In Iraq, the number of U.S. soldiers killed in the war has now reached 1,500. More than 1300 of the troops have died after President Bush declared major combat operations to be over 22 months ago. The latest U.S. death occurred in in the Babil province, south of Baghdad. Meanwhile two car bombs have exploded near the Iraqi interior ministry in Baghdad, killing five people.
Meanwhile antiwar organizers across the United States are preparing for protests in scores of cities around March 19 to mark the two-year anniversary of the Iraq invasion. One of the largest protests is scheduled to take place on March 19 outside Fort Bragg in Fayattevile, North Carolina.
On Capitol Hill, Democratic Congressman Mike Honda of California has put forward a bill that would make it easier for parents to block military recruiters from gaining access to their high school-aged children. Honda wants to amend a provision of the No Child Left Behind Act that requires school districts to provide the Pentagon the names, addresses and phone numbers of every student in the school. Honda wants to bar schools from giving out the personal information without the explicit approval of the student’s parents.
In other recruiting news, the Marine Corps has for the first time in over a decade missed its recruiting target for two consecutive months. The Marines now plan to increase the number of its recruiters by 10 percent and begin offering reenlistment bonuses to convince troops to stay in the Marines.
The publication Advertising Age is reporting the military is adjusting its marketing pitches in order to recruit more African-American and Latinos into the services. The military has found that the war in Iraq has especially hurt recruiting in African-American communities. The military has hired the Los Angeles advertising firm Muse Cordero Chen to craft tv and radio ads targeting African-American communities. And the San Antonio-based firm Cartel Creativo has been hired to create Spanish-language ads targeting Latino populations.
National Public Radio is reporting that the Department of Homeland Security has placed electronic monitoring bracelets on the ankles of 1,700 immigrants as part of an experimental programs that allows the government to track them 24 hours a day. The bracelets have been placed on a group of immigrants who have never been accused of a crime but whose immigration status is being challenged by the government. In one case, an immigrant from Belize has been ordered to stay in his house from 6 at night to 6 in the morning. If he tries to sneak out of his Minneapolis home, his ankle bracelet sounds an alarm at a national computer center in Indiana. The experimental program is expected to last six more months. After that the Department of Homeland Security will decide whether it will order all non-citizens applying to stay here to wear the electronic monitoring device.
In labor news, the executive committee of the AFL-CIO has decided to double how much it spends on political efforts instead of renewing its focus on new union organizing. The decision splits two of the major union leaders in the country: AFL CIO chief John Sweeney and Andrew Stern of the Service Employees International Union. Stern has threatened to pull SEIU out of the AFL-CIO and launch a new workers movement if the AFL-CIO doesn’t engage in more union organizing. He criticized the AFL-CIO’s decision Wednesday to increase its budget for political and legislative activity from $45 million to $90 million. Stern along with Teamsters chief James Hoffa unsuccessfully led an effort for the AFL-CIO to shift $35 million of union funds into new union organizing efforts. Stern said "I don’t think there is a plan for organizing. I do not put much faith in elected officials of either party." Sweeney argued in favor of increasing the union’s political work. He said "Unless we change the anti-worker policies that are destroying good jobs and stop the forces — from the National Labor Relations Board to state governments — that are rolling back workers’ rights, we can’t win gains for workers."
In news from Sudan, a senior leader of the Janjaweed militia in Sudan has claimed in a rare interview that the Sudanese government asked the militia to supply 300,000 fighters to attack civilians in Darfur. The militia leader, Musa Hilal, told Human Rights Watch in a videotaped interview in Arabic "These people get their orders from the western command center, and from Khartoum." The Bush administration has described the mass killing of Sudanese civilians in the Darfur region as a genocide. But the Sudanese government has maintained it is not behind the attacks. Musa Hilal is widely regarded as the top Janjaweed leader in Darfur but he denies any leadership role and says his followers have not committed atrocities. However sources at the United Nations say Hilal is on a list of 51 people suspected of "heinous crimes" in Darfur that should be tried at the new International Criminal Court.
In other news from Africa, United Nations troops have killed at least 50 members of a militia in the northeast section of the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the deadliest battle involving UN troops there in six years. UN Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said the UN forces came under fire first, "In the ensuing firefight at least 50 militia members were killed and 2 UN peacekeepers were wounded. They have both since been evacuated to South Africa. At this stage it is believed that the militia members involved in the attack did belong to the FNI. The operation resulted in the destruction of two militia camps one of them believed to be the battalion HQ for the FNI militia."
Tuesday’s attack targeted a militia known as the FNI or the Nationalist and Integrationist Front. The militia is accused of assassinating nine UN peacekeepers from Bangladesh last week in what was the worst attack on UN forces in Africa since the Rwandan genocide a decade ago.
On Wednesday, the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo accused the militia of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Meanwhile in New York, the United Nations Security Council expressed its support for military action by UN troops in the Congo.
Fighting between militias in the area have killed more than 50,000 since 1999 and forced half a million people to flee their homes. The fighting follows the country’s bloody five-year war that left nearly 4 million people dead. The United Nations now has a larger presence in Congo than in any other country in the world. Some 17,000 UN soldiers, police and civilians are deployed across the nation.
Allegations have emerged that UN peacekeepers in Congo have repeatedly sexually abused children in the region and raped and gang-raped the people they were meant to be protecting. The UN envoy to Congo, William Lacy Swing, is expected to offer his resignation today after he meets with UN officials in New York. The United Nations is now investigating 150 allegations against 50 different UN peacekeepers working in Congo. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said, We are taking very firm measures, changing some of the commanders, some of the civilian staff have been disciplined." The Independent of London is also reporting that the UN is bracing for more cases of sexual abuse to surface from peacekeeping missions in other countries, including Burundi, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Haiti.
And the Chicago Tribune has resumed running Aaron McGruder’s comic Boondocks after it pulled the comic strip twice earlier this week because of references to President Bush’s alleged drug use. Monday’s strip shows a character saying: "Bush got recorded admitting that he smoked weed." The comic strip’s main character Huey replies: "Maybe he smoked it to take the edge off the coke." The comic strip was written in reference to recently released audio tapes of President Bush from 1998 in which he suggested he had once smoked marijuana and in which he said he had never denied using cocaine.