The New York Timesleads with a new account of the Sept. 16 shooting in Baghdad's Nisour Square involving Blackwater guards. The paper talked to a dozen witnesses, Iraqi investigators, and an American official to put together a detailed and vivid description of what took place that day. Iraqi investigators say the shooting killed 17 people and injured 24. The Wall Street Journal leads its world-wide newsbox with a look at how the Sept. 16 incident and the subsequent investigations could result in a variety of "changes in the way U.S. contractors operate in Iraq." The House is expected to vote on a bill today that would extend U.S. criminal law to all contractors operating in a war zone.
The Washington Postleads with a new poll that shows the increasing popularity of Sen. Hillary Clinton, who seems to be leaving the rest of the Democratic candidates in the dust. For the first time, the majority of Democrats support Clinton, whose campaign announced yesterday it raised more money in the last quarter than Sen. Barack Obama, which is also a first. The Los Angeles Timesleads with a look at how the explosion of funding for biodefense work after the 9/11 attacks means hundreds of universities and research labs are handling dangerous material, raising concerns about safety. Since 2003, there have been 111 cases "involving potential loss of bioagents or human exposure," and even though no one has died some worry this has more to do with luck, particularly because many of the institutions working with the material do not meet federal requirements. USA Todayleads with a new report by the Government Accountability Office that reveals federal employees are frequently ignoring rules that prohibit travel on first and business class except for specific cases. The improper premium-class travel amounts to an extra cost of at least $146 million per year, although the actual price tag is likely greater since most agencies don't keep track of business-class tickets.
Despite all the new details revealed in the NYT's lead story, it's still unclear why the shooting began in the first place, or who even fired the first shot. But the fateful events of the day seem to have started when "a single bullet apparently fired by a Blackwater guard" killed an Iraqi man who was driving. His foot apparently remained on the accelarator and his car began to move toward the Blackwater convoy. Blackwater guards then began shooting in different directions as panicked Iraqis tried to escape from the scene. In what seems to be the most shocking revelation of the story, after that round of shooting stopped, one Blackwater convoy moved north and began firing at cars again.
By all accounts, the shooting was as intense and indiscriminate as it was sudden. "The shooting started like rain," an Iraqi witness said. The NYT interestingly points out that it seems early reports that talked of a woman who was shot holding on to her baby were wrong. It appears that she was holding the driver, who was her son (the man's "charred remains … were mistaken for an infant," the NYT explains).
Yesterday, Blackwater's chairman defended his company and employees in a House hearing and said there has been a "rush to judgment based on inaccurate information." State Department officials also stood by Blackwater and insisted the department properly investigated claims of wrongdoing.
The WP interviewed people familiar with the workings of private security companies in Iraq, as well as U.S. officials, and off-leads word that many believe contractors use their weapons far more often than what has been reported. Current and former employees say it's fairly common for contractors to open fire, frequently without provocation, and that most of these incidents are simply not reported. Even the man who is tasked with monitoring shooting incidents acknowledged that many companies don't report all of them, which doesn't seem to bother him much.
The NYT also fronts the new Clinton fund-raising numbers and places particular emphasis on the fact that she had at least 7,000 more new donors than Obama, "depriving his campaign of the bragging rights that he was more popular with contributors." USAT highlights that both candidates have raised about $80 million but Clinton has more money for the general election. The NYT points out that Clinton's campaign strategically chose to reveal the new figures a few hours before Obama gave a foreign-policy speech.
The Post poll reveals that Clinton has become the preferred candidate both for voters who say they want a leader with experience and those who want change. Overall, 53 percent of those polled said they prefer Clinton (while 20 percent chose Obama) and an even larger percentage thinks she has the best chance in the general election, a number that has jumped 14 points since June. Yesterday, USAT took a close look at how Obama has failed to transform the huge hype surrounding his candidacy into any real gains in the polls.
For fans of the Iraq partition debate, two more opinion pieces in the papers today argue in favor of the plan. In the Post, Sen. Joseph Biden and Leslie Gelb, who proposed the initial plan last year, say it has been misrepresented by the administration and the Iraqi government. The writers say their plan should be seen as federalism rather than partition and emphasize they don't intend to impose it on Iraqis. "If the Iraqis don't want it, they won't and shouldn't take it." Over in USAT, two prominent experts, who wrote a paper on the topic in June, prefer to call it "a soft partition of Iraq" and emphasize Washington should stop "its insistence on centralized power." Unlike other supporters of the plan, the two recognize that a large number of U.S. forces ("perhaps more than 100,000 until 2009") would be required to protect a relocating population. But all the problems "pale next to the dangers of allowing the country to again teeter on the brink of full-scale civil war."