hillary Clinton caught flak yesterday after suggesting that a terrorist attack would give GOP candidates an edge in the 2008 race—unless Democrats chose her as their candidate. Rivals and liberal bloggers accused her of borrowing from the Republican playbook and seeking to politicize terrorism. Even foreign-policy don Zbigniew Brzezinski stuck the boot in, throwing his weight behind Barack Obama. "Obama is clearly more effective," the former national security adviser said. "Being a former first lady doesn't prepare you to be president."
In the GOP camp, Rudy Giuliani came under fire for glossing his record as mayor of New York. The NYT fronts a critique of Rudy's radio ads, which claim that as boss of the Big Apple he "turned a $2.3 billion deficit into a multibillion dollar surplus"; technically true, but by the time America's Mayor left office the surpluses had gone south and the city was once more running massive deficits. Meanwhile, John McCain is running a high-energy (and presumably low-budget) campaign to persuade voters that his age is a strength rather than a weakness; the NYT tries to keep up.
A Chinese company is moving to buy hard-drive manufacturer Seagate Technology; the NYT reports that government officials worry that the sale could give China control over key computer technologies and ultimately allow the government to pilfer sensitive information. "The U.S. government is freaking out," said Seagate's CEO.