In Russia, at least thirty-seven people have died after two female suicide bombers attacked a pair of subway stations in Moscow at the peak of the morning rush hour. More than seventy people were injured. One of the blasts occurred at a station underneath the main offices of the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the KGB. No group has yet claimed responsibility, but Russian officials suspect it was carried out by rebels fighting for independence in Chechnya. Last month a Chechen rebel leader said, "the zone of military operations will be extended to the territory of Russia... the war is coming to their cities.”
President Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Sunday, his first since taking office. Due to security concerns, Obama secretly flew into Kabul at night. He left six hours later, while it was still dark. The trip came four months after President Obama ordered 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan in a major escalation of the war. During his brief trip Obama met Afghan President Hamid Karzai and then spoke before a group of US soldiers.
President Obama: "Plots against our homeland, plots against our allies, plots against the Afghan and Pakistani people are taking place as we speak right here. And if this region slides backwards, if the Taliban retakes this country and al-Qaeda can operate with impunity, then more American lives will be at stake, the Afghan people will lose their chance at progress and prosperity, and the world will be significantly less secure."
Meanwhile, military officials in Kabul have admitted US and NATO troops have killed thirty Afghans and wounded eighty others at or near military checkpoints since last summer. In no instance did the victims prove to be a danger to troops. In a recent video conference, military commander Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal said, “We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat."
The FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force raided properties in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois over the weekend and arrested members of a self-described Christian militia called the Hutaree. At least seven people were arrested. Charges will be unsealed today. Officials have said little about the arrests, but members of other militias in Michigan said they had heard the FBI targeted the Hutaree after its members made threats of violence against Islamic organizations. Video posted on YouTube shows armed members of the military conducting military-like training exercises. Part of the group’s website reads, "Jesus wanted us to be ready to defend ourselves using the sword." A recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found the number of right-wing militias tripled last year from forty-two to 127.
In Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is challenging the results of the recent elections that were narrowly won by former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi. On Friday, the United Nations and the Independent High Electoral Commission announced Allawi’s Iraqiya Party won ninety-one parliamentary seats, Maliki’s State of Law party won eighty-nine seats. Allawi won after receiving the backing of many Sunni parties. The New York Times reports Maliki has taken a number of steps to overturn the election results. On Thursday, a day before the results were announced, he quietly persuaded the Iraqi supreme court to issue a ruling that potentially allows him to choose the new government instead of awarding that right to the winner of the election. Meanwhile, officials in charge of purging the government of former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party have said that they expect to disqualify more than fifty political candidates, many of them members of Allawi’s Iraqiya Party. That could strip Allawi of his victory. Prime Minister Maliki is also clamoring for a recount and is considering filing a legal appeal. While Ayad Allawi’s party won the most seats, the party fell far short of a majority. He will need to form a coalition government in the coming weeks.
Ayad Allawi: "We hope to enthrone this achievement by forming the government as quickly as possible, a government that is capable of providing security from one side and to offer the appropriate services to its people on the other side."
There is concern the political tension could lead to an upswing in violence. On Sunday, six people died in western Iraq, including an official of a political faction in former Prime Minister Allawi’s electoral coalition. On Friday, a few hours before election results were released, two bombs struck a crowded market in Iraq’s mainly Sunni northern Diyala province, killing fifty-nine and wounding seventy-three. Earlier today, a pair of car bombs in the holy city of Karbala killed at least four people and wounded twenty-two.
President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev have sealed an agreement on a landmark nuclear arms reduction treaty. Obama and Medvedev plan to officially sign the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty on April 8 in Prague.
President Obama: "Broadly speaking, the new START Treaty makes progress in several areas. It cuts, by about a third, the nuclear weapons that the United States and Russia will deploy. It significantly reduces missiles and launchers. It puts in place a strong and effective verification regime. And it maintains the flexibility that we need to protect and advance our national security and to guarantee our unwavering commitment to the security of our allies.”
While President Obama said the treaty will cut the US and Russia nuclear arsenals by a third, arms-control experts warned that the figure is misleading because the new pact used different counting rules than previous agreements. Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists said the new deal could represent an actual decline of only about 100 or 200 nuclear weapons — a reduction of only as much as 13 percent. Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution said the deal could improve US-Russian relations.
Steven Pifer: "Well, I think it’s significant because this is the first real agreement that you’ve had governing strategic arms reductions in almost two decades, going back to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty. So that’s important. It’s a foreign policy victory. It’s good for the administration’s effort to build a better relationship with Russia, and it’s good for the overall commitment on nuclear nonproliferation.”
In economic news, the unemployment rate increased in twenty-seven states last month. Florida, Nevada, Georgia and North Carolina set record levels of joblessness in February. Fifteen states had unemployment of ten percent or higher.
In news from Washington, President Obama has sidestepped the Senate confirmation process and made fifteen recess appointments. The appointees include former AFL-CIO official Craig Becker, who was named to a seat on the National Labor Relations Board. Becker’s appointment comes one month after two Democratic senators, Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln, joined with Republicans to block his nomination. Under the Constitution, the President has the authority to fill vacancies without the consent of the Senate when Congress is not in session.
The Washington Post reports US immigration authorities have set controversial new quotas for agents to deport more undocumented workers. The head of ICE detention and removal operations, James Chaparro, outlined the plan in a recent memo. He wrote that ICE is on pace to deport about 310,000 immigrants for the year ending September 30, well below ICE’s goal of 400,000 deportations a year. In the memo, Chaparro said ICE will increase the number of overall deportations by increasing detention space to hold more undocumented immigrants, by sweeping prisons to find more candidates for deportation, and by launching a so-called "surge" in efforts to catch undocumented immigrants whose only violation was lying on immigration or visa applications or reentering the United States after being deported. The moves outlined in the memo differ from public pledges by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to focus enforcement on the most dangerous undocumented immigrants. Deportations of convicted criminals climbed 19 percent in 2009 and are on pace to climb 40 percent this year. Joan Friedland of the National Immigration Law Center criticized the ICE memo, saying quotas will encourage agents to target easy cases, not the ones who pose the greatest safety risk.
Israel is threatening to stage more attacks in Gaza after a bloody weekend left two Israeli soldiers and four Palestinian militants dead. The deaths occurred after Israeli tanks and bulldozers crossed into Gaza. Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned Hamas that Israel would react harshly to any escalation along its border with the Gaza Strip.
A New York state judge has blocked New York City from closing nineteen public schools. In her ruling, the judge said the Panel for Education Policy committed "significant violations of Education Law" and "appeared to trivialize the whole notion of community involvement in decisions regarding the closing or phasing out of schools." Under Mayor Mike Bloomberg, ninety-one schools in the city have been closed and replaced with clusters of smaller schools and charter schools. The lawsuit to block the school closings was filed by the United Federation of Teachers and the NAACP.
In South Africa, nearly 6,000 people participated in the twenty-fifth annual Gandhi walk in memory of the Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi on Sunday. The occasion also marked the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first indentured Indian workers in South Africa in 1860. South Africa now has over one million people of Indian or Asian origin.
Thabo Masemola: "It’s a very special occasion, because whilst we are exercising, we’re walking with the memory of Gandhi. If you remember, in 1860, settlers, when they came into South Africa, the depth at which Gandhi worked for the liberation of the country, it’s a very magnificent feeling. You walk knowing the spirits are walking with you."