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Tens of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets of Baghdad Thursday to protest the ongoing government crackdown on Shia fighters loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr. More than 130 people have been killed since Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched the crackdown on Sadr’s Mahdi Army on Tuesday. Earlier today, Maliki said he would extend a deadline for Mahdi fighters to lay down their arms until April 8th. As the fighting escalated, President Bush continued to sound off on the White House theme that the violence in Iraq marks a sign of US success.
President Bush: “This offensive builds on the security gains of the surge and demonstrates to the Iraqi people that their government is committed to protecting them. There is a strong commitment by the central government of Iraq to say that no one is above the law. This operation is going to take some time to complete. And the enemy, you know, will try to fill the TV screens with violence. But the ultimate result will be this: terrorists and extremists in Iraq will know they have no place in a free and democratic society."
Despite President Bush’s claims, reports on the ground say the US military is still waging much of the fighting. According to the Washington Post, an Iraqi battalion mostly stayed on the outskirts of Sadr City as US troops led the attacks. US armored vehicles supported by helicopters and drones were seen battling Mahdi forces. US gunfire was heard throughout Thursday’s clashes. Mahdi Army commanders corroborated the account, saying they have been mostly fighting US forces in Sadr City. One senior Mahdi Army member said, “If there were no Americans, there would be no fighting.” Meanwhile, in Basra, a Mahdi Army member said several Iraqi troops had laid down their arms rather than fight.
Mahdi Army member: "We are members of Mahdi Army. We thanked the soldiers who handed out their weapons and equipment. We thanked them, as they did not fight their brothers in the Mahdi Army. We want to tell Maliki that Basra is safe, so we ask him not to ignite the situation and the mounting number of casualties.”
Anonymous US officials say Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki decided to launch the anti-Sadr offensive without even consulting Washington. Administration officials are said to be struggling to understand the situation on the ground. The violence also continued to hit the US-controlled Green Zone. On Thursday, an American contractor was killed by one of twelve mortar rounds fired inside the zone’s heavily fortified walls.
Meanwhile, the death toll from Wednesday’s US bombing in the town of Hilla remains unknown. Witnesses have reported anywhere between ten and eighty casualties. A local resident said Hilla had not been used for insurgent activity.
Hilla resident: "What is the reason behind attacking us? We did not fight them or attack a police center or military base. We did not threaten anyone or participate in demonstrations. No military actions in our area."
In other Iraq news, a newly disclosed memo is warning of deplorable conditions at a prison in Fallujah. According to Consortium News, western Iraq US commander, Major General John Kelly, writes that the jail is so overcrowded and dirty that it does not meet “minimal levels of hygiene for human beings.” US Marines oversee operation of the prison. More than 900 prisoners are said to be housed at the jail, even though it’s supposed to hold just 100.
Meanwhile, the British government has admitted its forces tortured nine Iraqi prisoners in 2003. The admission could lead to compensation payments to the eight surviving prisoners and the family of the ninth, who died from beatings by British jailers. The slain victim, Iraqi hotel worker Baha Musa, suffered ninety-three injuries to his body. Musa was twenty-six years old and the father of two children. His wife had died just two months earlier of a brain tumor.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, more than three dozen Democratic congressional candidates have pledged to make an immediate Iraq withdrawal a centerpiece of their upcoming campaigns. The proposal, dubbed a “Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq,” would still keep troops in Iraq to guard the US embassy. But it differs from Democratic leaders and both presidential candidates in refusing to keep tens of thousands of troops in Iraq to train Iraqis or engage in so-called anti-terrorism operations.
A federal appeals court Thursday refused to overturn the conviction of imprisoned journalist and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal and rejected his call for a new trial. However, the long-awaited ruling said Abu-Jamal, who has been on death row for twenty-six years, deserves a new sentencing hearing because of flawed jury instructions. If he is re-sentenced, he will face either death or life in prison without parole. Abu-Jamal was convicted for killing a white police officer in 1982 following a controversial trial before a predominantly white jury.
