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Easing Winds Raise Fire Hopes, But Thousands Face Displacement, Home Loss

Easing winds are boosting hopes that firefighters will be able to contain Southern California’s devastating wildfires. The Santa Ana winds fueling the flames have begun to die out. But firefighters still face major difficulties with no forecast of rain ahead. All three major fires in Los Angeles County have been contained. But the six fires burning through San Diego County are no more than 15 percent contained.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger: "We have, as you know, 18 fires right now. There’s 426,000 acres that burned. Almost 8,900 firefighters are on site. There’s so far 40 injuries and three deaths. 1,664 structures have been destroyed in California; out of that is approximately 1,436 homes that have been destroyed. There’s over 25,000 structures that are threatened right now."

Property damage in San Diego has reached an estimated $1 billion. President Bush is expected to tour the region later today.

Iraq Revokes U.S.-Imposed Contractor Immunity

The Iraqi government has reportedly canceled a U.S.-imposed law granting immunity to private security contractors operating inside Iraq. Contractors have been immune from prosecution since former Bush administration proconsul Paul Bremer handed down the law shortly before leaving Iraq in June 2004. The Iraqi Cabinet’s decision follows last month’s killing of 17 Iraqi civilians by Blackwater guards in Baghdad.

Blackwater Guards Involved in Mass Shooting of Iraqis Back in U.S.

The news comes as The New York Times has revealed that the leader of the Blackwater squad that carried out the shooting and two or three subordinate guards involved are now back in the United States. An anonymous Blackwater employee says the squad leader supposedly left Iraq to have shrapnel removed from his leg. The other guards are said to have left Iraq because their contracts expired. But their departure will likely fuel speculation that Blackwater is trying to avoid scrutiny and punishment. Blackwater is already embroiled in a controversy for ferrying out a guard accused of shooting and killing a bodyguard to Iraq’s vice president last Christmas Eve. The guard was allegedly intoxicated at the time of the shooting. He’s now living in Seattle. Meanwhile, The New York Times also reports of a growing feeling within the Blackwater compound in Iraq that the killings were unjustified. Four current and two former Blackwater employees say guards widely expect to see criminal charges.

Families of Blackwater Victims Refusing U.S. Compensation Payment

Meanwhile, The Washington Post is reporting the U.S. embassy in Iraq has begun to offer as much as $12,500 in financial compensation to families of the Blackwater victims. Several families say they’ve turned down the offer because they view it as too small or don’t want to preclude future legal action.

State Dept. Security Head Forced to Resign

Meanwhile, the State Department’s top security official has been forced to step down. Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Diplomatic Security Richard Griffin is the first senior official to lose his job in the growing controversy over the Blackwater shooting. His departure comes just days after an internal review faulted the State Department for inadequate oversight of private military firms.

Admin to Impose New Iran Sanctions

The Bush administration is set to impose a new round of unilateral sanctions against Iran. The White House has already announced its plans to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction and its elite Quds Force as a supporter of terrorism. Critics call the move the latest in a series of parallels to the lead-up of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The Washington Post reports the sanctions package marks the first time the U.S. has tried to isolate or punish another country’s military. It’s the broadest set of punitive measures against Iran since the 1979 takeover of the American embassy. Testifying Wednesday on Capitol Hill, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Iran represents the greatest security challenge to U.S. interests in the Middle East.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: "We are continuing to designate Iranian entities when we find that they are trying to use the financial system for their ill-gotten gains, and it is why we are trying to strengthen the defense capacity of our traditional allies in the Gulf, because working together with them, we can be a — we can help be a barrier to further Iranian aggression in the region."

Rice Admits Arar "Mishandled" But Refuses Apology

Rice was speaking before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Later in her appearance, Rice was questioned about the rendition victim Maher Arar. Arar is the Canadian citizen seized on a stopover flight to the U.S. and sent to Syria, where he was jailed and tortured. Rice said the Bush administration had mishandled Arar’s case but stopped short of an apology.

Protester Confronts "War Criminal" Rice

Before Rice testified, she was a confronted by a protester with the peace group CODEPINK. The protester called Rice a "war criminal" whose hands are stained with the "blood of millions of Iraqis." The protester’s hands were painted red to symbolize blood.

Burmese Junta Arrests Leading Student Activist

In Burma, a leading student activist against the ruling military junta has reportedly been imprisoned. Aung Naing is said to have been taken into custody early Wednesday morning.

