US to Fund, Train Afghan Militias

More details have been revealed on the US plan to prop up local militias fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. The New York Times reports, in addition to funding, the militia groups will also receive US weapons and military training. The plan is based on a similar model used in Iraq. Afghans are warning the effort will increase tensions between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns and could lead to full-scale civil war.

Iraq Sets July 2009 Withdrawal Date for Non-US Troops

In Iraq, the parliament has approved a measure setting a timeline for the withdrawal of non-US troops. The so-called "coalition of the willing" will officially come to an end next July, when British troops and the other remaining foreign contingents are forced to leave. Iraq’s deputy parliamentary speaker announced the measure’s approval.

Sheikh Khalid al-Attiya: "Decision No. 2008, the parliament has decided in its thirty-seventh session, which is held on December 23rd, 2008, first, authorizing the government to take all necessary steps to achieve the following: one, full pullout of the United Kingdom, northern Ireland, Australia, Romania, Estonia, El Salvador and NATO troops from Iraq by July 31st, 2009."

In other Iraq news, police have released twenty-four Interior Ministry officials who were swept up in a government raid last week. The suspects had been accused of seeking to rebuild Saddam Hussein’s Baathist movement.

Gaza Rocket Fire Follows Israeli Killing of 3 Palestinians

In Israel and the Occupied Territories, three Palestinians were killed Tuesday in an Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip. Earlier today, Palestinian militants began firing rockets at Israel in what Hamas called a retaliatory strike. The rockets have landed near Israeli towns with no reported injuries. A six-month ceasefire between Israel and Hamas expired last week. Hamas spokesperson Mahmoud al-Zahar said the violence will continue so long as Israel maintains its economic and humanitarian blockade.

Mahmoud al-Zahar: "Practically, they closed the border. They violated the agreement through the Egyptian side, so we are putting the responsibility on the other side. And now they started to attack our people. We are running self-resistance by all means."

Report: Cheney Admitted Wider Role in Plame Leak

Back in the United States, Vice President Dick Cheney has reportedly admitted to playing a greater role in the Valerie Plame leak scandal than previously known. Investigative journalist Murray Waas reports Cheney told federal investigators he rewrote White House talking points in a way that made it more likely the news media would uncover Plame’s identity as a covert CIA agent. The talking points emphasized Plame’s role in arranging her husband Joe Wilson’s fact-finding trip to Africa. Wilson later publicly revealed he found no evidence of the Bush administration’s pre-war claim Saddam Hussein sought to acquire uranium from Niger. According to Waas, investigators concluded Cheney failed to plausibly explain why he highlighted Plame’s role without thinking her identity would be revealed.

Obama: No Improper Contact with Blagojevich

President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team says an internal review has found no improper contacts with the office of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Blagojevich was indicted earlier this month on corruption charges, including trying to sell off Obama’s vacant Senate seat. Obama attorney Greg Craig said contact with the Illinois governor’s office was slight.

Greg Craig: "The report contains the findings, and what I found was that the President-elect’s statement that he had no contact or communication with Governor Blagojevich or members of his staff is accurate, and only one member of the transition staff had any such contacts, and that was Rahm Emanuel, who had a couple of conversations with the Governor and about four conversations with the Governor’s chief of staff."

Housing Starts at Lowest Level in 50 Years

The real estate market continues to struggle. Newly released figures show the median price of a home fell 13 percent last month, reaching its lowest point since 2004. Overall, home sales were down 13 percent. Housing starts are also on the decline, dropping last month to their lowest point on record in fifty years.

AmEx to Receive $3.39B Bailout Aid

The credit card giant American Express has become the latest major financial institution to receive taxpayer bailout money. American Express says it will take a more than $3 billion capital injection from the US Treasury.

Wal-Mart Agrees to $352M Settlement in Wage Lawsuits

The retail giant Wal-Mart has announced what’s being called the largest-ever settlement over employee wage disputes. Wal-Mart says it will pay at least $352 million to settle dozens of lawsuits alleging it forced employees to work extra hours without pay. The cases were spread out across forty-two states. Twelve ongoing lawsuits make similar allegations.

Starr to Defend Prop. 8

In California, former special prosecutor Kenneth Starr has signed on to defend the gay marriage ban approved in Proposition 8. Starr gained notoriety in the 1990s when he led the impeachment investigation against President Bill Clinton. California Attorney General Jerry Brown has asked the state Supreme Court to overturn Proposition 8, saying the voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage violates basic constitutional rights. The Proposition 8 Legal Defense Fund says Starr will argue the case on its behalf in state court.

Lesbian Woman Raped, Beaten in Anti-Gay Hate Crime

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, police say a Bay Area woman has been beaten and raped by four men in an anti-gay hate crime. The victim was attacked on December 13th as she left her car, which bore a gay pride sticker. She was struck with a blunt object, raped multiple times and left naked outside an abandoned apartment building. Gay rights advocates have warned the approval of measures like Proposition 8 could be indirectly encouraging physical attacks by reinforcing homophobic attitudes.

Nixon to Kissinger: “Just Bomb the Hell Out of Them”

And the National Security Archive has released an online volume of transcripts from some 15,000 phone calls made by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The transcripts date from 1969 to 1977. Kissinger played a pivotal role in the escalation of the US attack on Vietnam, the bombing of Cambodia and Laos, the backing of the genocidal Indonesian invasion of East Timor, and the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Chilean President Salvador Allende. In a newly released transcript from 1972, Kissinger informs President Richard Nixon the US has dropped “a million pounds of bombs” on North Vietnam. Nixon responds, “That shock treatment [is] cracking them. I tell you the thing to do is pour it in there every place we can…just bomb the hell out of them." In an apparent reference to antiwar sentiment in the US, Kissinger says the US will ultimately achieve its objectives in Vietnam, saying, “If as a country we keep our nerves, we are going to make it.” Previously released transcripts have revealed Kissinger was responsible for giving orders that critics have called genocidal. In 1970, Kissinger relayed Nixon’s order to expand the bombing of Cambodia, saying, “A massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies on anything that moves.”

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