In Iraq, at least seventy-two people were killed Wednesday in a bombing in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad. Another 127 people were wounded. The attack comes just six days before a deadline for the pullback of US troops from Iraqi cities and towns. More than 240 Iraqis have been killed in several bombings over the last week.
In Iran, government forces continue to repress protests over this month’s disputed national elections. On Wednesday, Iranian police broke up a crowd of hundreds trying to gather near the Iranian parliament in Tehran. Witnesses described mass beatings and arrests, with many protesters sustaining serious injuries. The clashes came as Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reaffirmed his refusal to annul the election. Speaking in France, the recently freed Iranian American journalist Roxana Saberi criticized the crackdown.
Roxana Saberi: "I am very worried about their welfare, and I think they’re probably going through a much more difficult time than I was. And I hope that they can be released as soon as possible. I think that violence cannot resolve anything, and people simply want — many people of Iran simply want their demands to be heard in a peaceful way."
Saberi was released from an Iranian prison last month following charges of espionage. The Obama administration, meanwhile, has withdrawn invitations to Iranian diplomats to attend upcoming Fourth of July celebrations at US embassies worldwide. The US says the invitations were withdrawn to protest the crackdown.
A congressional probe has found private health insurers have forced consumers to pay billions of dollars in medical costs that the insurers should have paid. In a new report, the Senate Commerce Committee says insurers have relied on faulty databases that have led to underpaying on millions of valid claims for out-of-network medical care. Patients have been forced to make up the difference. The report says the databases’ errors were easily disguised because insurers have failed to properly inform consumers on how they calculate charges for out-of-network costs. The databases are owned by a company named Ingenix. The firm has a financial incentive to underpay consumers: it’s a subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group, one of the nation’s largest private insurers. In addition to UnitedHealth, at least seventeen other leading insurance companies have relied on Ingenix’s data.
The findings were released as the Senate Commerce Committee heard testimony from an insurance executive who’s now criticizing his former industry. The executive, Wendell Potter, was most recently a public relations executive for the insurer Cigna until last year. In his testimony, Potter said the industry has deliberately misled consumers with confusing paperwork to deter them from trying to recoup unwarranted payments. Potter said, "[T]hey confuse their customers and dump the sick, all so they can satisfy their Wall Street investors." Potter also said insurers are using what he called "fear tactics" to derail proposals for a public health plan out of fear of losing profits.
President Obama, meanwhile, continued his push for healthcare reform with a televised forum from the White House. Obama said current healthcare costs are unsustainable.
President Obama: "If we don’t do some of the things that we’ve talked about tonight, you know, changing how we pay for quality instead of quantity, making sure that we are investing in prevention, all those game-changers that I discussed earlier — if we don’t do those things, Medicare and Medicaid are going to be broke, and it will consume all of the federal budget. Every program that currently exists under the federal budget, except defense and entitlements, all that would be swept aside by the cost of healthcare, if we do nothing."
Thousands of doctors, nurses, union members and other healthcare activists are converging in Washington, DC, today for a national day of action calling for universal, affordable healthcare. The event is being organized by the group Health Care for America Now.
President Obama has signed a $106 billion emergency spending bill to expand the war in Afghanistan and to continue the war in Iraq. Congress passed the measure last week with the support of several Democrats who had previously cast antiwar votes. The measure also includes $420 million for the Mexican government to fight drug cartels, as well as increased funding for the International Monetary Fund.
New details have emerged on the torture and abuse of prisoners at the Bagram US air base in Afghanistan. A group of twenty-seven former prisoners told the BBC they were subjected to beatings, threatened with dogs, and routinely deprived of sleep. Four of the prisoners say they were threatened at gunpoint with death.
Former Prisoner #1: "They put a pistol in my ear. They said I had to speak or be shot."
Former Prisoner #2: "They put guns to your head and threatened you with death. The played very loud music and put medicine in our drinks to prevent us from sleeping while they interrogated us."
Former Prisoner #3: "They kicked me, beat me, tortured me. I was injured, and they hit me on my wounds. No one would treat animals this way."
Former Prisoner #4: "They shoved us against the wall. They pushed us to the ground. Then they picked us up and pushed us down again. This was repeated several times."