In Alabama, former Governor Don Siegelman has been ordered released from jail while he appeals a conviction on corruption charges. Siegelman is currently serving a seven-year, four-month prison sentence on charges of bribery, conspiracy and mail fraud. Critics say he is the target of a political witch hunt. More than fifty former state attorney generals have called for a congressional investigation into Siegelman’s case. The release was ordered just hours after the House Judiciary Committee said it would call Siegelman to testify over whether his prosecution was politically motivated.
Meanwhile, in Puerto Rico, Governor Anibal Acevedo Vila has been charged with nineteen counts in a campaign finance probe, charges Acevedo says could be politically motivated. The indictment also names twelve others in Acevedo’s Popular Democratic Party. Acevedo has previously accused prosecutors of targeting him for his criticism of the 2005 FBI killing of Puerto Rican militant independence leader Filiberto Ojeda Ríos.
Israel is being accused of carrying out new extrajudicial killings of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. On Thursday, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said Israeli troops deliberately murdered four Palestinian militants in Bethlehem earlier this month. Sarit Michaeli of B’Tselem says Israeli troops made no effort to arrest the victims.
Sarit Michaeli: "According to the Israeli high court, it is not permissible to intentionally kill a Palestinian suspect if there is a possibility of using less extreme measures, such as arresting and trying him. Based on our research, it appears that the forces on this operation acted as if it was an assassination operation: they did not make any attempt to arrest the four suspects but immediately opened fire at them and, following that, confirmed the kill by firing at them again after the operation was over."
The March 12th attack broke a temporary five-day tacit truce between Israel and Palestinian militants.
In Pakistan, a visiting US delegation faced allegations Thursday of trying to pressure the new Pakistani government into supporting the so-called war on terror. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher arrived in Pakistan this week just before the swearing in of new Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani. The trip has been seen as a sign of US meddling, coming before Pakistan’s new cabinet has been named. Speaking in Karachi, Negroponte tried to dismiss the speculation.
Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte: "This suggestion that somehow Pakistan — that we expect Pakistan to carry out activities on our behalf and at our behest that are not in Pakistan’s interest is simply wrong. So, I think that anything that is done in this area has got to be in our mutual interest and judged to be of mutual benefit. And, of course, we will respect whatever decision is taken by the Pakistani authorities in that regard."
Negroponte spoke hours after the Washington Post revealed the US has increased military attacks against what it calls al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan amidst concerns Pakistan’s new government will try to limit future US operations. US military aircraft have struck three targets over the past two months, killing around forty-five foreign fighters near the Afghan border. Civilian casualties are unknown.
In Tibet, the Chinese government allowed in a group of foreign journalists Thursday, the first since unrest broke out earlier this month. In Lhasa, a group of monks stormed a Chinese government news briefing and accused China of lying about the situation on the ground.
Monk: "They just don’t believe us. They think we will come out and cause havoc — smash, destroy, rob, burn. We didn’t do anything like that; they’re falsely accusing us."
All monasteries in Lhasa remain closed amidst a large deployment of Chinese forces.
Back in the United States, the Pentagon has ordered a complete inventory of the nation’s nuclear arsenal in the wake of the recent admission four nuclear parts were mistakenly sent to Taiwan in 2006. It was the second major nuclear blunder for the military in the last six months. Last year, the Air Force unknowingly flew nuclear warheads between North Dakota and Louisiana.
And on the campaign trail, both Democratic candidates gave major addresses Thursday to tout their economic policies. In North Carolina, Senator Hillary Clinton called for a new federal program to retrain laid-off workers. Clinton said she would stand up to corporate interests.
Sen. Hillary Clinton: "The oil companies, the predatory student loan companies, the insurance companies and the drug companies have had seven years of a president who stands up for them. I will be a president who stands up for all of you. And it is past time that we set our priorities straight and level the playing field for the middle class and against the corporate special interests. It’s time for a president who is ready on day one to be the commander-in-chief of our economy."
Meanwhile, here in New York, Senator Barack Obama called for an additional $30 billion in federal economic aid and said he would increase regulation of financial markets. Obama also criticized Republican candidate John McCain for advocating a limited federal role in the economy.
Sen. Barack Obama: "John McCain recently announced his own plan, and unfortunately it amounts to little more than watching this crisis unfold. While this is consistent with Senator McCain’s determination to run for George Bush’s third term, it won’t help families that are suffering, and it won’t help lift our economy out of recession."