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The US-led NATO occupation force is being accused of another mass killing of civilians in Afghanistan. Local officials in the town of Lashkar Gah say between twenty-five to thirty people were killed in a NATO air strike on Thursday. The attack came one day after NATO commanders said they would implement a new policy for reducing air attacks to avoid civilian casualties. Residents said at least eighteen bodies were pulled from the rubble, with another twelve said to still be buried underneath. A BBC correspondent reported seeing eighteen bodies, ranging from six months to fifteen years old. NATO has confirmed a strike took place but isn’t acknowledging causing casualties. It took nearly two months for the Pentagon to acknowledge a mass killing of Afghan civilians in an air strike in August, and even then the US has acknowledged killing thirty civilians while residents claim it was around ninety.
The Bush administration has begun prepping senior lawmakers for approval of a draft agreement on keeping US troops in Iraq. On Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice briefed senior lawmakers on the details. The proposed draft agreement calls for US troops to leave Iraqi cities by next June and completely withdraw from Iraq by 2012. US soldiers would retain immunity from prosecution for all actions committed in combat. The US would retain all jurisdictions over its troops’ actions unless for actions committed “off-duty” and away from US bases. Critics have dismissed the provision because US troops seldom leave their bases in Iraq unless on authorized missions.
The FBI is launching a voter fraud investigation into the community organizing group ACORN. The McCain campaign has accused ACORN of fraud in spearheading one of the most successful voter registration efforts in US history. Over the past year and a half, ACORN has helped sign up more than a million mostly young, mostly poor people to vote. Registration forms submitted by ACORN campaigners in a few areas around the country have been found to contain false or fraudulent names. ACORN officials have condemned the cases and insist they only amount to a tiny percentage of their registered voters. In an interview with the website Talking Points Memo, former New Mexico federal prosecutor David Iglesias criticized the probe, calling it “a scare tactic.” Iglesias was one of prosecutors dismissed in the Bush administration’s attorney firings scandal. He was let go in part because of his refusal to pursue voter fraud cases sought by Republicans.
On the campaign trail, both major candidates shared the same stage Thursday, one night after their third and final debate. Senators Barack Obama and John McCain appeared at the annual Al Smith fundraiser, which has drawn presidential candidates in all but two elections since 1945. Obama joked about McCain’s apparent reluctance to discuss the economy.
Sen. Barack Obama: "Of course, I am especially honored to be here tonight with my distinguished opponent, Senator John McCain. I think it is a tribute to American democracy that, with two weeks left in a hard-fought election, the two of us could come together and sit down at the same dinner table without preconditions. Now recently, one of John’s top advisers told the Daily News that if we keep talking about the economy, McCain’s going to lose. So tonight I’d like to talk about the economy."
McCain, meanwhile, invoked his own mention of Joe the Plumber, real name Joe Wurzelbacher, an Ohio resident who questioned Obama about whether his tax plan would threaten small businesses. Wurzelbacher came up more than two dozen times in Wednesday night’s debate.
Sen. John McCain: "And this is a very distinguished and influential audience and as good a place as any to make a major announcement. Events are moving fast in my campaign and, yes, it’s true that this morning I’ve dismissed my entire team of senior advisers. All of their positions will now be held by a man named Joe the Plumber."
Several revelations have come out about “Joe the Plumber” since McCain invoked his name. The Toledo Blade has revealed Wurzelbacher isn’t actually a registered plumber. Wurzelbacher’s company doesn’t have a state plumbing license, and he does not a own license himself. That means he would be unable to operate as a plumber in Ohio. Questions have also been raised if Wurzelbacher is even a registered voter.
In Colombia, President Alvaro Uribe is facing new allegations of trying to block several probes of his allies’ ties to right-wing death squads. More than sixty members of Congress are under investigation for using the paramilitaries to intimidate voters. Uribe has proposed removing the court’s investigative authority. In Bogota, Human Rights Watch Americas director Jose Miguel Vivanco accused Uribe of obstructing justice.
