John Burns tackles the roundup for the Times, and makes the observation that the bombers likely had the American domestic politics firmly in mind when they blew up the minarets. By fanning more sectarian violence, the bombers hoped to undercut the generals when they report to Congress later this year. "Without significant progress by September," he writes, "when the top American military commander here is to report to the president and Congress, the generals appear to have little prospect of holding off pressure at home for withdrawal." Burns notes that the American military was getting all its pieces in place for a "summer offensive against Qaeda-linked insurgents and Shi'ite death squads," but intel reports were streaming in about plans for a "catastrophic" attack against Shi'ite shrines. The three holiest shrines in Iraq, those in Karbala, Najaf and Khadhamiya in Baghdad, all had been targeted this year. Samarra, while lacking in impact because of its prior destruction, was probably chosen because it was the most accessible.
The Post's A20 story(!) of the attack on the shrine by John Ward Anderson and Joshua Partlow has much of the same stuff as the Times, including the historical context, but adds a scooplet in its detailing of the security arrangements around the shrine. The inner ring of security came from the Facilities Protection Service, but the outer ring was was manned by police from the 3rd Battalion of the Salahuddin Provincial Police in Tikrit, near Saddam Hussein's hometowm. Perhaps guarding a Shi'ite shrine with men who blame Shi'ites for the death of the man who brought money and power to their home villages wasn't the best idea? The Post also found a witness who claimed commandos from Baghdad came up Tuesday night and pushed the police force out of the way to get to the shrine, although it's not clear what police force the witness was referring to.
Dan Murphy of the Monitor reports from Cairo on the bombing of the Askariya shrine and notes that while the original attack in February 2006 was "a watershed moment" in the civil war in Iraq, yesterday's attack "may not see the same devastating results." He notes that, like in 2006, all of Iraq's leaders appealed for calm, but the difference this time is that their followers seem to be listening. The Monitor reports that only one Sunni mosque was set on fire in reprisal Wednesday, and Murphy uses these events to showcase Moqtada al-Sadr's attempts to reach out to Sunnis and recast himself as a nationalist figure instead of a Shi'ite one.
The Wall Street Journal's Philip Shishkin has perhaps the best quote of the day in the Samarra coverage with a shopkeeper in Sadr City saying, "We have a saying that you cannot be bitten twice by the same snake, so it's a shame on the government that this happened again." Shishkin, however, reports widespread retaliatory violence in and around Baghdad including rocket fire, possibly from Shi'ite militiamen.
Cesar G. Soriano of USA Today gets a 1A interview with Gen. David Petraeus, who warns that the bombing in Samarra might fan sectarian violence. Petraeus also took the opportunity praise al-Sadr's calls for calm as "very constructive."
Both the Times and the Post report in stories separate from the Samarra coverage that violence has either not dropped or is creeping back up across much of the country.
The Times' David Cloud reports from Washington on a Pentagon report that says, based on data analyzed between February and early May -- the opening moves of the surge -- that it was too early to say whether the increased security operations would lead to a sustained improvement in the situation. That much most of us know, but it also described in more detail how the shifting of American forces to Baghdad had worsened security in other parts of the country. While Baghdad and Anbar have improved, Nineveh, Diyalah and Basra have seen marked deterioration. Ann Scott Tyson of the Post emphasizes the report's criticisms of the Iraqis, quoting the report as saying, "Iraqi leaders have made 'little progress' on the overarching political goals that the stepped-up security operations are intended to help advance."
USA Today's Soriano, however, takes the opposite tack and lets Petraeus say the surge is actually working in "half, perhaps two-thirds of Baghdad." Petraeus spins a bit however, emphasizing the progress in Anbar and Baghdad at the expense of Diyalah and elsewhere. He also said sectarian violence is down, contradicting the Pentagon report.
In other coverage
Soriano was busy today, with 1A stories and Q&As with Petraeus.
Ben Jones looks at the various states' flag-at-half-mast policies as Flag Day rolls around. Apparently, lowering the flag when a servicemember dies is not universal. More than half -- 28 -- lower the flag automatically, while 22 do not. And sometimes the flag is lowered only at certain facilities. It's complicated.
