The Senate has approved a new war funding bill allocating $165 billion for the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. In a challenge to President Bush, the measure also includes billions in domestic spending, including $51 billion dollars for veterans’ education. Republican presidential candidate John McCain had opposed the domestic provisions, but did not interrupt his campaign schedule to return to Capitol Hill for the vote. Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama both voted in favor of the measure.
Meanwhile, a new Pentagon audit has found more than $8 billion in taxpayer money has been spent on contractors in Iraq without following federal guidelines. In some cases, hundreds of millions of dollars were doled out to companies based on a single invoice signature. Auditors also found military officials mishandled at least $1.8 billion in seized Iraqi funds.
Meanwhile, in Iraq, mourners buried eight civilians killed in a US air strike in the town of Baiji, north of Baghdad. The victims were shepherds, including two children and an elderly man. A relative said they had been fleeing on foot when they came under US attack.
Unidentified Relative: "The Americans raided our houses and attacked us with sound grenades. People started fleeing with their children. Then the aircraft started bombing people in a street along the farm."
In other Iraq news, two Iraqi journalists have been killed in separate attacks. Thirty-two-year-old cameraman Wisam Ali Ouda was shot dead Wednesday as he returned homed from work in Baghdad. The Iraqi media watchdog Journalistic Freedoms Observatory says Ouda was killed by a US sniper. Ouda’s employer, the Afaq network, says it’s unclear who took his life. Meanwhile, thirty-six-year-old journalist Haider Hisham al Hasseni has been found dead one day after his kidnapping in Diyala. At least eight Iraqi media workers have been killed so far this year.
The top US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, is claiming he might recommend further troop cuts later this summer. General Petraeus appeared Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Gen. David Petraeus: "My sense is that I will be able to make a recommendation at that time for some further reductions. I don’t want to imply that that means a BCT [Brigade Combat Team] or a major combat formation, although it could, but I do believe that there will be certain assets that — as we are already looking at the picture right now — we’ll be able to recommend can be either redeployed or not deployed to the theater in the fall."
Any troop cut is expected to be limited in size. General Petraeus came under protest from the peace group Code Pink. Activists chanted, “Americans want peace” and “Bring the troops home,” as Petraeus spoke.
Meanwhile, President Bush spoke Thursday before servicemembers at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Bush continued to promote his most recent rationale for staying in Iraq, that the US occupation is needed to challenge what he called “Iran’s ambitions to dominate the region.”
President Bush: "Success in Iraq would deal a devastating blow to Iran’s ambitions to dominate the region. Success in Iraq would show the people of the Middle East that democracy and freedom can flourish in their midst. And success in Iraq will send a signal to the world that America does not withdraw, does not retreat, does not back down in the face of terror, and that will make us safer here in the United States of America."
Cuba is demanding answers from the Bush administration on allegations the top US diplomat in Havana ferried money from an anti-Castro exile group in Miami to opposition figures on the island. The cash is said to come from Santiago Alvarez, who was once convicted in the US of conspiring to collect military-style weapons to overthrow Cuba’s government. Alvarez is currently serving a ten-month prison term for refusing to testify against airline bomber Luis Posada Carriles. On Thursday, Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque questioned the Bush administration’s involvement in the case.
Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque: "We are here today to ask what the government knows about this situation. What does the Secretary of State know? Was she informed that her Havana diplomats were acting this way? And now, what does she think? Does she see clearly that her diplomats were acting as go-betweens? Does she support Parmly in his activities as go-between and emissary shuttling money from terrorists groups to mercenary groups."
Top UN officials say the rise in global food prices is posing a major threat to basic human rights. Speaking before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva Thursday, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, said the soaring costs of basic staples should be seen as an issue of international humanitarian law.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour: "Excellencies, the current food crisis stems from a perverse convergence of several factors, including distortions in supply and demand, unfair trade practices, as well as skewed policies involving incentives or subsidies. Yet, at its core and in its punitive effects, this crisis boils down to a lack of access to adequate food. Such access is a right protected in international law."
Meanwhile, Oliver de Schutter, the independent UN expert on the right to food, said the world food crisis should not be seen as a natural disaster.
Oliver de Schutter: "Natural disasters are not human rights violations in themselves, unless states who can help victims stand by and do nothing to help people. The world food crisis is not a natural disaster. The causes are political. The causes are known. So if we impose an obligation to act, this prevents us from remaining silent.”
In Afghanistan, at least two people were killed Thursday in a protest over news a US soldier had used the Koran for target practice in Iraq. Afghan police opened fire on a crowd of more than 1,000 people outside a military base in Ghor province. A NATO soldier from Lithuania was also killed in the unrest.
In Burma, visiting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says the military junta has finally agreed to allow aid workers to help survivors of Cyclone Nargis. The move would be a major breakthrough, as the junta has imposed severe restrictions on the number of foreign workers allowed into Burma. Meanwhile, a coalition of regional and international aid groups say assistance continues to reach survivors at too slow a pace. Dr. Jemilah Mahmood of Mercy Malaysia says just up to 30 percent of aid has gone through.
Dr. Jemilah Mahmood: "The assistance getting to the people affected by the international community still is 25 percent, roughly — between 20 to 30 percent, that’s the reported rate. And that’s not good enough."
Cyclone Nargis killed at least 78,000 people. Another 56,000 remain missing.
Back in the United States, Senator John McCain has rejected the endorsement of the controversial televangelist John Hagee. McCain repudiated Hagee after a recording emerged of Hagee claiming God allowed the rise of Adolf Hitler because it allowed the Jewish people to reclaim Israel.
And the American academic Norman Finkelstein has been arrested and ordered deported from Israel. Finkelstein arrived in Tel Aviv earlier today on his way to the Occupied Territories. He was immediately detained and told he is banned from Israel for ten years. He’s expected to be deported tomorrow. Finkelstein is known one of the most prominent academic critics of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.