Jose Miguel Vivanco: "The government of President Alvaro Uribe is putting at risk the attempts to investigate and judge the crimes committed by paramilitaries and their accomplices in Colombia. One may reach the conclusion that there has been a sort of integral campaign by the government of President Uribe to invalidate and discredit the Supreme Court, and occasionally the prosecutor’s office, when it investigates themes that are sensitive to the government."
The allegations come amidst warnings from indigenous groups they face growing repression, mostly in the southwestern Cauca province. Earlier this week, activists said police fired into a large crowd of some 12,000 people taking part in a national mobilization for indigenous rights. There are fears Colombian forces are preparing for a wider armed crackdown on indigenous groups. Colombia is a staunch US ally, receiving the highest amount of US aid in the Western Hemisphere.
The unrest comes as President Bush has signed a one-year trade extension for Colombia along with Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. Bush is seeking broader congressional approval of a so-called free trade deal with Colombia. But the agreement has been held up in part over human rights concerns, including a spate of killings of Colombian union leaders. Despite extending Bolivian trade, Bush is still seeking congressional approval for removing its special trade status.
President Bush: “The Andean Trade Preference Act allows us to suspend trade preferences with countries that do not live up to their promises. And unfortunately, Bolivia has failed to cooperate with the United States on important efforts to fight drug trafficking. So, sadly, I have proposed to suspend Bolivia’s trade preferences until it fulfills its obligations.”
Critics have denounced the administration’s allegations as part of a campaign to destabilize the government of Bolivian President Evo Morales.
In the Occupied Territories, funerals were held for two Palestinian civilians killed in separate attacks by Israeli troops in the West Bank. The victims were twenty and twenty-one years old. They were demonstrating in separate protests against the killing of an eighteen-year-old Palestinian the day before. Meanwhile, Palestinian farmers taking part in the annual olive harvest are suffering ongoing attacks from West Bank Jewish settlers. Palestinian farmer Hamdalla Afana said the Israeli military has ignored his pleas.
Hamdalla Afana: "We came to pick up our olives, as every year, and we have a permit. I saw the (Jewish) settlers while they were running toward us, so we ran. They started to throw stones, and directly I ran to the military base just fifty meters away from us. I told them that the settlers are throwing stones and breaking my car, but the soldiers kicked me away from the area."
In Pakistan, at least six people are reportedly dead in the latest missile attack from a US drone. The strike took place in South Waziristan near the Afghan border.
Oil has dropped below $70 a barrel for the first time in fourteen months. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, OPEC, is calling for an emergency meeting amidst predictions the price could fall to $50 before the end of the year.
In other economic news, US mortgage rates have seen a major jump following the Wall Street bailout. The mortgage giant Freddie Mac reports thirty-year rates are up half a percentage point since last week. Economists are warning the jump could offset any potential gains to the housing market by discouraging prospective home buyers.
Here in New York, hundreds of people rallied across from the New York Stock Exchange Thursday against the Wall Street bailout. Amidst signs reading “Jail Time for Corporate Crime,” independent presidential candidate and longtime consumer advocate Ralph Nader singled out New York Stock Exchange CEO Duncan Niederauer.
Ralph Nader: "And so, I say that Wall Street is the wall that locks the American people out of their own government. It’s the wall that locks the American people from the wealth they own but do not control. Mr. Niederauer, take down that flag that your bosses have so disgraced and defiled."
Protester Richard Tabnik also criticized the bailout.
Richard Tabnik: "The bailout is going to take money from the poor and give it to the rich, which is basically what Reagonomics is: steal from the poor and give to the rich. I would say, water the roots, not the leaves. Give the money to people, and give them a chance for an education, for homes, and these people who have really stolen everything, let them suffer the consequences."
And two American companies are facing new allegations of fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan. The House Oversight Committee says an oil contractor named the International Oil Trading Company has made tens of millions of dollars over the last four years by overcharging for fuel deliveries to American bases in Iraq. The company’s owner, Harry Sargeant, is the chair of the Florida Republican Party and a major fundraiser for Senator John McCain. And the private military company DynCorp has been hit with a federal lawsuit accusing it of threatening workers and stealing equipment from an Afghan subcontractor. The subcontractor says DynCorp fired it without notice and later sent armed guards to dismiss its workers and seize more than two million dollars in materials.