The US is seeking to expand its military presence in Iraq just as the Iraqi government is backing a vote that could force an early US withdrawal. On Monday, the Iraqi cabinet said it would support holding a national referendum on whether to approve the US-Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA. The agreement calls for a US withdrawal by the end of 2011. But if Iraqis reject the timetable, US troops would be forced to begin pulling out nearly one year earlier. The Obama administration has pressured the Iraqi government to drop the referendum vote, despite its requirement under the US-Iraqi troop agreement. If approved by parliament, the referendum would be held in January.
The news comes as the top US military commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, has unveiled a plan to expand the US military occupation in northern Iraq. Under Odierno’s proposal, US troops would operate with Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Mosul and Kirkuk. The operations would apparently violate the US commitment under SOFA to withdraw from Iraqi cities and towns.
Meanwhile, in Iraq today at least seventy-five people have been killed and more than 300 wounded in a wave of attacks around Baghdad’s Green Zone. The deadliest bombing killed dozens of people near Iraq’s foreign ministry. The toll is expected to climb with at least five other bombings also reported.
In Afghanistan, at least ten people were killed and more than fifty wounded Tuesday in a suicide car bombing in Kabul. The dead included a NATO soldier and two Afghans working for the United Nations. Meanwhile, militants fired rockets at the Afghan presidential palace and a Kabul police station.
Meanwhile, the Afghan government has demanded that local media censor their coverage during Thursday’s national elections. The Afghan government wants media outlets to avoid reporting incidents of violence on election day, saying the news could discourage voters from going to the polls. The Taliban has vowed to disrupt the election and threatened violent attacks on those who turn out to vote.
The Obama administration continues to face questions over its commitment to a public health option. This weekend, the White House suggested it could back the formation of private-sector options, such as insurance exchanges or cooperatives, instead of a government-funded program. On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters the administration still favors a public option. But he said its refusal to insist on the public option as a requirement for healthcare reform falls in line with previous statements.
Robert Gibbs: "We have a goal of fostering choice and competition in a private health insurance market. The President prefers the public option as a way of doing that. If others have ideas, we’re open to those ideas and willing to listen to those details. That’s what the President has said for months."
In other healthcare news, two influential Democratic lawmakers have asked insurance company executives to disclose details on their salaries, retreats, and other financial information. In a letter sent out this week, Congress members Henry Waxman of California and Bart Stupak of Michigan said they want to examine "executive compensation and other business practices in the health insurance industry." Waxman is chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, while Stupak oversees the panel’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
The human rights group Amnesty International has documented more evidence of abuses under the Honduran coup regime. In a report set for release today, Amnesty accuses Honduran forces of using beatings and arrests to punish supporters of the ousted President Manuel Zelaya. Amnesty says the "mass arbitrary arrests and ill treatment of protesters" remains a "serious and growing concern."
The Honduran coup regime meanwhile has ordered the expulsion of Argentine diplomats. The coup government says it’s acting in response to Argentina’s expulsion of the Honduran ambassador after the ambassador backed Zelaya’s ouster. Venezuelan envoys have refused orders to leave Honduras, saying they don’t recognize the coup regime’s authority.
In other Honduras news, a delegation from the coup regime held talks with State Department officials Tuesday in Washington. A US spokesperson said the talks were held as part of Costa Rica-mediated negotiations and don’t signify US recognition of the coup regime. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the US still backs Zelaya’s return to Honduras.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: "The United States supports the peaceful restoration of democratic and constitutional order in Honduras, with President Zelaya’s return as president to finish his term. We continue to believe in the need for a negotiated solution and feel that President Arias’s plan was an excellent one for resolving this crisis."
Clinton spoke after a meeting with Colombian officials on a plan to expand the US military presence inside Colombia. Colombia has agreed to grant US forces the use of three military bases for anti-drug operations while also allowing hundreds of troops and private military contractors inside its borders. On Tuesday, Clinton addressed Latin American opposition to the base plans.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: "The agreement does not create US bases in Colombia. It does provide the United States access to Colombian bases, but command and control, administration, and security will be Colombia’s responsibility. And any US activity will have to be mutually agreed upon in advance. The United States does not have and does not seek bases inside Colombia. Second, there will be no significant permanent increase in the US military presence in Colombia."
Clinton’s comments come just days after a group of more than 100 religious, community and academic figures urged her to drop the Colombia base deal. In a letter to Clinton, the signatories said, "The United States should not create a fortress in Colombia in concert with the region’s worst rights violators, the Colombian military." The letter was organized by the group Fellowship of Reconciliation.
President Obama hosted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the White House Tuesday. Much of the meeting focused on Israel and the Occupied Territories. Obama praised Israel for moving "in the right direction" on freezing settlement activity.
President Obama: "If all sides are willing to move off of the rut that we’re in currently, then I think there is an extraordinary opportunity to make real progress. But we’re not there yet. I’m encouraged by some of the things that I’m seeing on the ground."
The Israeli government claims it hasn’t issued any new settlement housing tenders since March. But the Israeli group Peace Now says Israel is still building around 1,000 new homes in the occupied West Bank.
The Israeli government meanwhile is coming under criticism for a new set of restrictions on movement in the West Bank. Israel has quietly introduced a regulation barring movement between Israel and the West Bank for those holding a foreign passport. Israel has already banned most Palestinians from entering Israel except a small number holding special permits. But the new restrictions now affect thousands of additional people, including humanitarian workers and Palestinians with passports from foreign countries.
In other Mideast news, the Israeli military has declared the shooting of an unarmed American peace activist "an act of war." The activist, Tristan Anderson, was critically injured when Israeli soldiers fired a tear gas canister directly at his head in March. Anderson was taking part in a weekly nonviolent protest against Israel’s separation wall in the West Bank village of Ni’lin. The Israeli military says Anderson was involved in a hostile act, which would absolve the military of any liability for his injuries. Michael Sfard, an attorney for Anderson’s family, said, "If [an] unarmed civilian demonstration is classified by Israel as an 'act of war,' then clearly Israel admits that it is at war with civilians." The Anderson family has filed a criminal complaint with the Israeli government and also plans a civil suit.
A newly disclosed memo shows a prominent oil industry group has tried to stage rallies against climate change legislation using oil company employees posing as everyday citizens. The leaked American Petroleum Institute memo was made public by the environmental group Greenpeace. The memo urges oil companies to recruit employees to take part in protests against the Waxman-Markey climate bill approved by the House in June.
A delegation of US Catholic bishops are in Cuba this week to call for an end to the US embargo. Thomas Wenski, the bishop of Orlando, Florida, said he hopes the Obama administration will reverse long-standing US policy.
Thomas Wenski: "The bishops here in Cuba for many years have gone on record against the embargo, and the bishops in the United States, likewise, have spoken up for the Cuban bishops and their position, saying that, you know, the embargo affects people who — and causes hardship for innocent people. And hopefully with this new environment that exists in Washington and in Havana, hopefully there will be opportunities for greater changes."
And the columnist and talk show host Robert Novak has died at the age of seventy-eight. Novak was one of the most well-known right-wing commentators of the last three decades. In recent years, he became best known for outing the CIA operative Valerie Plame, inadvertently setting off a protracted controversy that led to the conviction of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the chief of staff to former Vice President Dick Cheney.