President Bush emerged from his ranch in Crawford, Texas yesterday and addressed for the first time the rapidly growing antiwar protest outside of his property. What began as a one woman vigil has now grown into the central antiwar action in the US. Before this week, there was very little coverage in the corporate media of antiwar families whose loved ones have been killed in Iraq, but now Cindy Sheehan—whose son Casey was killed in Iraq— has grabbed international headlines by camping out in Crawford.
President Bush has thus far refused to meet with Cindy Sheehan at his ranch, instead sending emissaries. Sheehan has vowed to remain in Crawford until Bush agrees to meet her. She has also indicated she may camp out at the White House once Bush returns from yet another vacation. He has taken more than 320 days of vacation since assuming the presidency 5 years ago.
During his news conference, Bush was surrounded by his top national security, foreign policy and defense advisers. Bush seemed to indicate that the new Iranian president will receive a U.S. visa to attend an annual United Nations gathering next month.
There was some speculation that Bush may try to deny President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a visa because of allegations he was connected to the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. But after weeks of accusations against the new Iranian president, US intelligence reports are now emerging that show there is no evidence for this charge. The Washington Post cites US officials as saying that Ahmadinejad actually may have opposed the takeover because of fears about the neighboring Soviet Union. A US intelligence report also cites a speech by the new Iranian president from more than six years ago, in which he publicly challenged the wisdom of the takeover. One US official told The Post "There is relative certainty that he was not one of the actual captors." This story was on page 9 of Friday’s post. Stories alleging Ahmadinejad was a hostage taker were front page news for several days after his election.
On Iraq, Bush said he has made no decision on whether to increase or decrease U.S. troop levels there, calling reports of coming reductions "speculation" and "rumors." But he did say that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is looking at whether to add troops at the time of the next scheduled Iraqi elections in December. Bush also predicted that the draft constitution would be finished in time for a Monday deadline.
Meanwhile, a leading Shiite lawmaker in Iraq has issued a call for a Shiite federal region, just days ahead of that Monday deadline. The remarks by Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim came during a speech to cheering crowds in Najaf. al Hakim endorsed calls for a federated Iraq, saying federalism was needed "to keep a political balance in the country." The move could pave the way for a Shiite south and a Kurdish north. Those areas contain the lowest Sunni populations and the greatest oil wealth. We’ll have more on Iraq later in the program.
An Israeli soldier was sentenced by a military tribunal Thursday to eight years in prison for manslaughter in the shooting death of British activist Tom Hurndall, as Hurndall was trying to protect Palestinian children. Taysir Hayb was convicted by a military court in June for the murder of Hurndall, who was shot in the head during an army operation in the Gaza Strip in April 2003. It was the first case in which an Israeli soldier has been found guilty of a crime in the killing a foreign citizen during the past four years. Hurndall’s family immediately criticized the sentence as far too light given the crime.
Witnesses said that 22 year-old Tom Hurndall was helping Palestinian children avoid Israeli tanks. He was in a coma for nine months before dying in a London hospital. During his trial, Hayb argued that a confession he gave was forced. Hayb also said he was prosecuted because he is an Arab and because his victim was a foreigner. Hurndall was a member of the International Solidarity Movement, as was Rachel Corrie, an activist from Olympia, Wash., who was crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer in March 2003. To this day, no one has been charged in her killing.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Israelis rallied in Tel Aviv Friday against Israel’s plan to start pulling out of Gaza in six days. Opponents of the plan have stepped up their protests in recent days, vowing to sabotage the withdrawal operation.
Back in this country, one of the key figures in the corruption investigation of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has been indicted by a federal grand jury on fraud charges stemming from a deal to buy casino boats in 2000. Jack Abramoff is also under federal investigation in Washington by a grand jury investigating whether he and a lobbying partner overcharged Indian tribes by millions of dollars for their work. DeLay has asked the House Ethics Committee to review allegations that Abramoff or his clients paid some of DeLay’s overseas travel expenses. DeLay has denied knowing that the expenses were paid by Abramoff, whom he once described as "one of my closest and dearest friends." Abramoff collected more than $100,000 for President Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign and raised thousands of dollars for DeLay and other Republican members of Congress.
Now to Latin America. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has rejected a request by US citizen Lori Berenson to review its ruling that upheld her 20-year sentence in Peru for allegedly helping antigovernment forces and "treason against the fatherland." It is reportedly Berenson’s last formal avenue of appeal. In a decision issued in November, the Costa Rica-based court rejected Berenson’s arguments that Peru violated her rights in a 2001 civilian retrial. Berenson and her family say she is innocent of any crime and that she was arrested because she opposed the government of Alberto Fujimori. She was tried by a hooded military judge and was not allowed to see any evidence against her. She is scheduled for release in November 2015, a few weeks after her 46th birthday.
Just a day after a federal appeals court overturned the convictions of the Cuban Five, Miami’s top federal prosecutor says he will retry the men, who stand accused of espionage. The government says the retrial will likely happen next year and in a city other than Miami. But U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta also says he is considering appealing Tuesday’s stunning decision by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. That decision found that the original trial was unfair because it took place in the rightwing Cuban exile stronghold of Miami. Legal experts said the three-judge panel cited so much overwhelming evidence that there is nothing for prosecutors to challenge.
Now back to news out of Iraq. An Iraqi official told reporters in Baghdad that Saddam Hussein could be executed after his first trial if he is convicted and sentenced to death for his alleged role in a 1982 Shiite massacre. The unnamed official said the first trial is expected to begin by the falll. He briefed reporters on condition that his name would not be used for reasons of security and the sensitivity of the case. Meanwhile, Saddam’s daughter has threatened that the ousted leader’s defense lawyer could boycott the trial — and preliminary questioning — unless the defense gets better access to Saddam. The defense has consistently alleged that it has only been allowed to meet Saddam with U.S. or Iraqi military officials watching.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s imprisoned former deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz was allowed a 10-minute phone call from his family on Thursday, his first such contact in over two years. His lawyer says Aziz will also be allowed a family visit next week. Aziz said through his attorney this week that he would not testify against Saddam Hussein.
Iraqi investigators have uncovered more cases of widespread fraud and waste. At issue are more than $1 billion worth of weapons deals arranged by middlemen who allegedly reneged or took huge kickbacks on contracts to arm Iraq’s fledgling military. This according to a confidential report obtained by the Knight-Ridder news service. According to the agency, the report by the Iraqi Board of Supreme Audit describes transactions suggesting that senior U.S.-appointed Iraqi officials in the Defense Ministry used three intermediary companies to hide the kickbacks they received from contracts involving unnecessary, overpriced or outdated equipment. Last month it emerged that $300 million in defense funds had been lost. But the new report indicates that the audit board uncovered a much larger scandal, with losses likely to exceed half a million dollars. Last week, the Iraqi Defense Minister confirmed most of the audit board report’s findings, saying that at least $500 million in Iraqi money essentially has disappeared. Many of the figures believed to be involved in the alleged corruption were appointed by the US occupation authority, formerly known as the Coalition Provisional Authority.
Texas has become the fourth state in the country where white people have become a minority. The U.S. Census Bureau said Thursday this is part of a trend driven by a surging number of Latinos moving to the state. Texas joins California, New Mexico and Hawaii as states with majority-people of color populations. Five other states–Maryland, Mississippi, Georgia, New York and Arizona–aren’t far behind, with about 40 percent people of color. Many demographic experts say that whites will be in the minority by 2050.