Iraq’s sectarian conflict has escalated with the killing of a top aide to Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The aide, Riyadh al-Nouri, was killed Friday in Najaf. No group has claimed responsibility. Al-Nouri was Sadr’s top negotiator with the Iraqi government and also his brother-in-law. Hundreds of Sadr followers crowded Najaf’s cemetery on Saturday, blaming the US for al-Nouri’s death.
Meanwhile, US and Iraqi forces continue their attacks on Shiite fighters in the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City. Witnesses say a series of clashes this weekend marked the heaviest fighting since the crackdown began late last month. In Baghdad Saturday, hundreds of demonstrators turned out in Baghdad to protest the US occupation. Sheikh Abu Talib al-Amin of the Iraqi Farmers Organization condemned ongoing attacks on Iraqi civilians.
Sheikh Abu Talib al-Amin: "The Iraqi people were expecting good things and reformation when the US forces invaded Iraq. We thought that they would solve all the troubles that we suffered from. Now, we can see different things. When they impose a blockade on an area, killing its people, that means that they are not going to give a chance to oppressed people to express their opinions."
Meanwhile, the Iraqi government says it’s fired some 1,300 soldiers and police officers who refused to take part in last month’s crackdown on Shia militants in Basra. The deserters included more than 100 officers, among them the commander and deputy commander of an entire brigade.
Elsewhere in Iraq, a US soldier was killed in Baghdad Saturday, capping the deadliest week for US troops in Iraq this year. Nineteen service members were killed since last Sunday.
The Bush administration has escalated its rhetoric against Iran. This weekend senior US officials told the Washington Post that Iran now poses the primary threat to Iraq. The officials said Iran has increased its support for Shia militias battling US and Iraqi troops. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has previously ridiculed US allegations of Iranian interference in Iraq, saying it’s the US that invaded and continues to occupy the country.
In other Iraq news, Iraq’s oil ministry has released a list of thirty-five oil companies it says have qualified for a chance to bid on future contracts. The list includes British Petroleum, Chevron Corp., Exxon Mobil Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell.
President Bush has confirmed he was aware top administration officials personally discussed and approved how top suspects in the so-called war on terror would be interrogated by the CIA. Last week, ABC News revealed a Principals Committee on the National Security Council agreed on controversial interrogation techniques, including physical assault, sleep deprivation and waterboarding. The officials involved included Vice President Cheney, then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell. In an interview with ABC News Friday, Bush said he had approved the meetings but did not take part. He said, “We started to connect the dots, in order to protect the American people. And yes, I’m aware our national security team met on this issue. And I approved.” In a separate interview, Powell said he could not remember the details of the meetings. The American Civil Liberties Union is calling on Congress to appoint an independent prosecutor. ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said, “It is a very sad day when the President of the United States subverts the Constitution, the rule of law and American values of justice.”
A leading human rights group has issued new allegations over the plight of US military prisoners in Afghanistan. Human Rights First says dozens of prisoners transferred from US military to the Afghan government have been subjected to unfair trials based almost entirely on allegations from US officials. The prisoners’ attorneys have been unable to call witnesses or conduct cross-examinations. The trials have lasted between thirty minutes to one hour, resulting in sentences ranging from three to twenty years.
In Venezuela, tens thousands of people gathered in Caracas Sunday to mark the sixth anniversary of the US-backed coup against President Hugo Chavez. Chavez was briefly overthrown by a group of business and military leaders. He returned to the National Palace following a groundswell of protest and a counter-revolt by loyal soldiers. On Sunday, Chavez again addressed supporters outside the Palace.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez: "Six years ago, not only was Venezuela’s destiny at stake but, like Fidel Castro believed, the destiny of all of Latin America was at stake."
Chavez also announced a new shipment of food aid to Haiti, which he said has suffered under “global capitalism.”
Chavez: "In the name of Venezuela, I have decided to send 200 tons of food to the people of Haiti who are being assaulted by hunger and misery. Brotherly and heroic are the people of Haiti who are already suffering from the attacks of the empire’s global capitalism and the lack of true and profound solidarity from all of us. It is the least we can do for Haiti."
Haiti was brought to a standstill last week in a series of protests over the rising cost of food. On Saturday, President René Préval announced subsidies he said would cut the cost of rice by more than 15 percent. In response to the crisis, Haitian senators voted to remove Haitian Prime Minister Jacques-Édouard Alexis, who had been blamed for mishandling Haiti’s economy.
