In Pakistan, at least twenty-one people are dead following a series of attacks earlier today. At least seventeen people were killed when a bomb struck a bus traveling to a wedding in Pakistan’s tribal belt. The attacks come as the Pakistani offensive against Taliban militants enters its seventh day. Tens of thousands of civilians have fled their homes since Pakistan launched the operation last week.
The Los Angeles Times is reporting the US is aiding the offensive in its most extensive involvement in a Pakistani military campaign to date. The US military is sharing intelligence and surveillance video from Predator drones. It’s believed to be the first time Pakistan is using intelligence from drone flights for a major military operation. Pakistan rejected the use of drone intelligence during its previous offensive against the Taliban last May.
In Sri Lanka, some 4,000 ethnic Tamils have been released from government-run prison camps and cleared to return home. The freed civilians are among some 270,000 Tamils forced into the camps after the Sri Lankan civil war ended with bloody clashes earlier this year. Their release comes as the State Department has called on the Sri Lankan government to investigate what it calls "credible" allegations of war crimes during the civil war’s final months. Between 7,000 and 20,000 Tamil civilians are believed to have died between January and May of this year.
As the US challenges Sri Lanka, the head of a UN inquiry into the US-backed assault on Gaza is challenging the Obama administration to explain why it’s worked to minimize the inquiry’s findings that Israel committed multiple war crimes. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Judge Richard Goldstone said the White House had raised "concerns" about the report but hasn’t explained them.
Judge Richard Goldstone: "It seems to be still developing. It’s been ambivalent, I think. The Obama administration joined our recommendation calling for full, good-faith investigations, both in Israel and in Gaza, but said that the report was flawed. But I have yet to hear from the Obama administration what the flaws in the report that they’ve identified are. I mean, I’d be happy to respond to them, if and when I know what they are."
Last week the US voted against a UN Human Rights Council resolution endorsing the report’s recommendations that both sides of the Gaza conflict probe war crimes allegations or face international prosecution. The resolution has been forwarded to the Security Council, where it’s expected to face a US veto.
The US, meanwhile, has launched a joint air force drill with the Israeli military. The drill has been described in Israel as a preparation for an attack on Iran. US Navy Rear Admiral John Richardson said the exercises would aid the Obama administration’s revamped missile defense program.
US Navy Rear Admiral John Richardson: "This exercise is not directly related to recent announcements about ballistic missile defense in Europe, but the lessons and the insights that we gain from this exercise will certainly relate to developing that capability."
Ethiopia is appealing for $175 million in emergency food aid amidst the worst drought to hit eastern Africa in ten years. Ethiopia says some 6.2 million people are in dire need of assistance. Humanitarian advocates say the appeal underscores the severity of Ethiopia’s food crisis twenty-five years after the 1984 famine that killed one million people. In addition to emergency aid, Paul Smith-Lomas of Oxfam said that richer nations should allow Africa to become more self-sufficient in producing food.
Paul Smith-Lomas: "When an emergency appeal like this comes out, the donors must respond, and people do need food. But we also think that longer-term funding is needed, too. Now, there are ways in which you can do a certain amount of both. If more money for emergency food aid was invested inside the region, then we could be recycling the economy far more. We could be promoting local agricultural investment far more than buying grain from somewhere on the other side of the world."
On Capitol Hill, the House Financial Services Committee has approved a measure that would create the US Consumer Financial Protection Agency. The White House-backed agency would monitor the products that banks and other institutions sell to consumers, including subprime loans. The finance industry has spent tens of millions of dollars on lobbying and advertisements trying to derail the proposal.
The vote came as the Federal Reserve unveiled new measures to crack down on excessive Wall Street pay. Although the new Fed regulations would increase government oversight, they do not impose pay caps or bar multi-million-dollar compensation packages.
The Fed measures coincided with President Obama’s announcement the Treasury Department would cut executive compensation at seven bailed-out Wall Street firms.
President Obama: "It does offend our values when executives of big financial firms, firms that are struggling, pay themselves huge bonuses even as they continue to rely on taxpayer assistance to stay afloat."
Despite the celebrated pay cuts, three key executives at the notorious bailed-out firm AIG were allowed to keep their bonuses. White House pay czar Kenneth Feinberg said he relented after AIG argued the executives were critical to the company’s long-term success. Feinberg said allowing the executives to keep their bonuses is in the public interest because it would allow the company to make enough money to pay back taxpayers for the bailout.
In other news from Washington, concern is growing that Democratic leaders will lack the sufficient votes to include a public option as part of a healthcare reform bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is reportedly backing a plan that would establish a public option but allow individual states to opt out. Reid is said to be pushing the proposal despite acknowledging it could fall short in a Senate vote. Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has reportedly determined she currently lacks the necessary votes to establish a "robust" public option. The news website Politico reports the vote count will likely lead to a weaker "trigger" proposal, in which a form of the public option would only be established if the insurance industry fails to meet certain coverage goals.
Meanwhile, a new study has found that many House members opposed to healthcare reform represent districts where the rate of uninsured exceeds the national average of 15 percent. According to the National Journal, 47 percent of House Republicans and 43 percent of Democrats represent districts that top the national average in numbers of uninsured.
New figures released by New York Democratic Congress member Anthony Weiner, meanwhile, show that 151 lawmakers in both chambers are currently covered by the government-funded health program Medicare. The list includes fifty-five Republicans who Weiner says have "steadfastly opposed" the public option. Weiner said, "They apparently think the public option is OK for them, but not anyone else."
Time Magazine is reporting the pharmaceutical industry spent $110 million on lobbying Congress in the first half of 2009. The figure amounts to $609,000 per day. Time reports there are now 2.3 drug industry lobbyists for ever member of Congress.
The Senate, meanwhile, has followed the House in voting to expand the definition of hate crimes to cover those targeted because of their sexual orientation. The measure would grant new protections to lesbian, gay and transgender people under federal law. It’s named after Matthew Shepard, the gay Wyoming university student who was brutally beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die in 1998. The measure has been sent for President Obama’s signature.
New figures show unemployment rose in twenty-three states last month. According to the Labor Department, forty-three states reported overall job losses, while only seven states gained jobs.
A coalition of popular recording artists is calling on the military to disclose whether their songs have been used as part of the torture and harsh interrogation of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Bands including R.E.M. and Pearl Jam have endorsed Freedom of Information Act requests filed by the National Security Archives asking the Pentagon to disclose which artists’ music has been used.
In West Virginia, eight people have been arrested in a protest against mountaintop removal near the town of Quarrier. The activists chained themselves to a coal truck and lay across a key mining road. The protest was staged by the group Climate Ground Zero.
And a United Nations investigator has opened a probe into the US housing crisis. Raquel Rolnik, the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, will investigate issues including public housing, homelessness and foreclosures. On Thursday, Rolnik held a public meeting with housing activists in New York.
UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing Raquel Rolnik: "If we take housing as a human right, you have to go back to the idea that housing is a social issue before and more priority than housing as a commodity, as a financial asset."
As part of her inquiry Rolnik is expected to visit at least six other cities and towns, including Chicago, Los Angeles and New Orleans.