In Iraq, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has warned he will soon declare an open war unless the US-backed Iraqi government halts its crackdown on his supporters.
Sadr’s aide, Nassar Al-Rubai, read part of the cleric’s message.
Nassar Al-Rubai: "I’m giving the last warning and the last word to the Iraqi government: either it comes to its senses and takes the path of peace, or it will be seen as the same as the previous government. If they don’t come to their senses and curb the infiltrated militias, then we will declare an open war until liberation."
Major General Rick Lynch, the commander of US forces in central Iraq, responded by threatening to strike back if Sadr launches a new uprising. The US has already stepped up its attacks on members of Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Baghdad and Basra. US helicopter gunships and Predator drones have been repeatedly firing missiles into Sadr City. At least 280 Iraqis have died in Sadr City over the past month. The US military is also building a twelve-foot-high wall around most of Sadr City.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made an unannounced stop in Baghdad on Sunday. She praised the Iraqi government’s decision to take on Shiite militia members in Basra and in Baghdad.
Condoleezza Rice: "It is indeed a moment of opportunity in Iraq, thanks to the courageous decisions taken by the prime minister and a unified Iraqi leadership and, of course, the Iraqi Security Forces, which have fought very bravely in this recent operation.’’
The New York Times has revealed new details on how the Pentagon recruited more than seventy-five retired military officers to appear on TV outlets as so-called military analysts ahead of the Iraq war to portray Iraq as an urgent threat. The Times reports the Pentagon continues to use the analysts in a propaganda campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration’s wartime performance. Internal Pentagon documents repeatedly refer to the military analysts as "message force multipliers" or "surrogates" who could be counted on to deliver administration themes and messages to millions of Americans in the form of their own opinions. Reporter David Barstow called the program "a symbiotic relationship where the usual dividing lines between government and journalism have been obliterated." The so-called analysts were given classified Pentagon briefings, provided with Pentagon-approved talking points and given free trips to Iraq and other sites paid for by the Pentagon. The propaganda campaign also extended into the nation’s newspapers. Nine of the Pentagon-connected analysts wrote op-ed articles for the New York Times, and the Pentagon helped two retired military officers write a piece for the Wall Street Journal. Many of the same retired military officers also have ties to military contractors vested in the very war policies they were asked to assess on air.
In campaign news, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have begun their final full day of campaigning in Pennsylvania ahead of Tuesday’s primary. Clinton remains the leader in almost all polls, but on Friday Obama managed to hold the largest campaign rally of the year, when an estimated 35,000 people gathered in Philadelphia.
Former US President Jimmy Carter has said Hamas is prepared to accept the right of Israel to "live in peace" within the 1967 borders, but Carter said Hamas turned down his proposal for a thirty-day unilateral ceasefire with Israel. Carter’s comments came after he met with top Hamas leaders, including the group’s exiled political chief Khaled Meshal.
Carter said Hamas leaders would also accept a peace agreement negotiated by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, if Palestinians approved the deal in a vote. Carter met with Hamas in defiance of the US and Israel. He defended his decision by saying, "The problem is not that I met with Hamas in Syria. The problem is that Israel and the United States refuse to meet with someone who must be involved." Carter urged Israel to engage in direct negotiations with Hamas, saying failure to do so was hampering peace efforts.
Meanwhile, the Israeli military has announced it will investigate the death of a Reuters cameraman who was killed last week by an Israel tank. Human Rights Watch has said the journalist, Fadel Shana, may have been deliberately targeted by an Israeli tank crew. Shana was traveling in a vehicle clearly marked as belonging to media workers when he came under attack. Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director Joe Stork said, "Israeli soldiers did not make sure they were aiming at a military target before firing, and there is evidence suggesting they actually targeted the journalists." Shana’s final piece of footage showed an Israeli tank firing a shell just before the camera went black. Other journalists who arrived at the scene shortly after the shelling also said they came under tank fire.
In Paraguay, a former Catholic priest once known as the Bishop of the Poor has been elected president. Fernando Lugo will be the first Paraguayan president since 1946 not to be from the conservative Colorado Party. Lugo won 41 percent of the vote, beating Blanca Ovelar, who received 31 percent. Lugo has pledged to crack down on corruption and channel Paraguay’s wealth into social programs.
Fernando Lugo: "May we never again, in the political class of Paraguay, never again base our politics on clientism or enticements, because it has done so much damage to our national politics."
