In Iraq, lawmakers have finally formed a new unity government, five months after the December election. The government led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki met for the first time this week inside the U.S.-controlled Green Zone. Several key cabinet positions remain unfilled including Minister of Defense and Minister of the Interior. On Sunday President Bush called leaders in Iraq to congratulate them on the new government.
President Bush: "The formation of a unity government in Iraq is a new day for the millions of Iraqis who want to live in peace. And the formation of the unity government in Iraq begins a new chapter in our relationship with Iraq."
The New York Times reports the Bush administration played a major role in the formation of the new government. The U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad personally reviewed and vetted candidates for crucial ministries and urged rival Iraqi party leaders to sign on to the new government. U.S. officials are also being placed inside key ministries to act as advisers. On Sunday the new Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki vowed to bring stability to Iraq and to use "maximum force" to end the violence that has killed thousands in recent months.
Middle East analyst Juan Cole said four distinct wars are now being fought in Iraq simultaneously. There is a Sunni Arab guerrilla war to expel US troops from the Sunni heartland; a militant Shiite guerrilla war to expel the British from the south; a civil war between the Sunni and Shiites; and a Kurdish war against Arabs and Turkmen in Kirkuk province.
British journalist Patrick Cockburn says Iraq is disintegrating as ethnic cleansing takes hold on a massive scale. On Sunday at least 24 people died including 13 at a Baghdad restaurant that was attacked by a suicide bomber.
In Afghanistan, a U.S.-led air strike has killed at least 76 people. The BBC reports the dead included as many as 30 civilians including children. The bombing raid in Southern Afghanistan occurred shortly after midnight today. The U.S. military has denied reports of civilian casualties and claimed that all of the dead were members of the Taliban. The air strike occurred in a region which has recently seen some of the country’s fiercest fighting since the fall of the Taliban nearly five years ago.
In New Orleans Ray Nagin has been re-elected as the city’s mayor in a closely watched election that came about nine months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city.
Ray Nagin: "Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for one New Orleans, it’s time for one New Orleans today, it’s time for one New Orleans tomorrow, it’s time for one New Orleans forever and as Gandhi once said, and I close, Gandhi said it best, he said "first they ignore you, then the laugh at you and then they fight you and then you win." God bless you."
Ray Nagin, a former telecom executive, won 52 percent of the vote. Louisiana’s Lt. Gov Mitch Landrieu won 48 percent. It was the city’s closest mayoral election ever. Landrieu would have become the city’s first white mayor since his father held the post in the late 1970s. The vote came at a time that half of New Orleans’ resident still haven’t been able to return home including as many as 200,000 registered voters — mostly African-Americans.
Meanwhile the Los Angeles Times reports a new study has raised questions about the strength of the levees around New Orleans. Engineers at UC Berkeley said the levees have a wide range of design and construction defects and that there are serious doubts that the system can withstand the pounding of another hurricane the size of Katrina. The paper reports the findings undermine assurances by the Bush administration and the Army Corps of Engineers that the $3 billion spent on the levees will provide a higher level of protection to New Orleans. The study also questions the competency of the Corps of Engineers to oversee public safety projects across the nation. The study criticized the Corps for not detecting problems such as the fact that sections of the levees were built with crushed seashells.
Questions are being raised over whether the CIA will continue to use an interrogation method known as waterboarding despite last year’s Congressional ban on the cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment of detainees. The technique involves immersing a prisoner’s head in water to make them think they’re that drowning. Human rights groups consider it a form of torture. In 2004, a CIA inspector general concluded that waterboarding and other methods approved by the agency after 9/11 probably violated the international Convention Against Torture. But at his confirmation hearing to become the new director of the CIA, General Michael Hayden refused to publicly say whether he considers it to be an acceptable practice.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) questioning Gen. Michael Hayden
The country’s prison population has reached almost 2.2 million. One in every 136 U.S. residents is now behind bars. The nation’s prison population increased by more than 1,000 inmates a week last year. New data also shows that 12 percent of African-American men between the ages of 25 and 29 are now incarcerated. That is more than ten times the incarceration rate of white men.
Meanwhile a new report from the Women’s Prison Association has found the number of women imprisoned in the country has increased by over 750 percent since 1977.
In the Gaza Strip fighting has intensified between Palestinian factions loyal to Hamas and the former ruling party Fatah. On Saturday, the Palestinian’s chief intelligence officer Tareq Abu Rajab was seriously wounded in an attempt on his life. On Sunday, security officials found a 150 pound bomb planted along a road used by Gaza’s Security Chief Rashid Abu Shbak. Both officials are allies of former Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. On Sunday Abbas said he feared the fighting between Hamas and Fatah could lead to civil war. Meanwhile Israel is continuing to carry out its campaign of assassinating Palestinian militants inside the Gaza Strip. On Saturday an Israeli missile struck a car carrying a commander in the militant group Islamic Jihad. The attack killed the man and three others including a four-year-old boy.
In Washington, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales suggested Sunday the Justice Department may begin prosecuting journalists for writing articles based on classified information. Under the Espionage Act of 1917 it is a crime for an unauthorized person to receive national defense information and transmit it to others but it has seldom — if ever — been used to target journalists. Gonzales comments came on ABC’s This Week.
George Stephanopoulos: So you believe journalists can be prosecuted for publishing classified information?
Alberto Gonzales: Well, again, George, it depends on the circumstances. There are some statutes on the book which if, if you read the language carefully would seem to indicate that that is a possibility. That’s a policy judgment by the Congress in passing that kind of legislation. We have an obligation to enforce those laws. We have an obligation to ensure that our national security is protected.
In other news from Washington, the FBI has raided the office of Democratic Congressman William Jefferson of Louisiana as part of a bribery investigation. Authorities said it marked the first time the FBI has ever raided the office of a sitting Congressman. 15 FBI agents entered his office just after 7 p.m. Saturday and left about 18 hours later. Jefferson has not yet been charged with a crime but the FBI claims it has videotape evidence that he accepted a $100,000 bribe last year from a person cooperating with the FBI.
In labor news, a coal mine explosion in Kentucky has killed five miners. So far this year, 31 miners have now died in accidents, making it the deadliest year for the mine industry since 2001.
The Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has publicly backed Bolivia’s decision to nationalize its vast gas and oil reserves and to renegotiate all contracts with foreign oil companies. Stiglitz met with Bolivian President Evo Morales on Friday. The former World Bank official said Bolivia was right to receive just compensation for its natural resources and that nationalization is part of a process of returning what already belonged to the Bolivian government. Stiglitz added that it is clear that the neo-liberal economic policies of Washington have failed the people of Bolivia.
And the world-renowned dancer, choreographer and social activist Katherine Dunham has died at the age of 96. Dunham is best known for leaving Broadway to teach in one of America’s poorest cities, East St. Louis. In 1992 she went on a 47-day hunger strike to protest U.S. policy that repatriated Haitian refugees.