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The U.S. military has announced an across-the-board extension of tours of duty for all active soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Soldiers will be deployed for up to 15 months — three months longer than before. The move will affect more than 100,000 soldiers and bring about the military’s longest combat tours since the Second World War. The extension also marks the first time active-duty soldiers will have spent more time at war than at home. At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged the military is "stretched" in defending the extension.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates: "If the Army were quote-unquote 'broken,' you would not see these kinds of retention rates and our ability to recruit. I think that what this recognizes, though, is that our forces are stretched — there’s no question about that. And it is an attempt, above all, to provide — instead of dribbling out these notifications to units sort of just in time, when they’re deployed, what we’re trying to do here is provide some long-term predictability for the soldiers and their families about how long their deployments will be and how long they will be at home, and particularly guaranteeing that they will be home for a full 12 months."
Democrats say the extended tours could jeopardize military readiness and threaten the Army’s make-up as an all-volunteer force. Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin said: "Once again, the failures of this administration are being underwritten by our troops."
Meanwhile in Iraq, an explosion has been reported inside the Iraqi parliament building in Baghdad. There are early reports at least two Iraqi parliament members were killed and others injured. The blast took place inside a cafeteria where Iraqi parliamentarians were eating lunch. The parliament building is located inside Baghdad’s heavily guarded Green Zone.
In other Iraq news, at least 10 people were killed today when a suicide bomber struck a major bridge in Baghdad. The blast cut the steel structure in half and sent several cars plunging into the Tigris River.
The American Civil Liberties Union has released details of hundreds of compensation claims made by Iraqi and Afghan civilians against the U.S. military. The documents reveal the Pentagon has paid at least $32 million for noncombat-related killings, injuries and property damage. The actual total is expected to be far higher as only a fraction of cases were revealed. In one case, a civilian was awarded $13,000 after the military fired more than 100 rounds into his home, killing his mother, father and brother. The release of the documents marks the first public disclosure of details of compensation claims in Iraq and Afghanistan. The report comes as the International Committee of the Red Cross has warned Iraqi suffering is "immense" and only getting worse.
Red Cross Director Pierre Kraehenbuehl: "In very simple terms, I think everyone will find unbearable the continuous reports of the injured and killed, the endless, the daily statistics that we have to listen to, the 50 killed in one place in a car bomb attack, the 100 dead elsewhere in a series of sectarian reprisal attacks, the dozens and dozens killed in clashes between various armed groups and multinational forces."
An initial military probe has recommended a criminal investigation of several marines involved in the killing of Afghan civilians last month. Up to a dozen people were killed when U.S. troops opened fire on a busy highway. Local residents said the U.S. troops began shooting indiscriminately at civilian cars and pedestrians after a suicide car bomber and gunmen ambushed a U.S. convoy.
In Algeria, at least 24 people were killed in a bombing attack on a government building. It was the worst attack on the capital Algiers in a decade. The group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility.
Algerian Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem: "This is a crime and a cowardly act. It could only be carried out by cowards. At the time when the Algerian people are calling for national reconciliation is when they carry out these operation against Muslim people. This can only be described this as a crime."
An Iranian diplomat freed last week in Iraq has spoken about torture he says he suffered in U.S. military custody. Jalal Sharafi was released shortly before Iran freed the 15 captured British sailors and marines. On Wednesday, Sharafi held a news conference sitting in a wheelchair and showing scars he said were the result of his ordeal.
Jalal Sharafi: "The eight people kept me and tortured me. They bit my nose, ears, legs and my body."
The head of the BBC has announced he’s received word the kidnapped BBC reporter Alan Johnston is "safe and well." BBC director general Mark Thompson said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had relayed the assurance from contacts with Johnston’s captors. Johnston was kidnapped in Gaza four weeks ago. The BBC has announced it will team up with broadcasters including Sky News, CNN and Al Jazeera to simulcast a televised special on Johnston’s work.
In Cuba, relatives of victims of an airline bombing have spoken out about a U.S. court ruling that could see the attack’s main suspect freed on bail. Former CIA operative Luis Posada Carriles is wanted in Cuba and Venezuela for the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people. Posada has been detained in New Mexico not on terrorism charges, but for naturalization fraud and making false statements. The Bush administration has refused to extradite him.
Ileana Alfonso, a relative of a bombing victim who died in the 1976 attack: "We are not driven by a feeling of vengeance. We are just demanding the end to the impunity that has surrounded the Barbados crime for over 30 years. It’s unacceptable that bail be given to the man who does not regret anything of what he’s done and who challenges the entire world by saying that if he were born again, he would again fill innocent families with mourning."
Back in the United States, the Senate has voted to lift one of President Bush’s key restrictions on federal funding for stem cell research. The vote failed to attract the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto.
Oregon Republican Senator Gordon Smith: "I believe the U.S. Senate today, at the highest level so far and higher still to come, said that we stand with turning today’s medical mysteries into tomorrow’s medical miracles. I believe that that is the promise of stem cell research and all of its manifestations. This needs to happen. The sooner it happens the better. If we are to err at all in this business, let us err on the side of health and hope and healing."
The television network MSNBC has responded to the growing public and advertising pressure over the radio host Don Imus’ recent remarks about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. MSNBC will no longer simulcast Imus’s syndicated radio program "Imus in the Morning." MSNBC had initially announced Imus would be suspended for two weeks. The move came amidst increasing pressure from civil rights groups and declining support from advertisers. Companies including Staples, Procter & Gamble, Sprint and General Motors had all pulled their ads from Imus’ MSNBC broadcast. CBS Radio has also suspended Imus for two weeks. Protests are scheduled for today to pressure CBS to drop Imus permanently.
Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, a longtime morning DJ has been fired after he held a contest for listeners to call in and repeat Imus’ remarks on air. Gary Smith of Allentown’s WSBG-FM had told listeners to call in and say, "I’m a nappy-headed ho."
In North Carolina, prosecutors have dropped all charges against three members of the Duke lacrosse team who had been accused of rape last year. Attorney General Roy Cooper said prosecutors had rushed to judgment in the case.
The Bush administration is claiming to have lost dozens of emails sought in the congressional investigation into the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. The White House says the emails can’t be tracked because they were sent from private accounts intended for political activities rather than through government-issued email accounts. Democrats have accused White House senior adviser Karl Rove and other aides of using the private accounts to avoid leaving a paper trail in the attorney firings.
The CEO of Ford Motor Company has apologized for suggesting to reporters he had saved President Bush’s life. Alan Mulally had said he stopped the president from plugging an electrical cord into the hydrogen tank of a special Ford hybrid vehicle at the White House last week. Mulally now says the claim was a joke.