The New York Times leads, and the Washington Post off-leads, word that in a videoconference with the top commander in Iraq and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, President Bush was presented a plan that would put a stop to any further troop withdrawals after July. The news is hardly a surprise, but the NYT highlights that this would mean the number of troops in Iraq "would remain nearly the same through 2008 as at any time during five years of war." The Wall Street Journal leads its world-wide newsbox with Bush declaring that the outcome of the Iraq war "will merit the sacrifices" as the American military death toll reached 4,000. The Los Angeles Timesleads with news that the World Food Program sent out an emergency appeal for more money to deal with soaring food prices. The U.N. agency warned it would have to scale back its programs if it's not able to close a constantly growing funding gap of at least $500 million. The WFP says food prices have increased 55 percent since June and warned that if the ascent continues it's likely that more people will need help, which means its funding problems would increase.
The WP leads with Pakistan's new prime minister ordering the immediate release of the judges who had been detained by President Pervez Musharraf. Yousaf Raza Gillani of the Pakistan Peoples Party made the announcement, which is seen as a clear challenge to Musharraf, soon after he was overwhelmingly endorsed by parliament. Gillani also said he would seek a formal U.N. investigation into the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. USA Todayleads with new data that shows sales of existing homes increased 2.9 percent in February from a month earlier. The unexpected jump is largely seen as a sign that home prices are dropping enough to encourage buyers to come off the sidelines. In February, the median price for homes dropped 8.2 percent from a year earlier to $195,900.
In the videoconference with Bush, Gen. David Petraeus said that any decision on further troop cuts beyond the extra ones that were part of the surge should be put off for one or two months while the situation is evaluated. The WP talks to a military official who says this evaluation is likely to last at least six weeks. The NYT reports that the situation would then be evaluated approximately once a month to see whether there should be any further withdrawals. But moving troops around takes time, which is why it's highly likely that Bush will leave office with the same number of troops in Iraq as before last year's escalation.
It's also important to remember that although the number of troops on the ground is supposed to reach pre-surge levels after July, the truth is that the numbers don't quite add up because there were 132,000 troops before the escalation and approximately 140,000 will be left after the summer withdrawals. But the surprising (at least to TP) truth seems to be that no one really has a handle on the numbers. The WP talks to a military official who explains that "figuring out boots on the ground is difficult" and military officials are currently trying to work out the math so exact numbers can be presented to Congress when Petraeus testifies in April. The NYT also smartly points out that it seems unlikely there will be any big withdrawals before the provincial elections in Iraq, which are supposed to take place in October.
Although Bush didn't announce a decision about troop levels yesterday, there seems to be little question that he will accept Petraeus' recommendation for a "pause" in troop withdrawals. But hold on one second, apparently the word pause has fallen out of favor. In a somewhat amusing trip through the Washington lexicon, the NYT notes that Petraeus specifically avoided using the term pause, apparently because the word has become too politically charged, and is now referring to it as a period of "consolidation and evaluation."
The WSJ notes residents of Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad say armed militias have taken over rooms in schools and filled them with rockets, which could be a sign that they're preparing to carry out more attacks against the government. Yesterday, U.S. officials said the rockets fired into the Green Zone on Sunday were made in Iran and all but accused Shiite militias of carrying out the attacks. Increasing tensions were obvious in Baghdad as followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr launched a protest and ordered some shops to close in a show of strength. The Post says they are planning demonstrations for the next three days to protest what they say is the targeting of Sadr's followers in southern Iraq by security forces. Some fear Sadr will call an end to the cease-fire, which is widely seen as one of the main reasons why violence in Iraq has dropped.
The Iraqi government has launched a new security offensive in the southern city of Basra, and early morning wire stories report that heavy fighting has broken out in the area. Clashes between Shiite groups have become common in Iraq's southern cities, and this violence appears "to have put Sadr-aligned forces on alert in Baghdad," says the WSJ. The LAT notes some in the Iraqi government think the attacks on the Green Zone were meant as a reminder that Sadr's Mahdi Army still has the power to inflict damage. It's easy to see how the protests in Baghdad coupled with the new offensive in Basra could quickly spiral out of control and bring back the attacks that were once all too common.
The NYT's Andrew Ross Sorkin says that by increasing its bid for Bear Stearns to $10 a share, JPMorgan made clear that "the Fed is officially in the deal-making business." The Fed denies it set the price for the deal, "but the notion that it didn't press JPMorgan to pay as close to zero as possible doesn't square with reality." The fact that the Fed seemed to oppose the higher price at first, and then approved several measures in the deal that "either stretch the rules or disregard years of precedent" makes it clear that the central bank was a key player. "Even at $10 per share, the JPM buyout stinks to high heaven because of the conflicted role played by the Fed," a financial analyst tells the paper.
Shut up and drive: The LAT points out that although some states are eagerly passing laws to force drivers to use hands-free devices when talking on cell phones, the move may not make roads any safer. Research done on the issue suggests that simply talking on the phone is dangerous, regardless of whether a driver has both hands on the wheel. Some scientists even worry that these types of laws could give drivers a false sense of security and may end up making roads even more dangerous. But an expert at the conference of state legislatures says that banning all types of talking while driving is "just not something that's politically feasible."