Obama: US Combat Forces Out of Iraq by 2010

President Barack Obama announced Friday plans to pull US combat forces out of Iraq by August 2010. Obama broke the news at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina.

President Barack Obama: "As a candidate for president, I made clear my support for a timeline of sixteen months to carry out this drawdown, while pledging to consult closely with our military commanders upon taking office to ensure that we preserve the gains we’ve made and to protect our troops. These consultations are now complete, and I have chosen a time line that will remove our combat brigades over the next eighteen months."

US Plans to Keep up to 50,000 Troops in Iraq Until 2011

Under President Obama’s plan, up to 50,000 US troops would remain in Iraq through 2011.

President Barack Obama: "As I have long said, we will retain a transitional force to carry out three distinct functions: training, equipping, and advising Iraqi Security Forces as long as they remain non-sectarian; conducting targeted counterterrorism missions; and protecting our ongoing civilian and military efforts within Iraq. Initially, this force will likely be made up of 35,000 to 50,000 US troops.”

President Obama’s decision to keep 50,000 troops in Iraq has angered many critics of the war. Iraq Veterans Against the War described Obama’s proposal as a “plan for almost three more years of an unjustified military occupation.” During an interview on MSNBC, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke out against part of Obama’s plan.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi: “And I don’t know what the justification is for 50,000, a presence of 50,000 troops in Iraq. I do think that there’s a need for some, and I don’t know that all of them have to be in country. I would think a third of that, maybe 20,000, a little more than a third, 15,000 or 20,000.”

President Obama’s speech on Iraq left several major questions unanswered. He did not address whether the US will keep permanent military bases in Iraq, and he made no promise to withdraw the over 100,000 private US military contractors and mercenaries stationed in Iraq.

US to Give Another $30 Billion Bailout to AIG

The Obama administration has agreed to give the insurance giant AIG an additional $30 billion as part of a revamped government bailout. This comes on top of the $150 billion in taxpayer money already doled out to the firm. The New York Times reports federal officials felt they had no choice but to prop up AIG, because its business and trading activities are so intricately woven through the world’s banking system. AIG is expected to report today a record $62 billion loss, the biggest quarterly loss in corporate history. The $30 billion bailout of AIG comes three days after the firm sued the US government over a disputed $300 million tax bill.

GDP Shrinks 6.2 Percent; Housing Prices Plummet 10 Percent

In other economic news, more signs have emerged that the financial crisis is worsening. The Commerce Department has announced gross domestic product shrank at a 6.2 percent annual pace from October through December, the most since 1982. The Census Bureau is reporting that the median price of new homes fell by a staggering ten percent between December and January. The FDIC says 250 banks are now on the agency’s list of banks that could fail. Sixteen banks have already failed this year compared with twenty-five in all of 2008. In California, the unemployment rate has topped ten percent for the first time in a quarter century.

Karzai Attempts to Move Up Afghan Election

In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai is coming under intense criticism from opponents for trying to move the Afghan presidential election to next month, four months earlier than an election date set by the country’s Independent Election Commission. Karzai’s move is seen as an attempt to guarantee his re-election. One presidential candidate, former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, said, "A very dangerous first step has been taken that, if it’s not checked, could lead us to the very unfortunate situation of Kenya or Zimbabwe. This is a very perilous position that we have to avoid." UN officials said it would be impossible to have even paper ballots in time for an election for next month.

Ex-US Official Predicts US Will Be in Afghanistan Until 2025

Meanwhile, the former top US commander in Afghanistan has projected that US troops will remain in Afghanistan for another sixteen years. Retired Lieutenant General David Barno told a Senate panel last week that it will take until 2025 for the US to hand over control fully to Afghan institutions.

CIA Strike in Pakistan Kills Eight

The CIA is continuing to carry out missile strikes in Pakistan. At least eight people died on Sunday when an unmanned drone attacked a compound in northwest Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan. US officials said the target was a Taliban sanctuary.

US Pledges $900 Million in Palestinian Aid

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has arrived in Egypt in her first trip to the Middle East since taking office. Clinton is attending an international conference in Sharm El-Sheikh to raise money for the Gaza Strip. The US plans to pledge $300 million in humanitarian relief for the people of Gaza in addition to $600 million for the Palestinian Authority. The additional money not aimed at Gaza comprises $200 million in budget support to pay wages, much of which was previously announced, and $400 million to support reform and development in the West Bank. Secretary of State Clinton praised the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: "Through his commitment to negotiations with neighbors, President Abbas has shown the hallmarks of leadership, as has Prime Minister Fayyad, who has bolstered the credibility of his government by instituting a national budget process that is transparent and serves the needs of the Palestinian people. They are offering their people the option of a peaceful, independent and more prosperous future, not the violence and false choices of extremists whose tactics, including rocket attacks that continue to this day, only will lead to more hardship and suffering. These attacks must stop."

The Washington Post reports the US aid package underscores how little the Obama administration’s policy toward the Palestinian issue has thus far differed from the Bush administration’s approach.

