Tsunami Toll Reaches 155,000, as Powell Says Devastation 'Worse' Than War

The confirmed death toll from the Asian Tsunami continues to soar with the UN estimating the number of dead at more than 155,000. That number is expected to rise, perhaps by tens of thousands as international aid organizations warn that there are many areas struck by the devastation that remain unreachable. US Secretary of State General Colin Powell and Florida governor Jeb Bush continue their tour of the region. During his visit to Indonesia, Powell was taken on a helicopter tour of various areas of the country, including Aceh-the worst hit region with some 100,000 dead. Indonesia says half a million people — 80,000 above earlier estimates–are now homeless in Aceh, where the hungry scavenged for food and water and an endless flow of wounded flooded hospitals. Powell also flew over western Sumatra, where international aid organizations say tens of thousands more people may have died than previously believed. After Powell finished his helicopter tour, he spoke to reporters:

"I’ve never seen anything like this. Flying over Banda Aceh and seeing how the wave came ashore pushing everything in its path. Cars, ships, freighters overturned all the way up to the foothills and then starting up the foothills until finally the waves came to a stop. I cannot begin to imagine the horror that went through the families and all of the people who heard this noise coming and had their lives snuffed out by this wave. The power of the wave to destroy bridges, to destroy factories, to destroy homes, to destroy crops, to destroy everything in its path, is amazing. And to consider that we only did a brief tour around Banda Aceh but to know that you will see the same thing if you flew one hundred miles along the coastline going south, or if you went to the east side and flew along the coast line you will see the same thing. And the damage was caused not just by the wave but also by the earthquake that caused the tsunami in the first place."

Powell also announced that the US was increasing military aid to the Indonesian military:

"We will be increasing the number of helicopters that will be available to support TNI (Indonesian military) and I and the Indonesian authorities and we will respond to requests we get from the Indonesian authorities for shelter materials, food. One of the concerns that we discussed is to make sure we have an adequate number of flights coming into this airfield. C130 cargo planes bringing in food, shelter material and I think we can increase the throughput as it’ called, the rate of arrival of planes and supplies and that’s what we’ll be working on."

Human rights groups and Acehnese refugee groups are calling on the US Congress not to allow the administration to use the Tsunami to restore military aid to Indonesia, which was cut off after the Indonesian military burned East Timor to the ground in 1999. After his helicopter tour, Powell left for Indonesia’s capital Jakarta where U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other world leaders were arriving for a global relief summit on Thursday.

Aceh Resistance Accuses Indonesia Army Of Killing Aid Distributors

Meanwhile, the Acehnese armed resistance movement, GAM, charged Tuesday that the Indonesian military had launched at least three attacks on them since the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami, and that at least two rebels had been killed as they attempted to assist people affected by the calamity.

A spokesman for the Free Aceh Movement said the military has continued its attacks on his organization, despite the rebels" unilateral declaration of a cease-fire while aid workers help tsunami survivors.

Children Are The Biggest Victims

In other Tsunami news, U.N. officials also said they were worried that orphaned or lost children might be falling prey to criminal gangs bent on selling them into slavery, adding to worries about a "tsunami generation" of children also under threat of disease and hunger. They had received reports — so far unsubstantiated — of adults posing as foster parents and children being shipped from Indonesia to Malaysia for sale. Children are the biggest victims of the disaster. They make up a third — 50,000 — of the dead. Tens of thousands more have been orphaned. The World Health Organization estimated more than half a million people were injured and in need of medical care in six nations. Fears grew that diseases such as cholera and malaria would break out among the five million displaced.

Thailand Sacks Top Weather Official

Thailand’s top weather forecaster was fired Tuesday for failing to issue a warning as massive waves barreled toward tourist resorts. The country’s Meteorological Department has said that it knew about the huge earthquake that struck off the coast of Indonesia’s Sumatra Island on Dec. 26, and that it might produce a dangerous surge of water along Thailand’s southwest coast, about an hour before waves began slamming ashore. Officials said they were reluctant to issue a warning because it could harm the country’s tourism industry, an action that might anger the government.