Burmese Mark 12th Anniversary of Suu Kyi Detention

The news came as Burmese marked the 12th anniversary of the detention of the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi has been imprisoned or kept under house arrest for 12 of the last 18 years. Protests were held in 12 cities around the world to mark the date, including London, Paris, Washington, Toronto, New York, Brasilia and Cape Town. Adam Cooper of the Peace for Burma Coalition was one of dozens to turn out in Bangkok, Thailand.

Adam Cooper: "Today marks the 12 years Aung San Suu Kyi has been in detention. So we’re calling for her release and for that of all political prisoners. We’re doing it outside of the Chinese embassy because we believe the Chinese government has the influence to bring about that change in Burma. They give it diplomatic support in the U.N. They’ve got an enormous amount of investment, economic and military aid. They are the organization that can bring about change there."

Earlier today, a Burmese officer said Suu Kyi had been allowed to leave her home for a brief meeting with an official appointed by the junta to deal with the opposition.

Bush Pledges to Maintain Cuba Embargo

President Bush has vowed to maintain the U.S. embargo on Cuba through the end of his presidency. In a speech at the State Department Wednesday, Bush called Cuba a "tropical gulag" that would be isolated until it removes its government.

President Bush: "America will have no part in giving oxygen to a criminal regime victimizing its own people. We will not support the old way with new faces, the old system held together by new chains. The operative word in our future dealings with Cuba is not 'stability.' The operative word is 'freedom.'"

Bush went on to announce a so-called "freedom fund" that would provide aid to Cuba if it changed leadership. Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque called Bush’s speech an "invocation to violence."

Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque: "Cuba understands these words as an irresponsible act, which gives an idea of the level of frustration, of desperation and of personal hatred of President Bush against Cuba. An invocation to violence, a call to the use of violence to defeat the Cuban Revolution."

Senate Rejects Citizenship for Undocumented Children

On Capitol Hill, the Senate has rejected a measure that would have granted permanent citizenship to undocumented workers’ children provided they complete two years of college, trade school or military service. The measure was defeated by a vote of 52 to 44.

House Dems to Reintroduce S-CHIP

In other news from Washington, House Democrats are expected to introduce a new version today of their $35 billion expansion to the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as S-CHIP. President Bush vetoed the first measure earlier this month. In a nod to win Republican support, the Democratic bill will emphasize that children of undocumented workers will not have access to the expanded healthcare program.

Activists Target Bank of America’s Coal Industry Ties

In North Carolina, environmental activists have draped a 50-foot banner denouncing Bank of America’s ties to the coal industry right across from its downtown Charlotte headquarters. The banner reads: "Bank of America: Funding Coal, Killing Communities." The Rainforest Action Network is calling on Bank of America to stop funding construction of new coal-fueled power plants and destructive mountaintop coal extraction.

Romney Twice Refers to bin Laden as "Barack Obama"

In campaign news, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney is facing a controversy after he twice referred to Osama bin Laden as Barack Obama. Speaking Tuesday in South Carolina, Romney was addressing Democratic hopeful John Edwards’ claim that the "war on terror" has been a "bumper sticker" for the Bush administration.

Mitt Romney: "Just look at what Osama–Barack Obama said just yesterday. Barack Obama, calling on radicals, jihadists of all the different types, to come together in Iraq. 'That is the battlefield. That's the central place.’"

In response, Obama’s campaign said: "Apparently, Mitt Romney can switch names just as casually as he switches positions."

Veteran Journalist Helen Thomas Questions White House on Iran, Israeli Nukes

And finally, the veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas questioned Press Secretary Dana Perino this week on the Bush administration’s latest threats to Iran and its support of Israel’s nuclear weapons program.

Helen Thomas: "Did the president authorize Cheney to threaten Iran with serious consequences — same language that we went into Iraq on?"

White House Press Secretary Dana Perino: "Helen, I don’t believe that the vice president threatened Iran, and I don’t think that he said anything different than what the president —"

Thomas: "He certainly did."

Perino: "— has said before."

Thomas: "'Serious consequences,' same language."

Perino: "The vice president didn’t say anything different from what the president said before. If you look at the vice president’s speech, he said we want to try to solve this diplomatically, but no president is going to take any option off the table. That’s exactly what the president has said before. So it wasn’t different."

Thomas: "He also threatened serious consequences. One other question: Is there any country in the Middle East that has nuclear weapons?"

White House Press Secretary Dana Perino: "Helen, we’ve talked about this before, and I’m going to —"

Thomas: "No, no, no, you’ve never answered it."

Perino: "I know."

Thomas: "How can you threaten a country that may have them, and know that another country does have them?"

Perino: "Helen, I’m going to let those countries speak for themselves."

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