In Iraq, government officials are reporting a high turnout in the country’s first full-term parliamentary elections, held Thursday. Officials estimated a turnout of up to 11 million people — 70 percent of the electorate. The number was boosted by the participation of Iraq’s Sunni Arab population, which largely boycotted interim elections in January.
In this country, the Bush administration says its dropped opposition to a Senate measure that bans torture of detainees in US custody. Republican Senator John McCain, who spearheaded the torture ban, made the announcement with President Bush Thursday.
In recent months, the White House had aggressively lobbied for an amendment that would have exempted CIA operatives from the torture ban. At one point, the Bush administration threatened to veto Congress’ entire defense bill if it included McCain’s provisions. But opposition has come even within the administration’s own party. On Wednesday, the Republican-controlled House passed a non-binding resolution backing McCain’s effort.
The New York Times is reporting the National Security Agency has been eavesdropping on U.S. citizens and foreign nationals without court-approved warrants. Under a Bush administration directive enacted in 2002, the agency has monitored the international phone calls and e-mails of hundreds, and possibly thousands of people inside the country. The National Security Agency’s mission is to spy on communications abroad. Although officials said the program had helped thwart at least two potential attacks, most people monitored by the N.S.A. have never been charged with a crime.
The Times says it delayed publishing details of the program after a request from the Bush administration at least one year ago. At the request of the White House, the Times also says it has omitted information administration officials said could be useful to terrorists. The disclosure comes two days after NBC News revealed the Pentagon has kept detailed records on the events and meetings of anti-war groups across the country.
In Hong Kong, considerable divisions between industrialized and developing countries at the ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization are lowering expectations for significant agreements before talks end Sunday.
EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson. Negotiations have stalled on a number of key trade issues. On Thursday, the Group of 77 — the coalition of 132 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries in the Third World — announced they would reject any deal that eliminates protections for their farmers and access to foreign markets. Another group of developing nations, the Group of 20 — which represents half the world’s population — accused the US and European Union of holding up talks by refusing to cut state agricultural subsidies.
Meanwhile, outside the meetings, thousands of protesters continue to make their voices heard.
In the Occupied Territories, a major split has emerged within the ruling Palestinian party Fatah. Marwan Barghouti, a popular activist jailed in Israel for his role in leading the latest uprising, heads a coalition of young dissidents that wants to split with the party’s old guard, which it calls corrupt and incompetent. The new faction says it will run against Fatah candidates in upcoming legislative elections in January. Palestinian President and Fatah head Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to resign if Barghouti insists splitting the party. The division threatens to further weaken Fatah’s standing. On Thursday, rival group Hamas won a majority of seats in municipal elections in the West Bank town of Nablus.
Meanwhile, the Center for Constitutional Rights has filed a class-action lawsuit against a former Israeli defense chief currently in the US on a research fellowship in Washington. Moshe Ya’alon, former Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defenses Forces, is being sued for alleged war crimes committed during the Israeli shelling of a United Nations compound in the southern Lebanese town of Qana in 1996. Hundreds of civilians were killed in the bombings. They had taken refuge in the compound following Israeli attacks on their villages. The lawsuit, submitted Thursday, was filed on behalf of several Lebanese nationals who lost family members in the bombings. The case comes a week after the Center for Constitutional Rights launched a similar action against Avi Dichter, the former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service. Dichter is being sued on behalf of the family members of 14 Palestinians killed during an IDF assassination attempt on a Hamas leader in Gaza in July 2002.
In Turkey, a popular novelist is on trial today for making comments about the veracity of the Armenian genocide. Orhan Pamuk stands trial for insulting "Turkishness" after he gave a magazine interview in which he referred to the genocide committed by the Ottoman government during the First World War. In the interview, Pamuk said : "One million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares talk about it." Pamuk is one several Turkish citizens who have been issued with similar charges. If convicted, he faces up to three years in prison.
In Bolivia, presidential front-runner Eva Morales closed his election campaign Thursday by declaring his election would be a : "nightmare for the United States." Morales, who has campaigned on a platform to legalize growth of the coca-leaf, is leading polls ahead of Sunday’s vote. If elected, he would become Bolivia’s first indigenous president.
In other news from Latin America, Argentine President Néstor Kirchner has announced the country will pay off the entirety of its nearly $10 billion dollar debt to the International Monetary Fund. The Financial Times notes the payment promises an end to one of the most bitter and controversial relationships entered into by the IMF. Argentina borrowed over $13 billion dollars following a devastating economic collapse in December 2001 — a collapse many Argentines blamed on economic policies pushed by the IMF. On Thursday, Kirchner said the IMF had "acted towards our country as a promoter and a vehicle of policies that caused poverty and pain among the Argentine people."
In Colombia, the government says its prepared to withdraw troops from a small mountain town in order to negotiate the freedom of 63 hostages held by rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The hostages include three US defense contractors. The FARC has demanded government forces withdraw from a large area around the southern town of El Retiro. Meanwhile, government negotiators will be in Cuba today for separate talks with the National Liberation Army, Colombia’s second-largest rebel group.
A fourth official to work for the U.S. occupation authority in Iraq has been arrested and charged with corruption while overseeing Iraqi reconstruction projects. Government investigators say Lt. Col. Debra Harrison received at least $80,000 dollars, a luxury sports-utility vehicle and several illegal weapons in exchange for steering reconstruction contracts to a US company operating in Iraq. Three other former occupation officials have been arrested on similar charges since October. Prosecutors say several further indictments are forthcoming.
In California, the Ralphs supermarket chain was indicted Thursday on charges it hired workers under false names and violated other labor laws during a workers’ strike in 2003. The indictment alleges Ralphs engaged in a : "company-wide course of criminal conduct involving the hiring of locked-out employees under false names, Social Security numbers and documentation." The grocery chain locked out its workers in October 2003 after the Southern California grocery workers union voted to strike against Safeway’s Vons and Pavilions chains. Ralphs had been negotiating alongside Safeway. A Ralphs spokesperson acknowledged the company committed the violations, but said the actions were taken by individual managers and did not the result from company policy.
And in New York City, a midnight deadline for the resolution of a public transportation labor dispute has passed with the city and the Transport Workers Union unable to reach an agreement. The union has announced a selective strike that will initially affect the city’s public buses. Union officials say the strike could eventually extend to the subway system.