New figures from the Pentagon show the U.S. carried out fives times as many aerial bombings in Iraq last year as it did in 2006. According to the Washington Post, U.S. forces dropped more than 1,400 bombs — an average of nearly four a day. The 2006 total was 229 bombs, an average of four per week. The UN estimates at least two hundred civilians were killed in U.S. bombings from April until the end of the year. The figures come as the U.S. continues an extensive bombing campaign over Arab Jabour south of Baghdad. In one of the largest strikes since the 2003 invasion, U.S. warplanes dropped 40,000 pounds of bombs in a ten-minute span one week ago. Military experts are predicting an increase in the bombing, should the U.S. draw down its forces in Iraq. Airstrikes are also at record levels in Afghanistan. NATO bombings topped 3,500 last year, doubling the number for 2006.
The Justice Department is downplaying expectations of criminal prosecutions in last September’s killings of seventeen Iraqi civilians by the private military firm Blackwater Worldwide. The New York Times reports the Justice Department told lawmakers in a private briefing last month that it may not file any charges against Blackwater or the individual guards. Justice Department officials said they face major legal obstacles. Four months after the shooting and nearly five years into the Iraq invasion, it remains unclear whether Blackwater is subjected to any legal jurisdiction for its operations in Iraq. State Department investigators also granted Blackwater guards immunity in return for their testimony in the shooting’s immediate aftermath. In a new report, the group Human Rights First blames the lack of prosecutions on a lack of political will rather than legal uncertainty. The report says: “The U.S. government’s reaction to the shootings has been characterized by confusion, defensiveness, a multiplicity of uncoordinated ad hoc investigations, and interagency finger-pointing. These failures underscored the Justice Department’s unwillingness or inability to systematically investigate and prosecute allegations of serious violent crimes.” Blackwater is being sued in a civil case brought on behalf of some of the victims’ families.
Meanwhile, Democracy Now! has learned that another Western contractor is being sued for the fatal shooting of an Iraqi civilian. Lawyers for the family of Marani Awanis Mannok have filed suit against the contractor RTI International and the private military firm Unity Resources Group. The suit alleges Unity Resources guards shot and killed Manook and another Iraqi woman, Genevia Jalal Antranick, last October. Manook was the mother of three children. The suit calls the killings a “senseless slaughter… in a pattern of egregious misconduct.” The North Carolina-based RTI has hired Unity Resources to provide security for its operations in Iraq. RTI has received hundreds of millions in U.S. government contracts for its Iraq work.
In Israel and the Occupied Territories, Israel is continuing its latest assault on the Gaza Strip, while Palestinian militants intensify rocket fire on Israeli towns. Three Palestinian civilians, including a thirteen-year-old were killed Wednesday when an Israeli missile hit their car. Israel called the attack an "error" and said it was targeting militants. The killings came one day after nineteen Palestinians lost their lives — the highest single-day Palestinian death toll in more than a year. Meanwhile, Palestinian rockets continue to hit nearby Israeli towns. Israel says eighteen rockets landed in Israel today, causing two slight injuries. Israel has continued attacks on Gaza after rejecting a truce offer from Hamas last month. Speaking from Syria, Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal said Israel was sabotaging any chances of a ceasefire.
Khaled Meshaal: "What you are doing will prevent you from any movement you may bet on. No exchange involving Gilad Shalit and no ceasefire. This Palestinian blood will shorten the life of Israel and will not bring you security or
peace. There is no peace with killers and no security with criminals."
The Gaza attacks also come just days after President Bush visited the region to promote U.S.-backed talks. Earlier today, Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat said negotiations with Israel are pointless so long as the assault on Gaza continues. Meanwhile, President Bush was in Egypt Wednesday to conclude his Middle East tour. Despite okaying the continued Israeli raids on Gaza and expanded settlements in the West Bank, Bush said the world should be encouraged at the prospects for peace because he is optimistic.
President Bush: "When I say I’m coming back to stay engaged, I mean it. And when I say I’m optimistic we can get a deal done, I mean what I’m saying."
Bush’s trip to Egypt lasted just four hours. Hundreds of Egyptian lawyers gathered in Cairo to protest his visit. The Washington Post reports of growing resentment from Arab pro-democracy activists who say Bush has abandoned previous rhetorical promises to support democracy efforts in the Middle East. Bush made no public criticism of Saudi Arabia or Egypt’s crackdown on dissidents during his trip.
In Kenya, police have opened fire on opposition protests against a disputed election for the second straight day. Police fire killed at least four demonstrators on Wednesday. More than 600 people have died and hundreds of thousands have been displaced since President Mwai Kibaki beat out challenger Raila Odinga last month in a highly contested race.
The Czech Republic has announced it’s close to signing the opening agreements on hosting the Bush administration’s proposed European missile shield. The administration calls the shield a defense measure against a potential attack from Iran, but it’s widely seen as a first-strike weapon. Public opinion polls continue to show majority opposition to the missile shield in the Czech Republic and Poland, the other planned host. The Polish government is asking the U.S. to finance Poland’s own military air expansion in return for its involvement.
In the South Ocean, two anti-whaling activists have been captured and detained aboard a Japanese whaling vessel. The activists are members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. They were held after boarding the Japanese ship to deliver a letter protesting Japan’s whaling practices. Australia’s Federal Court has ordered Japan to stop hunting and killing whales anywhere around its coastline or off Australian Antarctic territory. Sea Shepherd director Jonny Vafic said the activists are being held in virtual prison-like conditions.
Jonny Vafic: "They have basically, have been tied to the rails for several hours in the freezing cold, and they were taken down and locked into a room."
Japanese whaling authorities say the activists had tried to vandalize the ship. The Australian government is calling on Japan to secure the pair’s release.
In campaign news, Senator Barack Obama is coming under criticism for appearing to slight the civil rights and feminist movements while expressing admiration for former President Ronald Reagan. In an interview with the editorial board of the Reno Gazette, Obama lauded Reagan’s challenge to what Obama called the “excesses” of the 1960s and 1970s.
Senator Barack Obama: “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path, because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown, but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people — he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing."
Obama did not specify what he believes those “excesses” were. But Reagan is widely credited with leading a rightwing backlash against the gains of the civil rights and feminist movements that preceded his 1980 election.
The Bush administration is claiming to have used “recycled” tapes to record email messages during its first three years in office. The White House says the practice could mean some correspondences have been lost because of an overlap in the tape use. The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the National Security Archive have filed suit over what they say are millions of missing White House email messages that should be on the public record.
In Virginia, a state measure has been introduced that would allow employers to fire workers and deny them unemployment benefits if they don’t speak English on the job. Bill sponsor State Senator Ken Cuccinelli says the bill is aimed at workers who must interact with the public, such as sales clerks and receptionists. Immigrant rights activists say the bill could lead to firings of workers who speak any language other than English during a break or over the phone to a relative.
The number of abortions performed in the U.S. has dropped to its lowest level in thirty years. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 1.2 million abortions were performed in 2005.
The Bush administration has released $450 million in emergency money to help low-income families cover rising heating costs this winter. Despite the new funds, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program says it only has enough money to cover 16 percent of the 38 million eligible low-income households.
And Milton Wolff, the last commander of American volunteers who fought against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War, has died. More than 2,700 Americans went to Spain in defiance of the U.S. government to serve in what they called the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Wolff was twenty-two years old when he became the brigade’s last commander. He went on to become active in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. In the 1980s Wolff personally delivered ambulances to the Nicaraguan government when the Reagan administration was trying to overthrow it. Milton Wolff died this week at the age of ninety-two.