In Afghanistan, 21 police officers died today after a suicide bomber dressed in a police uniform blew himself up inside a police training center in southern Afghanistan. The attack occurred in the city of Tirin Kot, the capital of Uruzgan province. The Taliban has claimed responsibility.
In neighboring Pakistan, at least forty-three civilians were killed Sunday when they were caught in the crossfire between Pakistani forces and Taliban fighters. The deaths occurred in the Swat Valley region of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province.
In southwestern Pakistan, gunmen have kidnapped an American UN worker and killed his driver. John Solecki is the regional head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Later this week, Richard Holbrooke plans to make his first trip to the region as President Obama’s new envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In economic news, the government has reported that gross domestic product declined 3.8 percent in the last quarter. It was the worst contraction since 1982. During his weekly radio address, President Obama said new efforts are needed to boost the economy.
President Obama: “Soon my Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, will announce a new strategy for reviving our financial system that gets credit flowing to businesses and families. We’ll help lower mortgage costs and extend loans to small businesses so they can create jobs. We’ll ensure that CEOs are not draining funds that should be advancing our recovery. And we will insist on unprecedented transparency, rigorous oversight and clear accountability, so taxpayers know how their money is being spent and whether it is achieving results.”
On Capitol Hill, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri has proposed new pay limits for Wall Street executives. McCaskill wants any company taking federal bailout money to limit compensation for all employees to $400,000 a year, the same salary as President Obama. McCaskill made the proposal after it was revealed Wall Street firms had given themselves $18 billion in bonuses last year.
Sen. McCaskill: "We have a bunch of idiots on Wall Street that are kicking sand in the face of the American taxpayer... These financial institutions, on the brink of extinction, come to the American taxpayer for hundreds and billions of dollars. At the very same time, they think they’re going to buy a $50 million corporate jet. They’re going to pay out $18 billion in bonuses. They paid an average of $2.6 million to every executive at the first 116 banks that got taxpayer money under TARP."
New questions are being raised over how the welfare system is helping people affected by the economic crisis. A report by the New York Times has found that the number of people receiving cash assistance through welfare programs is at or near the lowest in more than forty years despite soaring unemployment. Eighteen states cut their welfare rolls last year. Many of the states hardest hit by the economic crisis have made drastic cuts. Michigan cut its rolls by 13 percent. Rhode Island had the nation’s largest welfare decline of 17 percent.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, former vice president Al Gore urged governments to focus on a green agenda as they attempt to turn around the global economic crisis.
Al Gore: "Well, I think the solutions to the climate crisis are the same solutions we need for the economic crisis: to have a green stimulus, put people to work building the new green low-carbon infrastructure, get the economy moving in a sustainable direction, and put people back to work."
In Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his allies look poised for a sweeping victory in provincial polls. Official results will not be published for weeks, but leaders of rival Shia parties acknowledged today that Maliki’s State of Law coalition appeared to be heading for a strong win in some Shia areas. Just over half of Iraq’s 14 million registered voters went to the polls Saturday, the lowest turnout in elections held since the US-led invasion. Tens of thousands of internally displaced Iraqis were unable to cast their vote. On Sunday, President Obama said a substantial number of the 140,000 US troops in Iraq would be home within a year.
In Sri Lanka, at least thirteen people have died after three artillery shell attacks hit an overcrowded hospital ward of mostly women and children. Local medical officials said the shells appeared to have been fired by the Sri Lankan military. The Red Cross reports hundreds of civilians, including children, have been killed or wounded in fighting since last week as the Sri Lankan military has intensified its offensive against the separatist Tamil Tigers. Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government is threatening to expel foreign diplomats, aid agencies and journalists from the region. On Sunday Sri Lanka’s defense secretary accused CNN, the BBC and Al Jazeera of being sympathetic to the Tamil Tiger guerrillas.
On Capitol Hill, the Senate is expected to vote today to confirm Eric Holder as attorney general. Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 17-to-2 to recommend his confirmation.
Tom Daschle’s confirmation as secretary of Health and Human Services is now in doubt after revelations that the former Senate majority leader failed to pay $128,000 in back taxes until after he was nominated for the post. Daschle also failed to report $83,000 in consulting income and overstated the size of some charitable deductions. Questions are also being raised about Daschle’s close ties to healthcare firms. In recent years, Daschle was paid tens of thousands of dollars to give speeches before the Health Industry Distributors Association, the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy and America’s Health Insurance Plans.
President Obama is expected to nominate Republican Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire to be Commerce secretary. If confirmed, Gregg would become the third Republican in Obama’s cabinet. If Gregg left the Senate, New Hampshire’s Democratic governor would choose his replacement. Gregg has reportedly assured fellow Republicans that he would not take the job unless he was certain his replacement in the Senate would line up with the GOP caucus.
In other political news, Republican officials have elected former Maryland lieutenant governor Michael Steele to be the party’s next chair. Steele becomes the first African American to chair the Republican Party. During his victory speech, Steele said the Republican Party has an image problem and has been misidentified as a party unconcerned about minorities.