Multiple Car Bombings as Violence Rocks Iraq

In Iraq, a car bomb exploded outside a police academy south of Baghdad during a graduation ceremony Wednesday, killing at least 20 people. Hours earlier, another car bomb killed two Iraqis in the nation’s capital

The explosion outside a gate of the police academy in Hilla, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, was the latest in a string of attacks against Iraqi security forces. According to Iraqi Interior Ministry figures released Wednesday, the confirmed number of Iraqi policemen killed in the last four months of 2004 was 1,300 before the latest blast. It remains unclear if all the 20 killed in Hilla were police. Earlier Wednesday, an explosives-filled car following a convoy of U.S. and Iraqi troops detonated in western Baghdad killing two Iraqi civilians and wounding10. The attack also came as a funeral procession was held nearby for slain Baghdad governor Ali al-Haidari, who was known for cooperating closely with U.S. troops. Al-Haidari was killed on Tuesday. Also, four Iraqi civilians were killed and two others were injured when U.S. soldiers opened fire on them in central Ramadi, 60 miles west of Baghdad. A U.S. soldier belonging to Task Force Olympia was killed and two were wounded after their patrol was attacked with small arms and rocket propelled grenade fire Tuesday afternoon in Tal Afar in northern Iraq. Five other U.S. servicemen died in three separate attacks on Tuesday, making it the deadliest day for the U.S. military in Iraq since the suicide bombing at a mess tent in Mosul on Dec. 21, an attack that killed 22 people including 14 U.S. soldiers and three American contractors.

Saudi Paper Says Saudi Student Behind Mosul Mess Hall Bombing

Meanwhile an Arab newspaper is reporting that the suicide bomber who carried out the mess hall attack in Mosul was a Saudi medical student. The Saudi-owned paper identified him as 20-year-old Ahmed Said Ahmed al-Ghamdi, citing unnamed friends of the man’s father. The friends said members of an Iraqi resistance group contacted al-Ghamdi’s father to tell him his son was the suicide bomber who carried out the Dec. 21 attack, the deadliest on an American installation in Iraq. The father refused to discuss the suicide bombing but told the newspaper his son had gone to Iraq to fight the Americans and had died there. The family held a mourning ceremony, the paper said. It did not say when the ceremony was held or where in Saudi Arabia the family lived

Pentagon: US Wounded Passes 10,000 in Iraq

The Pentagon said Tuesday that the number of U.S. troops wounded in Iraq since the invasion began in March 2003 has passed the 10,000 mark. According to the figures, more than 5,300 have been wounded seriously enough that they were unable to return to the battlefield. Some estimates put the number of wounded at more than 17,000.

NY Times: U.S. May Send Advisers to Aid Iraq’s 'Military'

The top US commander in Iraq, George W. Casey Jr., is reviewing a proposal to add hundreds of American military advisers to work directly with Iraqi units. This according to unnamed senior military officials quoted in The New York Times. Several hundred American troops are already embedded with Iraqi units, following a long tradition in US military actions. But the proposal would greatly expand this presence.

Abu Ghraib Torture Continued After Scandal Broke

According to accounts by alleged victims published in the latest edition of Vanity Fair magazine, Sexual and physical abuse of Iraqi prisoners continued at least three months after the Abu Ghraib scandal was revealed. Vanity Fair writer Donovan Webster, in a report on 60 hours of interviews he conducted with 10 former detainees including a 15-year-old boy, quoted several accounts of mistreatment that included Iraqi prisoners being sexually assaulted by American soldiers or being hooded, beaten, subjected to electric shock and kept in cages or crates. One man said he was hung naked from handcuffs in a frigid room while soldiers threw buckets of ice water on him. Webster added that several of the people he interviewed said their mistreatment took place in July; three months after the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal broke in late April.

The article published on Tuesday said the former detainees interviewed by Webster are suing two American companies that provided translators and interrogators to forces in Iraq and that their firsthand accounts comprise "hundreds, if not thousands, of separate Geneva Convention violations." The Pentagon denied the allegations.

Senate Prepares for Gonzales Confirmation Hearings

The Senate Judiciary Committee begins hearings tomorrow on the confirmation of White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales as the next attorney general of the United States.

Central to the hearings will be Gonzales" role in paving the legal groundwork that led to the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. In a highly controversial January 2002 memo, Gonzales wrote that the war on terror "renders obsolete [the Geneva Convention’s] strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions."

In August 2002, a Justice Department memo sought by Gonzales contended the president has "commander-in-chief authority" to order torture and proposed potential legal defenses for U.S. officials who may be accused of torture. The memo also argued that physical abuse of prisoners was torture only if it was "of an intensity akin to...serious physical injury such as death or organ failure," and mental abuse was torture only if it caused "lasting psychological harm."

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