Meanwhile, the World Bank has announced a series of emergency measures to address rising food costs worldwide. This weekend, finance ministers gathered at the biannual World Bank-IMF meetings endorsed a series of measures, including a $10 million grant to Haiti. World Bank President Robert Zoellick said more than 100 million people are at risk of further impoverishment by the rising costs.
The Cuban government has announced new measures to ease state-imposed curbs on wages and ownership. Thousands of Cubans will now be allowed to get title to state-owned homes. The government also says it plans to do away with limits on state wages. The measures are the first approved by Raul Castro since succeeding his brother Fidel earlier this year.
In Mexico, two women journalists have been killed in the southern state of Oaxaca. Teresa Bautista Flores and Felicitas Martínez were returning from a reporting assignment when they were ambushed by attackers. The victims both worked the indigenous community station called The Voice that Breaks the Silence. The Trique indigenous community in Oaxaca’s San Juan Copala launched the station earlier this year.
The Dalai Lama has announced he does not support a boycott of the Beijing Olympic Games. The exiled spiritual leader’s home of Tibet has received increased international attention since the Chinese crackdown on dissident monks. In an interview with NBC News, the Dalai Lama said he does not want to punish China as a whole for the actions of its government.
NBC News’s Ann Curry: "Do you want the world to boycott the Olympic Games, to support your efforts in Tibet?”
Dalai Lama: “No.”
Curry: "Do you wish the President of the United States, and other world leaders might consider not attending the open ceremonies in support of your efforts in Tibet?"
Dalai Lama: "That’s up to them. It is very important to make clear, not only just the Tibet case, but in China proper, the record of human rights is poor.”
In the Gaza Strip, fourteen Palestinians have been killed since Palestinian militants crossed the Gaza border and killed two Israeli civilians last week. Six Palestinians, including at least two children, were killed Friday in the latest Israeli attack.
Back in the United States, criticism is mounting of outgoing Housing Secretary Alphonso Jackson’s handling of the national housing crisis. Jackson is said to have ignored repeated warnings from within his agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, that the rise in subprime mortgages was increasing the risk of home foreclosures. During Jackson’s tenure, foreclosures on government-insured housing loans and default rates have hit a record high. In interviews with the Washington Post, HUD officials revealed Jackson used agency money for perks including a personal chef and a full-time security detail. Jackson’s office also opened a $7 million auditorium and cafeteria at HUD’s headquarters despite calls to use that money for low-income housing. Jackson also solicited an emergency bid for oil portraits of himself and four other HUD secretaries — at a taxpayer cost of $100,000. Housing experts say Jackson will be remembered as so committed to President Bush’s stated goal of increasing homeownership that he brought mortgage risks to new highs.
New figures show congressional lobbying reached a new high last year. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, corporations, industries and other interests spent a record $2.79 billion last year. It was an eight percent rise over 2006, amounting to an average of $17 million for every day of Congress. The drug industry saw the highest rise, increasing its lobbying spending by 25 percent. Center for Responsive Politics executive director Sheila Krumholz said, “At a time when our economy is contracting, Washington’s lobbying industry has been expanding. Lobbying seems to be a recession-proof industry.”
The Bush administration is rebuffing a congressional challenge to the Department of Homeland Security’s new satellite surveillance system. Last week, Democrats threatened to shut down the program unless privacy concerns could be addressed. The satellite program is designed to provide federal, state and local officials with extensive access to spy satellite imagery to assist with emergency response and other domestic security needs. But critics say the Bush administration hasn’t created legal safeguards to ensure that the program won’t be used for domestic spying. In a letter to lawmakers, Chertoff said the system poses no civil liberties concerns and will be slowly activated in the coming weeks.
And supporters of the jailed Palestinian professor Sami Al-Arian have issued a new warning over his health after he was again placed in solitary confinement just days before his scheduled release. Al-Arian is in the second month of a hunger strike to protest his ongoing imprisonment. Last year, Al-Arian was imprisoned for an additional eighteen months for refusing to testify before a Virginia grand jury. He’s been in prison for five years on charges that he was a leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. He was jailed on a plea agreement to avoid a second trial. In his original trial, a Florida jury failed to return a single guilty verdict on any of the seventeen charges brought against him.