In an editorial, USA Today says this latest bombing is a test for Iraq and a message to the U.S. For the Iraqis, the challenge will be preventing all-out civil war. (A little late, no?) And for the Americans, the attack "underscored just how urgent it is to nail down a plan in which U.S. forces are engaged first and foremost in fighting al-Qaeda and disengaged from the sectarian violence among Iraqi factions."
At the end of its Samarra story by Anderson and Partlow, the Post notes that one of the success stories in Anbar -- the Anbar Salvation Council -- is facing competition from a new group of tribes that says the Council relies too much on the Americans. Raad Sabah al-Alwani, the Council's leader, says the newcomers are all foreigners. "They came recently from Jordan and Syria and the other countries, they are not like us," he said. "We suffered and founded this council, and we fought al Qaeda. They want to come and, after all these efforts, they want to take our place." The U.S. military does its best to spin the assault on its ally -- credited with helping bring down Anbar violence dramatically -- and said the dissolving of the Anbar Salvation Council would not "be an anti Coalition action by the tribes," said a Marine spokesman. The council will "hopefully dissolve because it outlived its usefulness, which was to fight al-Qaeda."
Post op-ed columnist David Ignatius spotlights a fascinating -- and dangerous -- feud between the American- and Iranian-backed Iraqi spy agencies. The American-backed Iraqi National Intelligence Service is led by Gen. Mohammed Shahwani, who is currently in self-imposed exile in the United States. Sheerwan al-Waeli, the head of the rival spy agency, the Ministry of Security, doesn't come off too well in Ignatius' eyes.
NEW YORK TIMES
Despite the odd headline ("For Democratic Leaders, a Fear That the Focus on the War Has Blurred"), Congressional Democracts are going back on the offensive against Bush and the Iraq war, reports Jeff Zeleny. Whiel part of the party wants Congress to focus on a domestic agenda, which has been long neglected, the other, more liberal wing, wants to see a renewed push on ending the war in Iraq. After being out-maneuvered by Bush in their first attempt at setting limits on the war, the Democrats intended to wait until September to take it up again, allowing them the spring and summer to tackle the domestic chores of the nation. But both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pledged action sooner rather than later. Zeleny says Democrats "intend to reprise at least four ideas when the Senate considers the Defense Department policy bill: a measure to reverse the authorization for the Iraq war, set a deadline for troop withdrawal, block money for major combat operations after March 31, 2008, and increase readiness requirements for troops to be sent back to Iraq."
“On Iraq,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, “we’re going to hold the president’s feet to the fire.” Doesn't sound very blurry.
A Times editorial calls for better armor for vehicles in Iraq and takes the Bush administration and military officials to task for not responding more quickly to requests from commanders in the field.
CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
On the other side of the aisle, Gail Russell Chaddock says that Bush is attempting to win back wavering GOP lawmakers who are just looking for any reason to desert their party leader. While there are several issues of contention, Iraq is the biggest one and the one most fraught with danger for Bush when September rolls around. Moderates and even some conservatives are expected to jump ship when the time comes for a vote.
Regular Monitor columnist Helena Cobban warns that the U.S. will need the United Nations when it comes time to negotiate a drawdown or -- even better, in her opinion -- a full withdrawal, but she's skeptical the U.S. can get over its "prickly, dismissive attitude" toward the world body. She also notes that this will be her last column for the Monitor because the newspaper is discontinuing its regular columns.
WALL STREET JOURNAL
Iraq is bringing low GOP candidates' prospects in 2008, reports John Harwood. By 52 percent to 31 percent, the public wants to see a Democrat win next year, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. Disgust with Bush is bringing down the whole party, pollsters say, and 54 percent of respondents said the situation in Iraq is getting worse. (10 percent said it was getting better.) Democrats need to watch out, too, as the "inconclusive debates" on Iraq have helped bring Congress's approval down to 23 percent, lower even than Bush's (29 percent.)
Anna Husarska, a senior policy adviser at the International Rescue Committee, chimes in on the Journal's op-ed page to argue that while the U.S. may have legally opened its doors to the thousands of Iraqis who worked for America in Iraq, the actual admission of Iraqis is woeful: Only one was admitted in May. In April, the count was also one. In the eight months after the Vietnam war, the U.S. "facilitated the movement to the United States of over 131,000 South Vietnamese refugees." Quite a difference.