Iraq’s referendum on a draft constitution is being called into question after the country’s electoral commission announced it will audit what it calls "unusually high" voting results. Sunni leaders, who mostly advocated a "no" vote in Saturday’s nation-wide poll, have alleged widespread electoral fraud, citing allegations of ballot-stuffing and unlawful absentee voting. The New York Times reports "yes" votes in areas with large Shiite and Kurdish populations–groups known to support the draft–were reported to reach over 99 percent. An official with the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq told the Associated Press voting numbers seemed unusual in areas "all around the country", but it remained too early to draw conclusions. The referendum required a simple majority to be approved into law but can be rejected if two-thirds of the population in at least three provinces vote against it.
In other Iraq news, Knight Ridder is reporting serious concerns are being raised around the oversight of more than $140 billion dollars in defense spending in Iraq. The news agency reports defense department auditors quietly pulled out of Iraq a year ago. Since October 2004, only one of the 107 audits currently listed on the Defense Department inspector general’s Web site has covered Iraq.
And the first war crimes trial of Saddam Hussein begins tomorrow. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have questioned the impartiality and independence of the court trying the former Iraqi leader. The director of Human Rights Watch’s international justice program said: "We have grave concerns that the court will not provide the fair trial guarantees required by international law." Hussein and seven former Iraqi leaders will first stand trial for the killings of 140 men and teenage boys in the town of Dujail in 1982.
The Bush administration’s approach to post-Katrina reconstruction has been slow, ineffective, and partly influenced by major conservative opposition to aid spending. This according to the Los Angeles Times. Of the three major proposals outlined in President Bush’s prime-time speech from New Orleans in September, only one has been put before Congress. The lone proposal to reach the floor — $5,000 dollar accounts for unemployed workers–would only provide aid for fewer than a quarter of those left jobless by the disaster, the paper says. The slow pace is drawing the ire of even some Congressional Republicans. Republican Senator Judd Gregg said the Bush administration’s approach risks: "confusion, inefficiency and huge bureaucratic frustration." Gregg co-sponsored a bill along with Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy for the creation of a cabinet-level Gulf Coast-recovery agency. The White House rejected the proposal.
In his September 15th address, Bush promised "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen." But as of last Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times reports the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had obligated only $15 billion out of $60 billion in available emergency funds. Meanwhile, administration officials are preparing another emergency spending bill for $20 billion dollars, much of it for rebuilding military bases and a NASA facility. The Times reports the administration’s inaction is at least partly shaped by pressure from powerful Republicans. The committee’s chairman, Republican congressman Mike Pence told the Times QUOTE: "We saw the White House engaging in an aggressive, multifront drive to rebuild the Gulf Coast, and we thought we ought to bring up the small matter of the bill." Last month, the committee circulated a list of proposals for Katrina recovery that included providing vouchers for private schools and making affected areas a "flat-tax free enterprise zone."
The federal government has announced close to 192,000 low-income Medicare beneficiaries face a sharp increase in medical costs because Congress has not renewed a program that pays their monthly premiums. The program, known as the Q.I. program, paid the $78 dollar monthly fee for low-income beneficiaries up until it expired at the end of September. Adding to the burden, the cost of the basic Medicare premium will rise to $88 a month in January. The Bush administration has proposed a one-year extension to the program. Both houses of Congress have passed bills to reinstate it, but final legislation has been held up due to differences on other issues included in the bill.
In business news, General Motors is preparing to cut one billion dollars in annual health care benefits for more that 750,000 blue-collar workers and retirees. The Wall Street Journal reports the United Automobile Workers union has tentatively agreed to the cuts making it one of the union’s biggest concessions since the early 1980s. The New York Times reports that GM has been losing market share to foreign rivals that operate at lower costs, partly because Japan, Germany and other governments provide universal health care for all their citizens. Meanwhile the Journal is also reporting on how GM is fighting the passage of legislation to shore up the federal agency that partly guarantees retirees pension plans. Congress is considering forcing companies to fully fund pension plans and to invest more in the government-run Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. in order to avoid the need of a taxpayer bailout.
The FBI released figures showing the nation’s murder rate declined for the first time in four years, dropping to its lowest level in the last four decades. The total of over 16,000 murders amounted to 5.5 murders for every 100,000 people, a three-percentage decrease from the year before. Of the seven categories of major crimes, only rape saw an increase in incidents, up 0.8 percent to over 94,000 offenses. The advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project observes marijuana arrests totalled over 771,000, setting a new record. Eighty-nine percent of these arrests were for marijuana possession, not sale or manufacture.
Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers denied a published report saying two close friends had said she would vote against abortion rights. Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund wrote Monday on the day she was nominated October 3rd, the two friends spoke with the Arlington Group, a coalition of conservative Christian organizations, in a conference call organized by Karl Rove. During the conversation, Fund wrote, the friends assured Arlington members Miers would vote to overturn Roe vs. Wade. Democratic Senator Charles Schumer met with Miers yesterday. After the meeting, he said she told him: "No one knows how I would rule on Roe v. Wade."
Meanwhile, a record-tying 21st hurricane of the season formed in the Caribbean yesterday. Experts say it appears headed for the Gulf of Mexico, which is still recovering from the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Stan. Reuters reports storm alerts are in effect for the Cayman Islands and parts of coastal Honduras. Wilma is also expected to dump heavy rain on the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, Haiti, and parts of Cuba and Honduras.
Here in this country, eighteen grandmothers from the Raging Grannies were arrested Monday after they tried to enlist at a military recruiting center in Times Square. The women, ranging in age from 40 to 90, sat down in front of a recruiting booth, chanting "We insist, we want to enlist." The 18 arrested face charges of disorderly conduct.