Senate Calls for Iraq Withdrawal in War-Funding Measure

The Senate has passed its version of the war-spending bill granting $100 billion dollars more for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while requiring the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq by this time next year. The final vote was fifty-one to forty seven. Republicans Gordon Smith of Oregon and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska voted with Democrats. Independent Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut voted with Republicans. The House passed a similar measure last week setting the deadline six months ahead to September 2008. At the White House, President Bush stood with Republican Congressmembers to repeat his pledge to veto any bill calling for a withdrawal from Iraq.

President Bush: "We stand united in saying loud and clear that when we’ve got a troop in harm’s way, we expect that troop to be fully funded; and we’ve got commanders making tough decisions on the ground, we expect there to be no strings on our commanders; and that we expect the Congress to be wise about how they spend the people’s money."

Ex-Chief of Staff Disputes Gonzales’ Claims on Fired Attorneys

The former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has disputed Gonzales’ claim to have had little part in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, D. Kyle Sampson said he and Gonzales held at least five discussions on the firings and that Gonzales was aware of who was considered for dismissal. Sampson said the decision to fire the attorneys ultimately rested with Gonzales and former White House counsel Harriet Miers. Sampson was asked by Republican Senator Arlen Specter about Gonzales’ denial of playing a major role.

Kyle Sampson: "I don’t think the attorney general’s statement that he was not involved in any discussions about U.S. attorney removals is accurate."

Sen. Arlen Specter: "Is what, is accurate?"

Kyle Sampson: "I don’t think it’s accurate."

Sampson: New Mexico Attorney Fired Following Rove Complaint

Sampson also gave new details on the firing of New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias. He said Iglesisas was added to the dismissal list only after presidential adviser Karl Rove complained about his handling of voter fraud cases.

New York Senator Charles Schumer: "In the last seven weeks, we’ve learned that Attorney General Gonzales was personally involved in the firing plan, after being told that he wasn’t. We’ve learned that the White House was involved, involved, after being told that it wasn’t; we’ve learned that Karl Rove was involved, after being told that he wasn’t. And we have learned that political considerations were very important, after being told that they weren’t."

The White House declined to offer a concerted response to Sampson’s testimony and said Gonzales would respond himself. But Gonzales won’t have to publicly comment for another three weeks when he’s slated to testify before Congress. Sampson’s testimony came a day after President Bush joked about the attorney scandal at the Radio & Television Correspondent’s Association dinner in Washington.

President Bush: "We really blew the way we let those attorneys go. You know you’ve botched it when people sympathize with lawyers."

At Least 100 Killed in Iraq Violence

In Iraq, at least one hundred people were killed and two hundred wounded in one of the worst days of violence Iraq has seen in weeks. At least seventy died in a series of attacks in Baghdad. The violence comes as the new U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, was sworn-in at a ceremony in the Green Zone.

US Ambassador Ryan Crocker: "It was very important to me to have this ceremony here, not just in the interest of time, but because here in Iraq, America faces its most critical foreign policy challenge."

Crocker’s predecessor Zalmay Khalilzad has been nominated US ambassador to the UN.

Arab League Renews Peace Offer to Israel

The Arab league has officially renewed its five-year old peace offer to Israel. The deal would grant Israel full recognition in return for its withdrawal from Palestinian land occupied in the 1967 war and the creation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Arab leaders had discussed insisting on the return of all Palestinian refugees but settled on calling for a "just solution" to their plight. Israel rejected the deal five years ago and has continued settlement activity in the West Bank. Israel now says the offer has positive elements but has ruled out its key demand for the full return of the Occupied Territories.

Arab League Chief Amr Moussa: "We affirm a just and comprehensive peace as a strategic option for the Arab nation in accordance with the Arab peace initiative that is the right path to a peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, in accordance with international low and based on land-for-peace."

Britain Dismisses Iran Plan to Air Confession from Captured Sailor

Iran has announced plans to air what it calls a confession by one of the British sailors captured last week in what Iran says were Iranian waters. Iran also released a letter in which the British sailor Faye Turney calls for a withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. Britain says the statements were co-erced. Meanwhile the UN Security Council passed a measure expressing "grave concern" over Iran’s capture of the sailors and calling for a resolution to the dispute. The British government had pushed for a full condemnation.

Iran Consul Accuses British Troops of Siege

The developments come as the Iranian consul in the Iraqi city of Basra has accused British troops of surrounding the Iranian consulate and firing shots.

Mohammed Reza Baghban: "In my opinion, if the British forces are taking these actions against the Islamic Republic of Iran (in retaliation to) the recent capture of the British soldiers, this incident will not be advantageous in any way."

US Denies Gulf Exercise a Provocation

The British military has denied the consul’s charges. Meanwhile Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns dismissed allegations the Pentagon’s naval exercise in the Gulf this week was intended to provoke Iran.

Nicholas Burns: "We do have two carrier battle groups in the Gulf. They are not there to provoke any kind of conflict with Iran. We’ve had American naval forces in the Gulf since 1949 but the message is we have 170,000 troops in Iraq, we have obvious security interest throughout the Gulf region. The Gulf is not an Iranian lake. It is an international waterway we will protect as we have since the late 1940’s the right of companies and nations to use the Gulf for international commerce and for it to be a peaceful region and not a violent region."

30 Arrested in ACT Up Anniversary March

Here in New York, hundreds of people rallied on Wall Street Thursday to mark the twentieth anniversary of ACT UP — the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. Demonstrators called for health care reform including universal coverage and controls on drug pricing. At least thirty people were arrested in a die-in around the bull statue near Bowling Green. A giant banner read: 'Health Care for All.'

Act Up New York co-founder Eric Sawyer: "It is extremely painful for me to remember to 100’s of my colleagues from ACT-UP who did not survive for 20 years to be here today but I felt their presence and I know that those of us who have survived are here to try to bring their messages to life. It was really empowering to see 100’s of people turn out for our launching a campaign for single payer health care and drug pricing controls."

Giuliani Acknowledges Hearing of Kerik Mob Ties

The New York Times is reporting former New York mayor and Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani has given grand jury testimony that differs from what he previously said about his knowledge of former police commissioner Bernard Kerik. Giuliani claimed he had no knowledge of Kerik’s links to a company accused of mob ties when Giualiani supported his bid for police commissioner and later as head of homeland security. But in the newly-revealed testimony, Giuliani said his former chief investigator told him he had briefed Giuliani on some aspects of the case. Giuliani says he does not remember the briefing but is not disputing his investigator’s recollection. Kerik pleaded guilty last year to letting the company conduct more than one hundred thousand dollars in free renovations to his Bronx apartment.

Family Planning Appointee Resigns

A controversial appointee to oversee family-planning programs at the Department of Health and Human Services has resigned. Erick Keroack had come under criticism as the former head of a medical organization that discourages contraception and advocates abstinence until marriage. On Thursday, Keorack told his staff he was stepping down because Medicaid officials had taken legal action against his private medical practice in Massachusetts. No further details were released. Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said: "It’s a good day for women’s health. … The Bush administration must replace Keroack with a legitimate, mainstream public health expert who supports family planning and access to birth control."

Probe: Senior Interior Official Interfered in Endangered Species Studies

And an internal investigation at the Interior Department has concluded a top-level senior official repeatedly interfered to effect policies in favor of private landowners. Julie MacDonald — the deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks — is said to have altered scientific reports to minimize endangered species protections and disclosed confidential information to private groups seeking to change policy decisions.

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