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Obama Holds Healthcare Summit, Agrees to Invite Single-Payer Backer Conyers

President Obama is convening a White House summit today on reforming the nation’s healthcare system. The Obama administration has asked some 120 lawmakers, insurers and doctors to attend. Obama finally gave a last-minute invite to the House’s leading advocate for single-payer universal healthcare, Democratic Congress member John Conyers of Michigan. Obama had reportedly refused to invite Conyers but relented after public outcry. Conyers is expected to be the lone single-payer advocate in attendance.

US to Overhaul Government Contract Procurements

On Wednesday, President Obama announced a plan to overhaul contracting policies in all government departments. Singling out military contracts in Iraq, Obama said the new rule changes would save taxpayers $40 billion a year.

President Obama: "And this wasteful spending has many sources. It comes from investments in unproven technologies. It comes from a lack of oversight. It comes from influence-peddling and indefensible no-bid contracts that have cost American taxpayers billions of dollars."

Geithner: Admin Could Scrap Repeal of Tax Deductions for Wealthy

Obama, meanwhile, is facing opposition from members of his own party on a plan to reduce tax deductions for wealthy Americans. The plan would save around $318 billion over ten years. Under questioning from Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said the Obama administration would consider dropping the proposal.

Sudan Rejects ICC Arrest Warrant for Bashir

The International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sudan’s Darfur region. Bashir is the first sitting head of state to be charged with war crimes.

Chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo: "The government of the Sudan is obliged under international law to execute the warrant of arrest on its territory. We are not calling for someone else to do it. If the government of the Sudan does not execute the warrant of arrest, the UN Security Council will need to ensure compliance."

Sudan has dismissed the warrant as a Western ploy. At the UN, Sudanese Ambassador Abdelmahmood Abdelhaleem said his government rejects the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction.

Sudanese Ambassador Abdelmahmood Abdelhaleem: "We condemn strongly this verdict. And for us, ICC doesn’t exist. We are not bound by its decisions, and we are in no way going to cooperate with it."

Abdelhaleem meanwhile said the mass killings in Darfur are largely the result of a local conflict over scarce resources.

Sudanese Ambassador Abdelmahmood Abdelhaleem: "Regarding our conflict, we have a conflict. We recognize existence of the conflict. But it has been blown out of proportion. It is a conflict, traditional conflict, over meager resources, water, land, like many thousands conflicts in the various corners of the world, so we are not an exception. It has been blown out of proportion to serve the agenda and interest of certain countries."

Western human rights groups praised the arrest warrant for Bashir. Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch said Bashir is guilty of war crimes.

Richard Dicker: "Certainly, it’s a momentous day for the International Criminal Court and, more broadly, the cause of justice and ending impunity for the most serious crimes under law: the mass murder of civilians, the use of rape as a weapon of intimidation or war, the forcible displacement of whole populations on the basis of their ethnicity. So this is a significant, momentous day. And I would say the decision of the judges of the ICC that we heard this morning is really of seismic proportions."

The Sudanese government has meanwhile carried through on warnings that an arrest warrant would further imperil Sudanese refugees. Within hours of the warrant’s announcement, Sudan expelled at least ten groups that provided aid to more than a million displaced people in western Darfur. The groups, including Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders and CARE International, account for 60 percent of humanitarian assistance in Darfur.

Clinton: Israeli House Demolitions "Unhelpful"

In Israel and the Occupied Territories, visiting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made some mild criticism of Israeli occupation policies in the West Bank and Gaza. Meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Clinton called Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes "unhelpful." She also called for a partial lifting of the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: "It is clearly a matter of deep concern to those who are directly affected, but the ramifications go far beyond the individuals and the families that have received the notices you referenced. So, yes, this will be taken up with the Israeli government. We have obviously expressed concerns about the border crossings. We want humanitarian aid to get into Gaza in sufficient amounts to be able to alleviate the suffering of the people in Gaza."

3 Palestinians Killed in Israeli Attack

Earlier today, at least three Palestinians were killed in an Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip. Israel says it targeted militants who fired at occupying Israeli troops across the Gaza border.

10 Killed in Iraq Bombing

In Iraq, at least ten people have been killed and more than forty wounded in a bombing near the city of Hilla. The attack targeted a busy cattle market.

