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US Raid Kills Two Pregnant Women and Teenage Girl in Afghanistan

The Times of London has revealed US and Afghan gunmen killed two pregnant mothers, a teenage girl and two local officials last month in a botched nighttime raid in the Paktia province of Afghanistan. The raid came more than two weeks after the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan issued new guidelines designed to limit the use of night raids. Survivors said US and NATO officials tried to cover up the killings by claiming that the three women had been discovered bound and gagged, apparently killed execution style. The Times reports the two Afghan men were shot dead while trying to proclaim their innocence. The women were hit by the same volley of fire while crouching in a hallway. One of the mothers killed had ten children, the other had six children. The families were offered compensation of $2,000 for each of the victims.

Federal Auditors Block New Blackwater Contract

The Washington Post reports federal auditors have put a stop to Army plans to award a $1 billion training program for Afghan police officers to the company formerly known as Blackwater. The decision was made after auditors concluded that other companies were unfairly excluded from bidding on the job.

House Might Pass Healthcare Bill Without Direct Vote

On Capitol Hill, the Democratic leadership is moving forward plans to pass the healthcare reform package later this week. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested Monday that she might attempt to use a special legislative procedure to avoid a direct House vote in order to pass the less popular Senate version of the healthcare bill. The tactic, known as "a self-executing rule," would have Congress members vote on a package of changes to the Senate version. Approving those changes would in turn be deemed an endorsement of the initial Senate measure they’d be modifying. Republicans have criticized the proposal, calling it a way for Democrats to avoid an up-or-down vote.

Dodd Unveils Financial Reform Legislation

Senator Christopher Dodd unveiled his long-awaited financial reform legislation on Monday. Dodd’s proposal gives new power to the Federal Reserve while gutting the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency. Instead of creating an independent consumer agency, Dodd wants to create a Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection inside the Federal Reserve. House Financial Services Committee Chair Barney Frank recently said that the idea of housing a consumer protection agency inside the Fed is like a “bad joke." Other parts of Dodd’s bill have received praise from watchdog groups. Wall Street whistleblowers will be given new protections and incentives to report securities violations and an Office of Credit Ratings would be formed to examine credit rating agencies.

Mitchell Delays Trips to Israel over Settlement Dispute

US special envoy George Mitchell has delayed a planned trip to Israel as tensions remain high between the Obama administration and the Israeli government. Despite pressure from the White House, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to cancel plans to build 1,600 new housing units in a Jewish settlement. On Monday, the European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton reiterated the EU’s condemnation of the settlements.

Catherine Ashton: "Recent Israeli decisions to build new housing units in East Jerusalem have endangered and undermined the tentative agreement to begin proximity talks. The European Union position on settlements is clear. Settlements are illegal, constitute an obstacle to peace, and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible — a solution the Israeli Prime Minister says he supports. Well, he’s right, and these talks are therefore urgent. They’re urgent because I fear for the future, urgent because Israel has a popular Prime Minister who owes it to his people to move to the solution he says he supports."

More than forty Palestinians were hospitalized today after Israeli police fired teargas and rubber bullets to break up a series of protests in Jerusalem over Israel’s expansion of settlements. Members of Hamas had called on Palestinians to regard today as a day of rage against Israel.

Israel to Close Off Palestinian Village on Days of Wall Protests

In the West Bank, the Israeli army has announced new measures to quash the weekly demonstrations against the Israeli separation wall. The Palestinian villages of Bilin and Nilin will now be considered closed military zones on Fridays, the day of the weekly protests. This will prevent all non-residents of the villages from taking part in the protests that have helped put an international spotlight on the Israeli separation wall.

UN Munitions Team Finds 84 Unexploded White Phosphorus Shells in Gaza

Israeli authorities have finally allowed United Nations explosives experts into Gaza to blow up munitions left behind in last year’s assault. The UN has collected 340 unexploded bombs and shells, including eighty-four white phosphorus shells and seven one-ton bombs dropped by aircraft.

UN: More Money Needed for Haiti Humanitarian Aid Fund

The United Nations has announced its appeal for $1.4 billion in humanitarian aid for Haiti is only half funded, two months after the devastating earthquake. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said emergency shelter and sanitation are still urgently needed ahead of the rainy season. On Sunday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited a Haitian camp that is home to tens of thousands of internally displaced persons.

Ban Ki-moon: “I’m concerned that the rainy season is approaching, what will happen to those people who are living there. We have to move these displaced persons to a safer place.”

