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In Israel, the country’s prime minister Ariel Sharon is fighting for his life after he suffered a significant stroke last night. Doctors say he is now in an intensive care unit after undergoing nine hours of surgery to stem bleeding in his brain. Even if he survives, the 77-year-old is not expected to ever regain leadership of the country. Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has already been named interim prime minister–a position he will hold for 100 days. Olmert oversaw an emergency cabinet meeting this morning. Sharon’s stroke comes at a time that Israel is at a critical crossroads in its history. National elections are slated for March. Ariel Sharon has played a major role in the history of Israel over the last half century first as a fighter, later as a politician. Among Palestinians, Sharon is seen as the father of the settlement movement and the architect of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which killed a reported 20,000 Palestinian and Lebanese. An Israeli commission of inquiry found Sharon had "personal responsibility" for the massacre of over 1,000 Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon in 1982. As Prime Minister, he oversaw Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and settlements he once helped to build. Last month, he left the Likud party to form the new party Kadima–the Hebrew word for "Forward." We’ll go to Israel later in the show for more on Ariel Sharon.
In West Virginia, about 125 people gathered Wednesday night for a candlelight vigil in the town of Sago to mourn the 12 coal miners who died in what was the country’s deadliest mining accident in four years. One miner survived and remains hospitalized. The town has been in a state of shock since Tuesday night when residents were initially informed that 12 of the 13 trapped miners had been found alive. But the report turned out to be false. The owner of the mine–the International Coal Group — is coming under increasing criticism for its handling of the tragedy and its safety record. The company’s president Ben Hatfield said he sincerely regretted the manner in which the families were falsely notified. The company waited over two hours to tell the celebrating family members that their loved ones were not in fact alive. The editors of the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia have published an editorial in today’s paper titled "Preventable Deaths." The editorial reads "this tragedy was not a surprise–both because the mine had a disturbing safety record, and because the Bush administration in Washington has been undercutting mine safety." Last year, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration filed 200 alleged violations against the Sago mine. 46 citations were issued in the past three months–18 of them were considered "serious and substantial" We’ll go to West Virginia later in the show.
In Iraq–At least 40 people have died after a suicide bomber blew himself up at a Shiite shrine in the holy city of Karbala. 50 people were also wounded. Iranian pilgrims were among the casualties. The bombing comes a day after a suicide bomber targeted a Shiite funeral northwest of Baghdad killing over 40. Overall more than 50 people died in a string of attacks on Wednesday making it the deadliest day since the mid-December elections. According to the Iraqi Defense Ministry more than 200 people have died in Iraq over the past week. Meanwhile a convoy of 60 fuel tankers came under heavy attack Wednesday. One driver was killed. At least 18 of the tankers were damaged or destroyed.
This update on a story we have been tracking closely. Last week President Bush officially signed a bill outlawing torture of detainees. While the bill signing received significant press coverage, what Bush did following the signing has not. According to the Boston Globe, Bush quietly issued what is known as a signing statement in which he lays out his interpretation of the new law. In this document Bush declared that he will view the interrogation limits in the context of his broader powers to protect national security. Legal experts say this means Bush believes he can waive the anti-torture restrictions. New York University Law Professor David Golove criticized Bush’s move. He said '’The signing statement is saying ’I will only comply with this law when I want to, and if something arises in the war on terrorism where I think it's important to torture or engage in cruel, inhuman, and degrading conduct, I have the authority to do so and nothing in this law is going to stop me,’ "
Meanwhile the Washington Post is reporting that Justice Department and intelligence officials will give a classified briefing on Monday to members of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. President Bush has admitted he has bypassed the court and ordered the National Security Agency to conduct domestic spy operations without the legally required court-approved warrants. Last week one judge on the FISA court resigned in protest over the secret spying program.
In other news on Iraq–it has now been 40 days since four peace activists with the Christian Peacemaker Teams were kidnapped in Iraq. The group had been working in Iraq since before the invasion opposing the U.S. presence there and exposing detainee abuses. Members of the Christian Peacemaker Team in this country have announced plan to begin a public fast outside the White House beginning Friday. The group says it will continue its fast until President Bush agrees to meet with members.
While President Bush has yet to meet with anyone from the Christian Peacemaker Team he is meeting today with a group of former secretaries of state and defense to discuss the country’s Iraq policy. Attendees are expected to include former secretaries of state Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright, Lawrence Eagleburger, James Baker, George Shultz and Alexander Haig as well as former secretaries of defense William Perry, William Cohen, Frank Carlucci, James Schlesinger, Harold Brown, Melvin Laird and Robert McNamara.
In other news from Washington, Republican Party officials announced President Bush will donate to charity $6,000 in campaign contributions connected to lobbyist Jack Abramoff. On Tuesday Abramoff pleaded guilty to three felony counts and admitted to defrauding at least four Native American tribes of tens of millions of dollars, bribing government officials and evading taxes. Meanwhile the watchdog group Public Citizen has called on Bush to provide a full accounting of the sources of political contributions raised by Abramoff. In 2004, Bush designated Abramoff a "Pioneer" for raising over $100,000 for his campaign.
Meanwhile Washington President Bush defied Congress on Wednesday and made a series of controversial recess appointments. Bush tapped former Navy Secretary and defense contractor Gordon England to become deputy defense secretary to fill the post once held by Paul Wolfowitz. He also appointed Dorrance Smith to become the Pentagon’s chief spokesman assistant secretary for public affairs. In April Smith wrote a controversial article for the Wall Street Journal in which he claimed there is an ongoing relationship between al Qaeda, al-Jazeera and U.S. tv networks. He wrote "This partnership is a powerful tool for the terrorists in the war in Iraq." Bush also appointed Julie Myers to head the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau at the Department of Homeland Security. She is the niece of former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Richard Myers and the wife of the chief of staff to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
And Frank Wilkenson has died at the age of 91. He was well known for being one of the last Americans to be jailed for refusing to tell the House Un-American Activities Committee whether he was a Communist.