UN General Assembly President Calls for Iraq Human Rights Probe

UN General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann is calling for an independent probe into human rights violations as a result of the US invasion of Iraq. On Tuesday, d’Escoto appeared before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

UN General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann: "Independent experts estimate that over one million Iraqis have lost their lives as a direct result of the illegal invasion of their country. The various UN human rights monitors have prepared report after report documenting the unending litany of violations from crimes of war, rights of children and women, social rights, collective punishment and treatment of prisoners of war and illegal detention of civilians. This must be addressed to bring an end to the scandalous present impunity."

3 Canadian Troops Killed in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, three Canadian troops have been killed in a roadside bombing near Kandahar. The attack came as three civilian contractors for a US company were injured in a car bombing at Bagram, the main US air base in Afghanistan.

Afghan Election Commission Rebuffs Karzai on Vote Date

In other Afghan news, an independent election commission has rejected President Hamid Karzai’s attempt to move up national elections to April. The commission has set August 20th as election day. Opposition leaders have accused Karzai of trying to rush the vote to help secure his re-election.

Murtha: 600,000 Troops Needed in Afghanistan

Meanwhile, Democratic Congress member John Murtha of Pennsylvania is predicting it will take some 600,000 troops to defeat Afghan insurgents. Murtha is the influential chair of the House Armed Services Committee. The 600,000 figure is more than seven times the peak number of NATO troops expected in Afghanistan this summer. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Brussels today for talks on the Afghan occupation with NATO allies.

Miers, Rove to Testify in Attorney Probe

Former Bush administration aides Harriet Miers and Karl Rove have agreed to testify on the firing of nine US attorneys three years ago. The agreement ends a long-running dispute over the reach of executive power to shield administration officials from testifying. Attorneys for former President George W. Bush, the House of Representatives and the Obama administration brokered the deal. Rove and Miers will provide depositions and sworn public testimony. But they won’t be asked about their discussions with President Bush or other Bush administration officials. Despite the conditions, House Judiciary Committee Chair John Conyers declared victory, saying, "We have finally broken through the Bush administration’s claims of absolute immunity. This is a victory for the separation of powers and congressional oversight."

Chavez Seizes US Subsidiary in Rice Dispute

In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez has seized a local subsidiary of the American food giant Cargill in a dispute over the market cost of rice. Chavez says Cargill and other companies are evading price controls and selling rice at inflated costs. Chavez is also threatening to nationalize Venezuela’s largest private company, Polar, in the rice dispute.

US Private Sector Shed 697,000 Jobs in Feb.

New figures show the US private sector lost 697,000 jobs last month. The services sector was the hardest hit, shedding 359,000 workers.

Study: Illegal Firings Linked to Union Votes

A new study has found an increased rate of illegal firings when workplaces vote on joining unions. The Center for Economic and Policy Research says more than one-fourth of union representation elections held this decade have been marred with an illegal firing of a pro-union worker. Pro-union workers were fired in 26 percent of union election campaigns, up from 16 percent in the last half of the 1990s. Labor unions are currently seeking passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to join unions. President Obama said this week he supports the measure.

Merrill Lynch Execs Subpoenaed in Bonuses Probe

Here in New York, State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has subpoenaed several top Merrill Lynch executives who were each paid more than $10 million in cash and stock last year. Overall, Merrill Lynch handed out over $3 billion in bonuses just before the company sold to Bank of America in a government-backed deal. The bonuses were handed out despite a $27.6 billion company loss on the year. Cuomo is investigating whether the payments violated securities laws.

New York Assembly Scales Back Rockefeller Drug Laws

In other New York news, the state assembly has approved a measure to partially reform the draconian Rockefeller drug laws and give judges more discretion in sentencing. The bill would allow judges to send drug offenders to substance abuse treatment instead of prison. Prisoners jailed for nonviolent drug offenses would also be eligible to have their sentences reduced or commuted. Critics fear that because it’s only a partial reform, most prisoners won’t see any reprieve. Wednesday’s vote was approved by a margin of 96-to-46. The bill now goes to the New York State Senate.

California Supreme Court Takes Up Gay Marriage Ban

And in California, the state Supreme Court will take up a case today seeking to overturn the voter-approved gay marriage ban. Gay marriage advocates want the court to declare Proposition 8 unconstitutional. The proceedings will be broadcast on giant television screens around San Francisco. Thousands of protesters marched around San Francisco on Wednesday ahead of today’s hearing.

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