Iraq, more than 90 people have died over the past three days in a string of attacks striking Shiite targets. On Saturday, as Shiites celebrated Ashura, their holiest day of the year, eight suicide bombers struck. 55 died and scores more were injured. Saturday marked the deadliest day since last month’s elections. On Ashura, Shiites marks the 7th century death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Husain.
In other news from Iraq, Time Magazine is reporting that secret talks have begun between US officials and members of the Sunni resistance. The Bush administration has publicly rejected such negotiations. But Time Magazine said back-channel talks have already occurred with resistance fighters, though none aligned with the suspected Al Qaeda militant Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi.
In news on Iran, President Bush has publicly pledged to support Israel if it decided to preemptively attack Iran. During a press conference on Thursday Bush was asked how concerned he was that Israel might attack Iran’s nuclear sites. "Israel is our ally, and in that we’ve made a very strong commitment to support Israel, we will support Israel if their security is threatened," Bush said.
In news from Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s cabinet has approved evacuating all of the Israeli settlements inside Gaza. Sunday’s 17-5 vote marks the first time an Israeli government has ever OK’d the removal of settlements in the West Bank or Gaza. Sharon described the pullout as the most difficult decision of his 60-year career but he said "it is vital for the future of the State of Israel." Sharon has defended the move by arguing that Israel should focus on solidifying its grip on West Bank settlements in exchange for evacuating the harder-to-defend settlements in Gaza. The cabinet also voted Sunday to approve rerouting the 400-mile separation wall in the West Bank. Last year the Israeli Supreme Court criticized the wall’s path forcing the rerouting. Under the new plan, about 8 percent of the West Bank will be enclosed on the Israeli side of the wall essentially making that land off-limits to Palestinians. Analysts said the timing of the two votes appeared aimed at blunting international criticism over the separation wall. Last year the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled the entire wall was illegal because it hindered Palestinians’ freedom of movement and was tantamount to annexation by Israel. But Israel has dismissed the ruling saying the international court lacked jurisdiction. On Sunday the Secretary General of the Palestinian cabinet [[[Hassan Abu Lebda]]] said that the chance for peace would be "unavailable" if Israel continues building the wall in the West Bank.
Meanwhile Israel released 500 Palestinian prisoners today and announced plans to release 400 more within the next three months.
And the Israeli government has also ordered the military to stop demolishing the family homes of Palestinian suicide bombers. According to the Israeli human rights group B’tselem, the Israeli military had destroyed over 670 homes for this reason over the past four years. Israel made the decision after the government concluded the demolitions were fueling resistance to the Israeli occupation. Overall B’tselem estimated Israel has destroyed up to 5,000 Palestinian homes over the past four years, the majority during military operations.
In St. Louis, hundreds of delegates from peace groups across the country gathered over the weekend for the 2nd National Assembly of United for Peace and Justice. It was the first major gathering of peace organizations since the November election. Groups included Black Voices for Peace, Military Families Speak Out and Women for Peace.
In news from Washington, the Republican chair of a Senate environmental committee has been accused of intimidating critics of President Bush’s proposed Clear Skies environmental initiative. Two weeks ago, two national organizations openly criticized the measure. In response Republican Senator James Inhofe has directed the two organizations to turn over their financial and tax records for the past six years as well as provide a list of members. The organizations are the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators and the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials. Both organizations represent state and local agencies that deal with monitoring air pollution. Republicans have defended the request claiming they need to know whether the groups are secretly being subsidized by any outside interests such as environmentalists or foundations. Critics of the so-called Clear Skies initiative say the legislation is too lenient on polluters and would undermine the abilities of individual states to protect air quality. Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman of California said: "This is a blatant attempt at intimidation and bullying so that experts will be afraid to speak out about a bill that rolls back air pollution protections for all Americans."
In other news from Washington, A Food and Drug Administration advisory panel has voted to allow doctors to keep prescribing the popular painkillers Vioxx, Celebrex and Bextra even though the panel overwhelmingly agreed that the drugs significantly increase the risk of cardiovascular problems in patients. The panel proposed that the drugs be sold with an FDA "black box" warning. Vioxx is now expected to return to the market even though nearly half the FDA panel voted against it being sold. Its manufacturer Merck voluntarily withdrew the painkiller drug in the fall. The FDA panel decided whether a drug should be allowed to be sold on a straight majority vote. The vote for Vioxx was 17 to 15. For Bextra, 17 panelists vote for the drug and 13 voted to ban it. The panel nearly unanimously recommended Celebrex remaining available. Last year FDA whistleblower Dr. David Graham publicly estimated that 139,000 Americans who took Vioxx suffered serious side effects. Of these users he estimated that the drug killed between 26,000 and 55,000 people. Dr. Sidney Wolfe of Public Citizen said the FDA’s decision "defies common sense." Public Citizen has warned that if Merck starts selling Vioxx again that the watchdog group would immediately petition the government to have it taken off the market.
In Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has signed decrees setting aside 8 million acres to create two massive new rain forest reserves. The decree was signed one week after the American-born nun and environmental activist Dorothy Stang was murdered in the Amazon where she had worked for decades to preserve the land.
And author and journalist Hunter S. Thompson has died at the age of 67. Police say Thompson shot himself on Sunday night at his home in Woody Creek Colorado. He became one of the country’s best known young journalists in the late 1960s and early 1970s while working for Rolling Stone where his drug-induced books Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail were first serialized. Thompson once said, "I hate to advocate weird chemicals, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone ... but they’ve always worked for me." Thompson identified the death of the American Dream as his reporter’s beat. He called his style of writing "gonzo" journalism. He said, "Objective journalism is one of the main reasons that American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long." In 1994 he wrote an obituary for President Nixon in Rolling Stone and titled it "Notes on the Passing Of An American Monster." While covering Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign Thompson wrote, "It is Nixon himself who represents that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character almost every other country in the world has learned to fear and despise."