As new allegations surface at Bagram, the UN’s top human rights official is calling for the release or trial of Guantanamo Bay prisoners and the prosecution of US officials who authorized their torture. On Wednesday, High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said, "People who order or inflict torture cannot be exonerated, and the roles of certain lawyers, as well as doctors who have attended torture sessions, should also be scrutinized." Pillay also criticized President Obama’s plan to continue the indefinite imprisonment of Guantanamo prisoners without charge, saying, "There should be no half-measures or new creative ways to treat people as criminals when they have not been found guilty of any crime."
Arab foreign ministers have rejected President Obama’s call to normalize their relations with Israel even though Israel has refused to stop expanding Israeli settlements. A seven-year-old Arab League peace plan offers Israel a comprehensive peace deal in return for its complete withdrawal from the Occupied Territories and the creation of a Palestinian state there. Despite his pledge to seek peace, President Obama has refused to fully endorse the Arab offer — only its provision regarding Arab recognition of Israel. On Wednesday, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa said the settlements remain the key issue.
Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa: "Regarding the settlements, we disagree 100 percent with whomever claims that settlements do not undermine peace. Settlements destroy peace. Settlements prevent negotiations. Settlements stop peace efforts if they are underway."
A full withdrawal from the Occupied Territories would require the dismantling of large Israeli settlements that carve up the West Bank. But President Obama has only called on Israel to meet its pledge to halt settlement expansion, a pledge that Israel has now even renounced.
The US has reportedly sent an arms shipment to the government of Somalia in its fight against Islamist rebels. The Washington Post reports the shipment arrived in the Somali capital Mogadishu earlier this month.
The US and Venezuela have announced plans to restore their expelled ambassadors after a nine-month rift. Both countries withdrew their ambassadors in a dispute over the Bush administration’s destablilization efforts in Bolivia. State Department spokesperson Ian Kelly said the renewed ties came out of the recent Summit of the Americas.
Ian Kelly: "Since Secretary Clinton and President Chavez spoke during the Summit of Americas, both our governments have worked toward the goal of returning ambassadors to our respective capitals. We are currently taking the necessary measures to accomplish this goal."
Venezuela says its US ambassador will return to Washington on Friday.
Meanwhile in Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez is hosting the sixth summit of ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas. ALBA was established as a counterweight to US-led trade agreements in Latin America. On Wednesday, the existing members voted to admit Ecuador. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa praised ALBA as a further shift towards regional integration.
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa: "We are soliciting to be incorporated in the ALBA in a demonstration of political consequence, of ideological empathy and solidarity with our brother countries. Of course it is a political project. It is a project of solidarity, of integration."
Back in the United States, a new poll shows three-quarters of Americans want the US to limit its emissions of greenhouse gases to reduce global warming. The Washington Post-ABC News survey also found that a smaller number, 52 percent, support a cap-and-trade approach similar to the proposal currently being advanced in Congress.
In South Carolina, Republican Governor Mark Sanford has admitted to an extramarital affair. Sanford came under scrutiny late last week after media reports that his whereabouts were unknown. Aides said he was hiking the Appalachian trail. But on Wednesday, Sanford admitted he was in Argentina visiting a woman with whom he was romantically involved.
South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford: "The bottom line is this, I have been unfaithful to my wife. I developed a relationship with what started as a dear, dear friend from Argentina. It began very innocently, as I suspect many of these things do, in just a casual email back-and-forth in advice on one’s life there and advice here. But here, recently, over this last year, it developed into something much more than that."
Sanford was considered among the top contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. He’s resigned as chair of the Republican Governors’ Association.
In Los Angeles, a former gang member who’s become a leading anti-violence activist has been arrested in a federal sweep. Alex Sanchez used to belong to the LA gang MS-13. He later renounced gang life and became executive director and founding member of Homies Unidos, a gang violence prevention and intervention program with offices in Los Angeles and El Salvador. On Wednesday, Sanchez was arrested along with several others with ties to MS-13.
And in Louisiana, five of the six African American teenagers known as the "Jena Six" are reportedly close to reaching a plea deal. The teens have been at the center of one of the nation’s most well-known civil right cases in recent years. They were initially charged with attempted murder over a schoolyard fight that left a white student injured. The fight occurred several months after white students hung nooses from a tree under which black students had sat. According to the Associated Press, the five defendants will plead guilty to lesser charges on Friday. A sixth defendant, Mychal Bell, reached a plea deal in 2007 and received an eighteen-month sentence.