Michael Steele: "We’re going to bring this party to every corner, every boardroom, every neighborhood, every community. And we’re going to say to friend and foe alike, we want you to be a part of us, we want you to work with us, and for those of you who wish to obstruct, get ready to get knocked over."
The Los Angeles Times reports the Obama administration has decided not to end the controversial policy of extraordinary rendition, which gives the CIA authority to abduct anyone throughout the world and secretly transfer them to another country. Current and former US intelligence officials said the rendition program is poised to play an expanded role in counterterrorism efforts. One Obama administration official said, "Obviously you need to preserve some tools. You still have to go after the bad guys.” The European Parliament has condemned renditions as an "illegal instrument used by the United States."
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has threatened to use "disproportionate response" if Palestinian militants continue to fire rockets into Israel. On Sunday, a wing of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades claimed responsibility for firing two rockets. The group is the militant wing of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction. Meanwhile, Israel continues to carry out air strikes inside Gaza.
The United Nation’s top official in Gaza, John Ging, said the humanitarian situation remains dire.
John Ging: "It’s almost two weeks since the declaration of the ceasefires here in Gaza, and I can tell you that the mood has very definitely moved from one of overwhelming grief to a pervasive sense of anger. People here are, of course, coming to terms with their new reality. Tens of thousands of them have no homes anymore; it’s just piles of rubble. And also, the aid effort is hampered by the lack of access."
John Ging also accused Israel of blocking humanitarian aid from entering Gaza.
John Ging: "Shamefully, there are thousands of tons of aid waiting on the borders of Gaza that need to be connected right now with the people here. The donors have been very generous. You know, the operation in getting it from all over the world to this part of the world has been a success, and very quick. But now we have the bottleneck. And of course, it has to be that the government of Israel, in the first instance, has to find operational solutions to get the crossing points open."
Over the weekend, President Obama released $20 million from the US Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund for use in the Palestinian region. Obama’s Middle East envoy George Mitchell announced the aid package during a stop in Jerusalem.
George Mitchell: "President Obama has expressed his deep concern about the recent loss of life and the substantial suffering in Gaza. I am pleased to announce that this week the President directed the use of another $20.3 million to provide emergency food and medical assistance to the wounded and displaced in Gaza."
The $20 million in aid is a fraction of the over $3 billion the US sends annually in aid to Israel.
The Spanish government has announced plans to amend its laws to make it harder for Spanish judges to investigate torture and war crimes committed outside of Spain. In recent years, Spanish courts have investigated several prominent cases under the principle of universal jurisdiction. In 1998, former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London under an international arrest warrant issued by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon, who sought to extradite him to Spain for trial. The Spanish government’s decision comes days after a Spanish judge launched an investigation into seven current or former Israeli officials over a 2002 bombing in Gaza that killed a top Hamas leader, Salah Shehadeh, and fourteen other people, including nine children. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni praised Spain’s decision.
Tzipi Livni: "I was just told by the Spanish foreign minister that Spain decided to change the legislation in accordance to the universal jurisdiction in order to change the possibility of different organization, political organization, to abuse the legal system in Spain in order to put charges against Israelis and others that are fighting terror. I think that this is a very important news, and I hope that other states in Europe will do the same and will follow this."
In other news from the region, Israel has paid around $2 million in damages to the family of a British cameraman who was shot by an Israeli soldier in Gaza in 2003. The family of James Miller accepted the payment, saying it was as close to an admission of guilt from Israel as they were ever likely to get. Miller was in Gaza working on a documentary about Palestinian children caught up in the conflict. The documentary, Death in Gaza, later aired on HBO and won three Emmys.
In Somalia, a former leader of the Islamic Courts Union has been elected president two years after US-backed Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia in an attempt to end Islamist rule. Over the past two years, more than 16,000 people have died, and one million people were displaced. Sheikh Sharif Ahmed is seen as a moderate Islamist leader and as someone who might be able to unite Somalia’s warring clans. The New York Times reports that with the selection of Sheik Sharif Ahmed, Somalia has come nearly full circle to where it was in the summer of 2006, when an Islamist alliance seized control of Mogadishu and pacified it for the first and only time since the country’s central government imploded in 1991.
The Norwegian government has sold off its $200 million investment in the Canadian-based mining company Barrick Gold because of the company’s ethical and environmental record. The Norwegian foreign minister accused Barrick of causing severe environmental damage in Papua New Guinea, where Barrick runs a large gold mine. Barrick Gold is the largest producer of gold in the world, with twenty-seven mines in operation. Norway has also blacklisted cluster bomb manufacturer Textron based in Wilmington, Massachusetts.
And the imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier has been moved back to prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, weeks after he was attacked shortly after being transferred to another prison in Pennsylvania. Friday will mark the thirty-third anniversary of his arrest. He was convicted of killing two FBI agents during a shootout on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975. Peltier has long maintained his innocence and is widely considered a political prisoner in the United States.