The bipartisan Iraq Study Group has agreed to call for a gradual pullback of U.S. troops from Iraq and to open negotiations with Iran and Syria. The report is expected next week. According to The New York Times, the panel implicitly says the withdrawal should begin next year. But the report does not set a firm timetable and leaves open-ended the question of whether U.S. troops would be deployed to neighboring countries or brought home. Since its inception, the Iraq Study Group’s critics have accused it of being a tool to provide political cover for the status quo. A senior U.S. military officer involved in Iraq planning said: "The question is whether it doesn’t look like a timeline to Bush, and does to [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] Maliki."
Meanwhile, President Bush met with Maliki in Jordan today. The meeting was supposed to happen Wednesday, but Maliki cancelled at the last minute. The cancellation came hours after The New York Times published contents of a Bush administration memo that expressed serious doubts on Maliki’s performance. In his appearance with Maliki today, the president said U.S. forces would stay indefinitely, and rejected calls to partition Iraq.
President Bush: "The prime minister made clear that splitting his country into parts, as some have suggested, is not what the Iraqi people want and that any partition of Iraq would only lead to an increase in sectarian violence. I agree."
President Bush was also asked about Iraq’s sectarian violence.
President Bush: "Well, that’s — killers taking innocent life is, in some cases, sectarian. I happen to view it as criminal, as well as sectarian. I think any time you murder somebody, you’re a criminal. And I believe a just society, and a society that holds people to account and believes in the rule of law, protects innocent people from murderers, no matter what their political party is."
Meanwhile, a key Shiite political bloc has carried out on its threat to end participation in the Iraqi government if Maliki sat down with Bush.
Salih al-Uqaili, a member of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s political group: "Therefore, the Sadr bloc in the House of Representatives and the Sadr Movement and ministers are suspending their membership in Parliament and the government to protest against this visit, which provokes the Iraqi people’s feelings and disregards their constitutional rights."
Bush’s summit with Maliki comes amid unrelenting violence in Iraq. At least 102 people were killed Wednesday, including two U.S. troops.
In a sharp departure from the Bush administration, former Secretary of State Colin Powell said Wednesday the war in Iraq could be considered a civil war. Powell was speaking at a conference in Dubai.
Meanwhile, an adviser to the Saudi Arabian government has declared Saudi Arabia will intervene in Iraq to protect the Sunni community if the United States withdraws. Writing in The Washington Post, the adviser, Nawaf Obaid, said the government of King Abdullah would arm and fund Sunni military leaders and help establish Sunni brigades to fight against Iranian-backed Shiite militias. Obaid writes: "Saudi engagement in Iraq carries great risks — it could spark a regional war. So be it: The consequences of inaction are far worse." The warning comes one week after Vice President Dick Cheney visited Saudi Arabia. The Bush administration initially said Cheney made the trip as part of a diplomatic push in the Middle East. But The Washington Post reports Cheney was "basically summoned" to visit King Abdullah.
In Latvia, NATO leaders ended a summit on Afghanistan without a firm commitment for more troops. The U.S., Britain and Canada were seeking military assistance, but key members Spain and Italy explicitly refused their request.
In his appeal for help in Afghanistan, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said NATO’s "credibility" is at stake.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair: "There is, I think, a complete acceptance around the table that NATO’s credibility is indeed on the line, in respect of this mission, and that if NATO stands for anything, it is the defense of values of liberty and democracy. Those values are being defended now in Afghanistan. And if we don’t make sure this mission succeeds, it will have a devastating impact on our own security."
The U.N. Human Rights Council has announced South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu will lead a fact-finding mission to investigate this month’s killing of 19 Palestinian civilians in the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun. One family lost 16 members when Israeli tanks opened fire on their house. Seven children died, the youngest just a year old. Israel has blamed the killings on a technical malfunction. Tutu says he is honored with the appointment and hopes the mission will help advance the cause of peace.
In Italy, a judge has delayed a hearing to determine whether a U.S. soldier should stand trial for killing Italian intelligence agent Nicola Calipari. Calipari was was escorting the kidnapped reporter Giuliana Sgrena out of Iraq after her kidnapping. The soldier, Mario Lozano of the U.S. Army’s 69th Infantry Regiment in New York, is accused of "voluntary homicide." The hearing has been put off until February.
Giuliana Sgrena: "The fact of delaying so much a case that caused an enormous outcry at the time it happened and that now seems to have lost it seems to me one more element in order to lower the attention on the Calipari case."