Thai Protesters Plan to Splatter Blood on Thai Gov’t HQ

In Thailand, anti-government protesters have started donating their own blood as part of a plan to splatter the Thai government headquarters in a symbolic sacrifice to press their demands for new elections. On Sunday, over 100,000 so-called Red Shirt protesters rallied in Bangkok calling on Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to dissolve parliament.

Weng Tojirakarn: "As soon as you (Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva) dissolve the parliament, we will go back home. Then we can prepare for the votes for the elections. We don’t want to see any conflict of classes, which might lead to a war of classes or war between people, which is not my intention."

The Red Shirt protesters in Thailand include opponents of the 2006 military that ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Ex-Sri Lankan Military Chief Faces Court-Martial

In other news from Asia, Sri Lanka’s former military chief has been court-martialed on sedition charges. Sarath Fonseka was arrested on February 8 after being accused of plotting a coup two weeks after losing the presidential election to incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Six More Iranian Protesters to be Executed

Iranian authorities have announced six protesters arrested during demonstrations in December will be put to death. The six have been detained since late December when they took part in the Ashura Day protests. Meanwhile, Iran’s largest pro-reform political party has been banned. On Monday, the Iranian government announced it had stripped the Islamic Iran Participation Front’s authorization to conduct political activity.

German and Irish Churches Face Sexual Abuse Scandals

A German priest at the center of a sexual abuse scandal that has embroiled Pope Benedict has been suspended after breaching a ban on working with children. Father Hullermann was first accused of sexually abusing young boys in 1980, but Church officials, including the future Pope, allowed him to stay in the church for thirty years, even after a 1986 conviction of sexually abusing children. In recent weeks, more than 100 reports have emerged of abuse at Catholic institutions in Germany, including one linked to the prestigious Regensburg choir once run by the Pope’s brother. On Friday, the head of Germany’s Catholic Church, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, apologized to victims of child abuse by priests.

Archbishop Robert Zollitsch: "Above all, I wish to clarify that the German bishops are profoundly shocked about what has happened within the world of the Church as far as sexual abuse and violent acts are concerned. A few weeks ago I apologized to the victims, something I’d like to do again here in Rome."

Meanwhile, pressure is mounting for the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland to resign over revelations that he did not report complaints against a pedophile priest to police thirty-five years ago. At a meeting in 1975, Cardinal Sean Brady spoke with children abused by a priest named Brendan Smyth. Instead of reporting the abuse to the police, Brady asked the children to take a vow of silence. The founder of the child abuse support group One in Four, Colm O’Gorman, said the priest continued to rape and abuse children.

Colm O’Gorman: "Remember, they carried out the investigation. They interviewed the child victims of this priestly rapist. Sean Brady determined in his own mind that these children were telling the truth, and he then simply passed the information up the line and did nothing. And for another eighteen years, as Sean Brady rose through the ranks in the Catholic Church hierarchy, Brendan Smyth continued to rape and abuse children."

Study: Black and Latinos Face Longer Prison Sentences

A new government study has concluded black and Hispanic men are more likely to receive longer prison sentences than their white counterparts since the Supreme Court loosened federal sentencing rules. The report by the US Sentencing Commission examined sentencing rates since the 2005 US v. Booker. Black men have received sentences that were up at least ten percent longer than those imposed on whites. Hispanic men received sentences that were almost seven percent longer than white men’s.

Officials Urge Participation in 2010 Census

2010 Census forms started arriving in mailboxes Monday. The census count determines how congressional district lines are drawn and the amount of federal funding awarded to states. Here in New York, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and New York Secretary of State Lorraine Cortes-Vazquez urged all New York residents to fill out the forms, including undocumented immigrants. The officials said New York City lost millions of dollars in federal and state funding over the past decade because only 55 percent of city residents mailed in census forms ten years ago. In Texas, officials say over 370,000 Texans were uncounted in the 2000 Census resulting in the loss of about $1 billion in federal funds.

Hundreds of Students Protest Cuts in Atlanta

Hundreds of college students rallied in Atlanta on Monday to protest budget cuts, faculty layoffs and tuition increases at public colleges in Georgia. The University System of Georgia is facing at least $350 million in cuts in the next fiscal year. At the rally, some students held fake caskets reading "RIP Georgia Education."

23,000 California Teachers Receive Layoff Notices

In California, teachers staged a protest on Monday by delivering pink slips to lawmakers and to Governor Schwarzenegger to protest the devastating education cuts. More than 23,000 teachers in California have recently received layoff notices.

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