Pope Benedict XVI has returned to the Vatican after a six-day trip in the United States. At the United Nations on Friday, Pope Benedict gave a forty-minute address on peace and human rights but never directly mentioned the Iraq war. In what was viewed as a veiled criticism of the Bush administration, the Pope said nations should obey international law and take collective action to deal with the world’s problems. The Pope also said protecting human rights is vital to bridging inequalities between countries.
Pope Benedict XVI: "It is inconceivable that believers should have to suppress a part of themselves, their faith, in order to be active citizens. It should never be necessary to deny God in order to enjoy one’s rights."
In Somalia, at least eighty-one people died over the weekend in the heaviest fighting the capital Mogadishu has seen in months. Most of the fighting is between US-backed Ethiopian troops and Somali fighters linked to the former Union of Islamic Courts. The Elman Human Rights organization accused Ethiopian troops of using heavy artillery and tank shells in residential areas.
In other news from Africa, a Chinese ship carrying arms for Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe has been turned away from a dock in South Africa after union workers refused to unload the arms. The dock workers were protesting South African President Thabo Mbeki’s failure to pressure Mugabe to release the results of last month’s presidential election. The opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change, claims they won the election, while Mugabe’s ruling party says there should be a run-off. On Sunday, Tendai Biti, the secretary general of the MDC, rejected calls for a recount.
Tendai Biti: "It is quite clear that the dictatorship will do everything, legally and extralegally, to try and reverse the people’s victory of the 29th of March of 2008. But we have made our case. The jury is out there. Zimbabweans themselves know what they did in the polling stations. The rest of the African community, the rest of the international community is watching. The so-called recount has no credibility at all, is not legitimate, and we will not accept that recount. We will not accept that which is unlawful."
In economic news, two more major corporations have announced plans to lay off thousands of workers. On Friday, Citigroup announced a $5.1 billion loss and said it would cut 9,000 jobs. Meanwhile, AT&T has announced plans to eliminate 4,600 positions.
President Bush is heading to New Orleans today to meet with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts for a summit on the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America. Critics of the SPP accuse Bush of pushing a new NAFTA-plus deal with Mexico and Canada that would cover security, immigration, the environment, business, food regulation and other issues. Amnesty International and other critics accused the North American leaders of negotiating the deal in secret without meaningful public debate.
A legislative panel in Arizona has endorsed a proposal that would prohibit public schools in Arizona from any teachings that overtly encourage dissent from the values of American democracy and western civilization. The Arizona Republic reports the measure would also prohibit students of the state’s universities and community colleges from forming groups based in whole or part on the race of their members, such as the Black Business Students Association at Arizona State University or Native Americans United at Northern Arizona University. Such groups would be forbidden from operating on campus. The sponsor of the bill, Representative Russell Pearce, said he doesn’t want taxpayer dollars used to indoctrinate students in what he characterized as anti-American or seditious thinking. Critics say the bill would essentially destroy the Mexican American study program in the state’s public schools, colleges and universities, as well as student groups such as the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is warning the surge in global food prices risks setting back the world’s anti-poverty efforts and, if not properly handled, could hurt global growth and security. The food price surge has sharply increased the risk of hunger and poverty in developing countries and has already sparked food riots in parts of Asia and Africa. Ban Ki-moon addressed the issue at the opening of a UN trade and development conference in Ghana.
Ban Ki-moon: “If not handled properly, this crisis could trigger a cascade of others and develop into multiple crises, becoming a multidimensional problem affecting economic growth, social progress and even political security around the world.”
In other food news, a new study by the University of Kansas has found that genetic modification reduces the productivity of crops. The Independent of London reports the study undermines repeated claims that a switch to the controversial technology is needed to solve the growing world food crisis. Researchers found that genetically modified soya produces about ten percent less food than its conventional equivalent.
And a prominent pro-Palestinian activist in Texas has died after drowning in a lake. Riad Hamad was the founder of the Palestine Children’s Welfare Fund and raised millions of dollars through his organization for schools, charitable organizations and hospitals. Local police say Hamad was found gagged and bound in the lake. While police say he likely committed suicide, questions have been raised over his death. Prior to his death, Hamad had been under FBI surveillance. In late February, FBI and IRS agents raided his office and seized forty boxes of tax returns and other documents. No charges were filed at the time, but investigators claimed they had probable cause to investigate wire fraud, bank fraud and money laundering. Riad Hamad was fifty-five years old.