In Geneva, U.N. Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland held his last press conference Wednesday before he steps down next month.
U.N. Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland: "The U.N. is still not living up to its sworn ability to protect. Too many millions of people in Darfur, Chad, Central African Republic are living in utter fear. Too many people in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Palestinian territories, as well."
Egeland is the U.N.’s top humanitarian official. He went on to address the situation in Darfur, which he said is getting worse by the day.
U.N. Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland: "What the U.N. has to do now more is, through its member states, to put pressure on the government, on the rebel—rebels, on Sudan, on the neighboring countries, to stop this man-made disaster, to get a credible international force on the ground to protect the civilian population and to get a negotiated settlement between the government and the armed opposition."
In Mexico, former President Luis Echeverria has been ordered to stand trial for his role in the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre of student protesters. Echeverria was interior minister at the time and has been accused of ordering government forces to open fire. The killings occurred 10 days before Mexico hosted the Olympic Games. Human rights groups estimate up to 300 people were killed.
Here in the United States, the Bush administration has been ordered to resume housing payments to thousands of people displaced by Hurricane Katrina. On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon ruled Katrina victims have been illegally denied housing payments and subjected to an application process he called "Kafkaesque." Leon ruled FEMA had failed to properly explain why it was cutting off the payments and failed to give evacuees the right to appeal. FEMA’s actions left many evacuees homeless. The ruling marked the second court victory for Katrina victims this week. On Monday, a federal court ruled Katrina homeowners are entitled to more insurance money for flood damage.
In Florida, eight people have been charged in connection with the death of a 14-year-old boy at a juvenile "boot camp" last January. The boy, Martin Lee Anderson, was initially said to have died of a complication from sickle cell blood disease. But a second autopsy demanded by his parents actually found prison guards suffocated him to death. Video footage shows Anderson collapsing to the ground after one of the guards hit him from behind. Seven guards and one nurse have been charged with aggravated manslaughter. This is Florida Governor Jeb Bush.
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush: "We’ll obviously follow the developments of this case closely and hope that in the end of the day that justice will be served. We also hope that when the process is completed, that Martin Anderson’s family will have the answers to the questions that they legitimately have, and my thoughts and prayers continue to be with them."
Martin Lee Anderson’s family has criticized Governor Bush for reacting too slowly to the case and turning down their meeting requests.
New figures show the number of Americans in prison or jail is on the rise. A record 2.2 million people are behind bars, up nearly 3 percent from last year. Another 4 million people are either on probation or parole. The number of female prisoners has seen a significant jump, rising 2.6 percent. Racial disparities show no signs of reversal. Among males in their late twenties, 8 percent of African Americans are incarcerated, compared with 1 percent of white males.
In other news, the U.S. government has agreed to pay $2 million and apologize to Brandon Mayfield. Mayfield is the Muslim attorney in Oregon jailed two years ago after the FBI mistakenly tied him to the Madrid train bombings.
The president-elect of the Christian Coalition of America says he won’t be taking the job because of the group’s opposition to expanding its agenda. The Reverend Joel Hunter says he wanted to address issues including poverty and the environment but was told the Christian Coalition does not want to move beyond opposing abortion and gay marriage.
And a German citizen who suffered torture after being kidnapped by the CIA is in the United States to appeal the dismissal of his lawsuit against the U.S. government. Three years ago, Khalid El-Masri was seized along the Serbian-Macedonian border and then flown to Afghanistan, where he was tortured inside a secret prison. He was released without charge after five months. Masri described his ordeal Wednesday in Washington.
Khalid El-Masri: "I was mortally afraid throughout the entire five months in prison in Afghanistan. The conditions I was confronted with in jail were not fit for human consumption. I went on hunger strike for 37 days, and I was force-fed thereafter. And then, thereafter, I was taken to Albania, and in the middle of the night I was just dumped in a forest. To this day, I don’t know why they did this to me. I don’t know why they arrested me in the first place. I don’t know why they released me. I do not know."
Masri’s suit was dismissed in May after a federal judge sided with the government’s argument that trying the case would jeopardize state secrets. Anthony Romero of the American Civil Liberties Union criticized the government’s position.
ACLU Director Anthony Romero: "It is untenable now for the Bush administration to hide behind its arguments in a court of law and insist that some of the most egregious violation of human rights have no remedy in an American court of law. If not before an American court of law can an individual who’s been wronged by the U.S. government seek justice, then where?"
Masri has said he might drop the case if Tenet issues an apology.