The so-called coalition of the willing in Iraq has shrunk even further. Two members announced withdrawals Wednesday, while a third says it’s considering following the lead. British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s announcement of a pending withdrawal of 1,600 British troops was followed by another announcement from Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen: "In August, the Danish battalion will be withdrawn and replaced by a number of helicopters, and at the same time we have decided to increase the number of Danish troops in Afghanistan."
Denmark has nearly 500 soldiers in Iraq under British command.
The announcement came as Lithuania said for the first time it’s seriously considering withdrawing its contingent from Iraq when its mission ends later this year. Denmark’s withdrawal will leave just 23 nations with a presence in Iraq — down from 49 when the war began.
Within hours of the troop withdrawal announcements, Pentagon officials said plans are in place to send more than 14,000 National Guard members back to Iraq next year. Most would be returning to Iraq having spent less time back home between deployments than ever before.
On a visit to Japan, Vice President Dick Cheney issued what some called a tacit criticism of Britain’s withdrawal.
Vice President Dick Cheney: "I want you to know that the American people will not support a policy of retreat. We want to complete the mission, we want to get it done right, and we want to return with honor."
Cheney was speaking aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier near Tokyo. From there, he headed to Australia, where protests had already begun ahead of his visit. In Sydney today, hundreds of people turned out for a march through the city center. Ten people were arrested when a crowd of more than 200 tried to converge on the U.S. Consulate.
In Iraq, at least three people were killed and 25 wounded Wednesday when a truck carrying chlorine exploded in Baghdad.
Meanwhile, another U.S. Black Hawk helicopter was shot down. The Pentagon says the nine-member crew escaped with no injuries.
Meanwhile, four Iraqi soldiers have been accused in the second sexual assault allegation against Iraqi forces this week. An Iraqi official says the soldiers raped a 50-year-old Sunni woman and then tried to rape her two daughters last week. This follows Monday’s report that two members of the Shiite-led police force raped a Sunni woman during the massive security crackdown on Baghdad. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki initially backed an investigation but later dismissed the charges and accused the woman of spreading propaganda.
The International Atomic Energy Agency is expected to report today Iran has failed to properly suspend uranium enrichment. A 60-day deadline expired on Wednesday. In Germany, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Iran to change course.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon: "Taking this opportunity, I would strongly urge the Iranian authorities to comply, first of all truly, with the Security Council resolution and continue to negotiate with the international community, particularly the European Union."
Iran has vowed to continue nuclear activities but says it’s open to unconditional talks. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice defended the Bush administration’s refusal to talk to Iran without a suspension of enrichment.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: "That is the entire purpose of having this pressure on the Iranian regime, so that the Iranian regime can make better choices about how to engage the international community. I would reiterate, as well, that in May of last year we offered, the Bush administration offered, to reverse 27 years of American policy to engage in the context of the six with our Iranian counterparts. I have said I would meet my Iranian counterpart anyplace, anywhere, anytime, should the Iranians decide to suspend."
In Italy, Prime Minister Romano Prodi resigned Wednesday after losing a parliamentary vote on his foreign policy. Dissident members of Prodi’s coalition voted to rebuke him over the expansion of a U.S. military base in Italy and his determination to keep Italian troops in Afghanistan. Prodi could still return to office if he’s able to form a new government.
In Norway, more than 40 countries are gathering today for an international conference on banning the use of cluster bombs.
Marc Joolen, general director of Belgium’s Handicap International: "Throughout the world, we know of 21 countries which are still polluted with cluster bomblets, and the estimate goes toward some 33 million undetonated bomblets that are still lying around."
The Oslo Conference on Cluster Munitions was spearheaded by the Norwegian government to draw attention to the thousands of deaths attributed to cluster bombs each year. Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, addressed the consequences from Israel’s attacks on Lebanon last summer.
Human Rights Watch Emergencies Director Peter Bouckaert: "Israel used as many cluster bombs in just a small area of southern Lebanon as the U.S. and the coalition forces used in all of Iraq during a much longer conflict. Southern Lebanon was literally sown with cluster bombs. After the war ended, there was really no safe place to go where you didn’t have to look down on the ground and worry about unexploded cluster bombs."
Meanwhile in Lebanon, the Bush administration is being accused today of preventing the rebuilding of damaged areas from Israel’s attack. On Tuesday, the Treasury Department branded a leading construction firm in southern Lebanon a terrorist group. The firm, Jihad al-Binaa, is linked to Hezbollah. Hezbollah says the company is independent and involved strictly in construction activities. In a statement, U.S. Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey said the firm is being targeted in part because it’s used "to attract popular support through the provision of civilian construction services." Hezbollah says the firm has restored at least 11,000 homes destroyed by Israeli attacks since 1993.
Back in the United States, jury deliberations began Wednesday in the perjury and obstruction trial of Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff Lewis Scooter Libby. Libby is accused of lying to investigators and a grand jury during the investigation of the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
In South Dakota, a new attempt to ban abortion has been defeated in the state Senate. On Wednesday, the Senate State Affairs Committee voted to reject a bill that would permit abortion only to prevent the death of a woman or in severely restricted cases of rape or incest. The eight-to-one vote marked the third victory in four years over efforts to ban abortion in South Dakota.
And there will be at least one notable seat change when the new White House press room opens in May. Veteran correspondent Helen Thomas will no longer be occupying her place in the front row. Thomas has covered every U.S. president dating back to John F. Kennedy. She’ll be moved to the second row to make way for an undetermined cable news channel. Thomas says she’s accepted the change, saying: "You have to submit to the will of the people, and apparently this is the will of my peers. It’s OK with me. I’ve had a good run in the front seat." Both CNN and Fox have expressed interest in moving up to the front row. If so, Fox will occupy both the front row of the press corps and the podium. White House Press Secretary Tony Snow is a former Fox anchor.