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In Iraq, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has ordered his Mahdi Army to stop fighting, six days after Iraqi forces attacked Sadr strongholds in Basra and Baghdad. In exchange, Sadr demanded the Iraqi government free imprisoned members of the Mahdi Army, end house raids and help bring back Shiites displaced from the recent fighting. Despite Sadr’s call, mortar attacks continued in Baghdad and Basra. As many as 350 Iraqis died in the past week of Shiite-on-Shiite fighting. Prior to Sadr’s surprise announcement, members of the Mahdi Army had threatened to keep fighting until the United States left Iraq.
Mahdi Army Member: "We will not put down our weapons until the occupiers leave Iraq and we receive orders from the honorable Muqtada al-Sadr that the occupiers have left Iraq completely. Then we will be ready to lay down our weapons. Until then, nothing happens. We receive orders from our commanders, and God willing, we will bring an end to the occupation. We are willing to sacrifice our lives and our families, everything. We will not back down until the last drop and the last moment. We will keep the city of Basra safe and secure."
The Iraqi military’s attempt to push the Mahdi Army out of Basra appears to have largely failed. According to CNN, Iraqi security forces control less than a quarter of the city. On Sunday, members of the Mahdi Army stormed the state television station in Basra. Images of Iraqi soldiers handing over their weapons were then broadcast.
As the Iraqi military struggled in Basra, the US military stepped up its direct involvement by carrying out multiple air raids. Iraqi police reported eight civilians were killed. Saturday when a US warplane strafed a home in the southern part of Basra.
Meanwhile, Turkish warplanes and artillery attacked northern Iraq. Turkish officials said fifteen Kurdish rebels died in the strikes on Thursday and Friday. Turkey has carried out several attacks in northern Iraq since mid-December with the direct support of the United States, which has been providing Turkey with real-time intelligence.
Arab leaders meeting in Damascus re-endorsed the 2002 Arab initiative for peace with Israel. The plan offers Israel peace and normal relations with all Arab countries in return for withdrawal from all territory captured in the 1967 war.
Arab League chief Amr Moussa: "We reiterate that the continuation by the Arab side to present the Arab peace initiative is tied to Israel executing its commitments in the framework of international resolutions to achieve peace in the region."
Successive Israeli governments have either ignored or rejected the offer, which would require Israel to dismantle settlements in the occupied West Bank. Meanwhile, Israel has agreed to remove about nine percent of its roadblocks in the West Bank. The announcement came during a visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Israel currently maintains more than 580 checkpoints and roadblocks in the West Bank, including thirty that have gone up since the Annapolis peace talks.
In campaign news, Senator Hillary Clinton has pledged to continue campaigning until the Democratic convention, unless there is a resolution to the Florida and Michigan primaries. In an interview with the Washington Post, Clinton said, "I have no intention of stopping until we finish what we started and until we see what happens in the next ten contests and until we resolve Florida and Michigan." Clinton went on to say, "And if we don’t resolve it, we’ll resolve it at the convention — that’s what credentials committees are for." When she was asked if there was a scenario in which she would drop out before the last primaries on June 3, Clinton said no. Senator Barack Obama responded by saying, "My attitude is that Senator Clinton can run as long as she wants." Meanwhile, Obama has picked up the endorsement of two more Democratic Senators: Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Pennsylvania holds its primary on April 22, Minnesota on May 6.
In economic news, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson plans to release a sweeping new plan to regulate the financial markets. The McClatchy Newspapers reports it’s the broadest reform of oversight of the markets since the aftermath of the Great Depression. According to press reports, Paulson’s plan will merge some federal bank regulators, weaken the agency that regulates the stock market and put hedge funds under some regulations. Paulson would also set up a new federal Mortgage Origination Commission to oversee mortgage finance. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve has announced it will make available another $100 billion in short-term loans to banks. The Fed has already provided $260 billion in loans to help keep the banks from going under.
Government officials are projecting the number of Americans receiving food stamps will reach a record 28 million later this year. Over the past year, more than forty states saw the number of food stamp recipients rise. A ten percent jump in food stamp recipients was recorded in six states: Arizona, Florida, Maryland, Nevada, North Dakota and Rhode Island. In West Virginia, one in six residents now receive food stamps.
Military prosecutors have dropped all charges against a Marine accused of killing twenty-four unarmed Iraqis, including women and children in Haditha in 2005. Lance Cpl Stephen Tatum became the fifth Haditha defendant out of eight to see charges dropped in a case that brought international condemnation on US troops in Iraq. Tatum initially faced charges of unpremeditated murder and negligent homicide. One Marine testified that Tatum told him to shoot a group of Iraqi women and children he found on a bed in a closed room. That Marine said he walked away but saw Tatum return and heard a loud noise, possibly gunfire or a grenade.
Zimbabwe’s main opposition leaders have claimed victory in an election that could unseat President Robert Mugabe who has ruled Zimbabwe for twenty-eight years. Full official elections results have not yet been released. Provisional findings, leaked to The Independent of London last night indicated that the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, had taken 191 of 210 parliamentary seats.
In Greece, pro-Tibet protesters attempted to disrupt a ceremony Saturday where Greece handed the Olympic flame to China. A group of activists tried to stop the flame from reaching the Athens stadium, where Beijing officials were waiting, but they were quickly removed by Greek police.
Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama has accused China of threatening Tibetan culture by allowing an increasing number of Chinese people to move into Tibet.
Dalai Lama: "These monastic institutions are very, very important for the preservation of the Tibetan culture. Now, a lot of restrictions on this… It’s actually some form of cultural genocide. These are intentionally. And monks and nuns — you see, now political sort of education, and also now, in recent years, they intensified."
On Friday, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called on China to hold talks with the Dalai Lama. Rudd made his comments during a meeting with President Bush in Washington.
Kevin Rudd: "I think it would be appropriate for the Chinese government to engage the Dalai Lama or his representatives in a formal set of discussions about future possibilities when it comes to internal arrangements within Tibet. We recognize China’s sovereignty over Tibet, but it is difficult, it’s complex, and it will certainly be matters which I will be raising when I visit China, myself, at the end of this visit abroad."
President Bush spoke after the Australian Prime Minister.
President Bush: "My views on Tibet? I couldn’t have said it better. And that’s exactly what I told Hu Jintao a couple of days ago, that it’s in his country’s interest that he sit down again with representatives of the Dalai Lama — he, not personally, but have representatives do so — and that we urge restraint. And I appreciate the Prime Minister’s view and advice on dealing with this issue."
In news from Washington, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson is expected to announce his resignation today. Jackson’s resignation comes as the country faces its worst housing crisis in years. Jackson has been under investigation by the Justice Department and the Housing Department’s inspector general in inquiries focusing on whether he gave lucrative housing contracts to friends.
Meanwhile, President Bush was met by jeers and cheers last night as he threw out the first pitch of the Washington Nationals baseball season. The Washington Nationals opened their season in a new $600 million stadium that was financed almost entirely by government subsidies.
In Long Island, New York, an eighty-year-old church deacon was removed from a shopping mall Saturday and arrested after he refused to remove a t-shirt protesting the Iraq war. Deacon Don Zirkel was handing out antiwar pamphlets when he was approached by security guards at the Smith Haven Mall. The guards placed him under citizen’s arrest after he refused orders to turn his t-shirt inside out. When the local police arrived they charged him with criminal trespassing and resisting arrest.