Aid Groups Calls for Israel to Lift Gaza Blockade

International aid groups are calling on Israel to lift the blockade of Gaza, because they say it is preventing the Palestinians from rebuilding the Gaza Strip. Israel has banned the importation of cement, steel rods and other material necessary for construction. Over the past month, Israel has also arbitrarily refused entry to items like chickpeas, macaroni, wheat flour, notebooks for students, freezer appliances, generators and water pumps, and cooking gas.

Israel Considers Vastly Expanding West Bank Settlement

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports an Israeli government agency is quietly promoting plans to vastly expand a settlement in the occupied West Bank that currently houses just twelve Israeli families. The Israeli Civil Administration has proposed the initial construction of 550 apartments in the settlement of Gva’ot, located near Alon Shvut, followed by the construction of another 4,450 units at a later stage. Another 2,000 apartments are planned for a neighboring settlement.

Obama Administration to Boycott UN Racism Conference

The Obama administration has announced that the United States will boycott the World Conference Against Racism in Geneva next month, unless its final document drops all references to Israel and reparations for slavery. Israel and Canada have already announced plans to boycott the UN conference. In 2001, Bush administration diplomats walked out of the conference in Durban, South Africa after delegates proposed a resolution likening Zionism to racism. AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, praised President Obama’s decision. The group said, “The event, which has again proven to be a celebration of racism and vile anti-Semitic activity, is further evidence of the U.N.’s inability to demonstrate any semblance of fairness or objectivity on these issues when it comes to the Jewish State.”

Mullen: Iran Has Enough Uranium to Build Atomic Bomb

The chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen declared Sunday that the US now believes Iran has amassed enough uranium that, with further purification, could be used to build an atomic bomb. Mullen’s statement on CNN went further than previous official judgments of the Iranian nuclear threat. But in a separate interview, Defense Secretary Robert Gates downplayed the immediate threat posed by Iran. During an interview on Meet the Press, Gates said, "They are not close to a stockpile; they are not close to a weapon at this point. So there is some time."

US Journalist Jailed in Iran

In other news on Iran, the Iranian government has admitted it has been holding an American journalist in jail since late January. Thirty-one-year-old Roxana Saberi is a freelance reporter for the BBC, National Public Radio and Fox News. Iran accused her of gathering news illegally.

President of Guinea-Bissau Assassinated

In news from Africa, the president of the West African nation of Guinea-Bissau has been assassinated in the presidential palace by a group of renegade soldiers. The killing of Joao Bernardo Vieira came one day after the nation’s armed forces chief of staff was shot dead. The two men were considered staunch political rivals.

Thousands Protest Anniversary of US-Backed Coup in Haiti

In Haiti, several thousand people staged a protest Saturday to mark the fifth anniversary of the US-backed coup that led to the ouster of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The protest came days after the Haitian government barred members of Aristide’s Lavalas party from running in the upcoming Senate elections.

Jacques Mathelier: "We are here so the rights of the majority of the population will be respected. The people cannot eat. They only have battery acid to live on. Also, there can be no election without the participation of the Lavalas party. And five years after the kidnapping of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the people’s dream is to ask for his return."

Court Rejects Obama Bid to Stop Wiretapping Suit

A Federal Appeals Court in San Francisco has rejected an argument by the Obama administration that the court should stop a lawsuit challenging the government’s warrantless wiretapping program because a trial would potentially threaten national security. The ruling came in a case involving a defunct Islamic charity. Government lawyers signaled they would continue fighting to keep the information secret, setting up a new showdown between the courts and the White House over national security.

Thousands March to Protest Sheriff Arpaio

Thousands of people marched in Phoenix, Arizona on Saturday to condemn raids on immigrant communities by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The sheriff recently came under criticism for parading a group of chained undocumented prisoners through the streets of Phoenix before transferring them to the infamous Tent City jail.

Seattle Sheriff Deputy Beat 15-Year-Old Girl

In Seattle, a sheriff’s deputy has pleaded not guilty to fourth-degree assault after he was caught on videotape assaulting a fifteen-year-old girl in a jail cell. Video of the beating was released by prosecutors on Friday. In the video, a deputy kicks the girl, pushing her back toward the wall. The deputy then strongly backs the girl against the wall and slams her to the floor by grabbing her hair. A second deputy enters the holding cell, while the first deputy holds the girl face down to the floor. The first deputy appears to hit the girl with his hands. The girl is then lifted up and led out of the cell while the first deputy holds her hair. The King County sheriff’s deputy Paul Schene was investigated previously for shooting two people — killing one — in the line of duty.

Maine Town Bans Poland Springs from Extracting Municipal Water

Residents of the town of Shapleigh, Maine have banned Poland Springs and other private companies from extracting and bottling water from the town’s aquifers. Poland Springs is owned by Nestle, the world’s largest food and beverage company. The company currently draws water from nine sites in Maine and wanted to expand into Shapleigh.

Erik Prince Resigns as Blackwater CEO

In other business news, Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, has announced his resignation as the company’s CEO. Prince founded the private military firm in 1997. The move comes weeks after the company changed its name to Xe in an attempt to rebrand the firm.

Rev. Billy to Challenge Mike Bloomberg for NYC Mayor

And here in New York, Rev. Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping has announced plans to challenge Mike Bloomberg in the city’s upcoming mayoral race. The fifty-eight-year-old performance artist and activist will run on the Green Party ticket.


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