In Iraq, voting has begun in the country’s first full-term parliamentary elections. The Associated Press is reporting a high turnout in Sunni Arab areas, which largely shunned the country’s first interim elections last January. Several explosions were reported in Baghdad, including a large one near the U.S.-controlled Green Zone.
On the eve of Iraq’s elections, President Bush continued his campaign to bolster public support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Although he acknowledged the errors in pre-war intelligence on Iraq’s weapons programs, Bush defended the decision to invade.
This news from Iran — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is once again drawing international condemnation for remarks directed at Israel. In a speech carried on state television Wednesday, Ahmadinejad called the Nazi Holocaust a "myth" and repeated his belief that Israel should be moved to another continent, saying: "They have invented a myth that Jews were massacred and place this above God, religions and the prophets... Our proposal is this: give a piece of your land in Europe, the United States, Canada or Alaska so they (the Jews) can create their own state."
Ahmadinejad’s comments come at a time of heightened tensions between Israel and Iran. Last weekend, the Times of London reported Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had ordered the military to be ready by the end of March for possible strikes on secret uranium enrichment sites in Iran. Israel denied the report, but said it would never rule out the option of a military strike.
Meanwhile, President Bush reiterated his belief Iran poses a military threat to the United States. In an interview with Fox News, Bush said : "I called it part of the 'axis of evil' for a reason. It’s a real threat."
In others news from the region, four Palestinian militants were killed in an Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip Wednesday. Another five people were wounded. Hours later, a leader with the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad narrowly escaped an Israeli missile attack on his vehicle.
Meanwhile, the Israeli government has approved construction of hundreds of new homes in settlements in the West Bank. The new construction includes 200 homes in Maaleh Adumim, Israel’s largest settlement. Palestinian leaders denounced the decision as a blow to the two-state solution and a violation of the U.S.-backed road map, which calls for a freeze on Israeli settlement activity.
In this country, the New York Times is reporting hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast families are being denied government loans to rebuild homes lost or damaged in Hurricane Katrina. According to the Times, the Small Business Administration — the federal agency in charge of the main disaster recovery program for businesses and homeowners — has processed only a third of the 276,000 loan applications it has received. Of those that have been reviewed, the government has rejected 82 percent of home loan applications — over 77,000 rejections. In New Orleans, approved loans appear to be heavily tilted towards wealthy neighborhoods over poor ones. Herbert Mitchell, director of the Small Business Administration’s disaster assistance program, told the Times the government could not risk taxpayer money by lending to people with low incomes or poor credit history. Mitchell said: "We’re just dealing with the demographics in the area."
On Capital Hill, the House of Representatives voted to renew the Patriot Act Wednesday, setting the stage for a showdown in the Senate. A bipartisan Senate group threatens to hold up the bill over concerns it would give the FBI too much power over civil liberties. The Bush administration is lobbying intensively for a renewal. Republican leaders are reportedly considering a fall-back position that would extend the current Patriot Act by one year if efforts to push through new provisions fail.
Meanwhile, the House overwhelmingly approved a non-binding vote Wednesday in support of Senator John McCain’s push for a Senate ban on torture of detainees in US custody. The measure is now being negotiated in Congress, where the White House is pushing for an amendment that would exempt interrogators from punishment.
In New York City, the city is gearing up for the possibility of a transit workers’ strike that could begin Friday. With a contract deadline set for midnight tonight, negotiators with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the transit workers’ union warn they are at a standstill. The biggest differences center around an MTA proposal to create a two-tier pension and health insurance plan for the workers. Mayor Michael Bloomberg is also pushing for severe fines that would force the union to pay $1 million dollars and individual transit workers $25,000 dollars on the strike’s first day — with those fines doubled each successive day.
In other news, the U.S. government has invoked the Cuba embargo to deny the country’s national baseball team permit to take part in a major international tournament that will be played here next March. Officials with Major League Baseball, which is organizing the 16-team World Baseball Classic, say they will appeal the decision.
Meanwhile in Cuba, President Fidel Castro played host to East Timor Prime Minister Mari Bim Amude Alkatiri Wednesday. The two leaders announced plans to send 300 Cuban physicians for medical relief in East Timor. The two countries established ties following East Timor’s independence in 2002.
And six members of Congress have sent a letter to President Bush urging the US government to demand the release of jailed Haitian priest Gerard Jean-Juste. Before his imprisonment in July, Jean-Juste was considered to be the leading candidate for the Family Lavalas — the party of ousted Presdient Jean Bertrand Aristide — were it to run in Haiti’s upcoming elections. Amnesty International has called him a "prisoner of conscience." An American medical doctor who examined him in prison two weeks ago reported Jean-Juste has displayed symptoms of a number of serious medical conditions, including cancer. In the letter, the congressmembers, including California Democrat Maxine Waters, write Bush: "Your action at this critical time could save the life of this gentle priest."