US and Iraqi troops have launched what the military is calling the largest air assault in the three years since the Iraq invasion. In a press release, the army said over fifteen hundred troops and fifty aircraft have been deployed in a "suspected insurgent operating area" northeast of Samarra. Operation "Swarmer" is expected to last for several days. No casualties have been reported so far.
A senior Iranian government official said Thursday his government is willing to engage in direct talks with the US about Iraq. The US and Iran have not discussed the issue since shortly after the US invasion. An attempt to negotiate failed last year when Iran insisted the talks include other issues, while the US said it would only address Iraq. In Australia Thursday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reaffirmed the Bush administration’s stance. Rice said: "Those talks are limited concerning the country at issue, so in this case it would be limited to questions concerning Iraq. We will see when and if those talks take place but that discretion has been there for some time and I’m sure that we’ll talk about this exercise. This isn’t a negotiation of some kind. We found it useful to exchange information and to talk. And if we do, it will be about Iraq."
In France, students are continuing to turn out in massive numbers to protest a new employment law that will make it easier for companies to fire young workers. Police say the demonstrations have grown to nearly 260,000 people. Organizers put the numbers at over half a million. Scattered violence has been reported around the country. In Paris, police used teargas and water cannons against protesters at the end of a march outside the University of Paris-Sorbonne on the Left Bank. Several cars were set ablaze and store windows were smashed during the unrest. Police have made over 200 arrests. According to the Education Ministry, two-thirds of France’s 84 Universities have been affected by strikes and sit-ins.
In Northern Iraq, hundreds of Iraqi Kurds protesting the regional government attacked a monument commemorating Saddam Hussein’s 1988 gas attack on the town of Halabja. The protests occurred on the 18th anniversary of the attack. The monument was stormed after police fired gunshots over the heads of demonstrators blocking a main road. Demonstrators said they were protesting the corruption of the semi-autonomous Kurdish authority. The government has been accused of misusing funds intended for Halabja survivors.
In Britain, two men are in critical condition after suffering violent reactions to a pill they took as part of a clinical study. Another four participants in the study are in serious condition. The study, run by American drug research company Parexel International, gave the participants doses of the German drug TGN 1412. Myfanwy Marshall, the partner of one of the hospitalized men, said: "His face is bloated out like 'elephant man'… it’s all the blood, they’re recycling his blood trying to clean it out, you know, it’s affected every organ, every... his kidneys, his lung, his liver, his heart his blood circulation, everything; and they’re just trying to keep that ticking over with their machines, so he’s on life support. And they’re telling me he could die at any moment."
Here in the United States, a new congressional audit says the government wasted millions of dollars in its awarding of disaster relief contracts in areas affected by Hurricane Katrina. The Government Accountability Office’s review was the first to look at the progress of 13 major contracts. According to the audit, the waste included a payment of $3 million dollars for thousands of beds that were never used.
In an update on a story Democracy Now covered Thursday, the University of Miami says it will raise minimum wages and provide health benefits to its contract employees — including striking janitors and other workers. Some 200 janitors have been on strike for three weeks. The non-unionized workers — who are mostly Haitian and Cuban immigrants — earned as little as $6.40 an hour and were not provided with health insurance. Under the new policy, workers will receive a minimum wage of at least eight dollars an hour and will be offered health care benefits. Although the janitors officially work for a company named UNICCO, they were calling on the University to pressure the company to provide them with a livable wage and health benefits. While union leaders applauded the decision, they said the strike will continue to protest UNICCO’s labor practices.
In other news, a new poll shows a majority of Americans support Democratic Senator Russ Feingold’s measure to censure President Bush for authorizing the no-warrant domestic surveillance program. According to the American Research Group, 46% of Americans favor the measure, while 44% oppose it. Feingold’s widely-publicized effort stalled after it failed to attract the support of Senators from either political parties.
In other news, defense lawyers for indicted White House aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby have subpoenaed documents from the New York Times, Time magazine and three other journalists, including Tim Russert of NBC News and former New York Times reporter Judy Miller. Libby stepped down as Chief of Staff to Vice President Dick Cheney after he was indicted in the investigation over the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame. Libby’s attorneys are asking the news organizations to turn over documents that could show what they knew about Plame before her identity was publicly disclosed.
In other news, environmental groups are criticizing President Bush’s nomination of Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne to run the Department of the Interior. A Knight Ridder analysis in 2003 concluded Kemphthorne oversaw environmental degradation in several key areas — including air quality, rivers, and pollution inspections — during his term as governor of Idaho. According to ThinkProgress.org, Kemphorne has close ties to the same industries he would be responsible for overseeing. In his last re-election campaign, Kempthorne raised $86,000 from companies from the timber, mining and energy industries. Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, said: "Dirk Kempthorne has been an unabashed champion of the resource extraction and development interests that profit most from public land… the president could not have chosen a more divisive nominee."
And as the invasion and occupation of Iraq reaches the three-year mark this Sunday, activists are staging anti-war events around the world. At least 500 protests are being held in the US this weekend alone. United for Peace and Justice has organized actions in all 50 states. Some began earlier this week. A veterans march for peace, which began in Alabama Tuesday, will end in New Orleans. According to USA Today, a new poll shows 60 percent of Americans believe the war was not "worth it." In London, the Stop the War Coalition will stage a protest Saturday to demand the withdrawal of US and British troops from Iraq. Similar demonstrations are to be held in cities in Iraq, as well as in Mexico, Japan, and other parts of Europe.