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The United Nations has launched an emergency appeal for $459 million to aid flood victims in Pakistan. On Wednesday, Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes warned a new wave of deaths could hit flood victims unless urgent aid is delivered.
Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes: "Assessments of losses and damages are still underway, as you can imagine, but it’s already very clear that these floods, the worst in Pakistan for over eighty years, have caused, and are continuing to cause, immense destruction and immense suffering. Unless aid activities continue to be rapidly scaled up, to reach those who remain displaced and without immediate access to food and clean drinking water, additional loss of human lives and further suffering will occur."
Although the US has provided millions in aid, the war in Afghanistan has hindered its ability to provide the needed assistance. On Wednesday, the US announced a tripling of helicopters being sent to Pakistan to nineteen. The Obama administration had been criticized for sending only six helicopters so far, despite a Pakistani request for dozens more. The US had denied the request because the helicopters play a key role in Afghan combat operations. Asked about transferring the helicopters earlier this week, a senior military official told the Washington Post the decision would have to come from Washington, adding, "Do [the helicopters] exist in the region? Yes. Are they available? No."
The US military is being accused of killing three innocent civilians in eastern Afghanistan today. Residents of the Zarin Khil village in Wardak province say US troops shot dead three brothers and then arrested their father in a raid on their home. The US-led NATO force says the victims were "suspected insurgents" who had drawn weapons on the troops. Earlier today, hundreds of Afghans blocked the main road leading through the area in a protest against the killings.
Top US military officials, meanwhile, are preparing to lobby for a delayed withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US has set a target date for starting to pull out troops next summer. But the Washington Post reports the new Afghan war commander, General David Petraeus, is taking steps to emphasize developments on the ground that "would make a rapid withdrawal unwise." Summarizing the military’s argument, a senior administration official said, "While we’ve been in Afghanistan for nine years, only in the past twelve months or so have we started doing this right, and we need to give it some time and think about what our long-term presence in Afghanistan should look like."
The talk of a delayed Afghan withdrawal comes as Iraq’s top military officer has said he wants US troops to stay in Iraq for the next decade, despite a withdrawal timetable for the end of next year. Speaking to Agence France-Presse, Lieutenant General Babakir Zebari said he wants the US army to remain in Iraq until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020. Zebari’s comments come as the Obama administration is claiming it’s on pace to withdraw around 14,000 US troops from Iraq by the end of the month. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the US commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, briefed the White House on Wednesday.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs: "The President heard directly from General Odierno, who said that we are on target to complete our drawdown by the end of August. Already we’ve removed over 80,000 troops from Iraq since President Obama took office. General Odierno also reported that the security situation has retained the significant improvements made over the last couple of years and that Iraqi security forces are fully prepared to be in the lead when we end our combat mission later this month."
The Obama administration is reportedly pressuring some of its top allies to crack down on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for releasing thousands of classified US military records on the Afghan war. According to the news website The Daily Beast, the US has asked Britain, Germany, Australia and other Western governments to open criminal investigations of Assange and severely restrict his international travel. The US is considering charges of its own against Assange, including violation of the Espionage Act. Assange, meanwhile, is claiming the Pentagon is refusing to assist him in his group’s attempt to remove the names of Afghan civilians and others who could be endangered by the release of 15,000 additional military documents. Assange says neither the Pentagon nor human rights groups that have urged him to censor the names have been willing to help foot the bill for an exhaustive review. The Daily Beast also reports the US may review its relations with Iceland, where WikiLeaks is effectively based.
The Huffington Post is reporting the oil giant BP appears to have structured its $20 billion compensation fund so that it will only be solvent if the company continues profiting from oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. The US government’s agreement establishing the fund isn’t with BP or even BP America, but with a subsidiary called BP Exploration & Production, or BPEC, which operates BP’s Gulf oil leases. Vested with BPEC, the compensation fund could presumably fold in the event BPEC stops generating revenue from its Gulf operations. The structuring also could increase BP’s leverage in ensuring a continued Gulf presence, should it come under challenge. In a statement, the watchdog group Public Citizen called the arrangement "wildly inappropriate," adding, "It will give the government a financial incentive to become an even bigger booster of offshore oil drilling in the Gulf — the fatal flaw of the Minerals Management Service at the time of the BP disaster."
Texas meanwhile has filed a lawsuit seeking to reverse the Obama administration’s moratorium on new deepwater offshore drilling. The ban freezes new deepwater drilling permits and has suspended operations at thirty-three wells until at least November 30th.
A new analysis from the group Health Care for America Now shows the nation’s five largest insurance companies paid top executives nearly $200 million last year while hitting customers with double-digit premium hikes. Execs at CIGNA, Humana, UnitedHealth Group and WellPoint all received pay hikes in 2009. CIGNA paid its top two executives over $136 million. The lone top exec to see his pay decline was Aetna’s Ron Williams, who received $18.2 million.
Florida Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial hopeful Bill McCollum has proposed a new anti-immigrant measure that could be even harsher than the notorious Arizona law that was partially stricken down last month. McCollum’s bill would impose a twenty-day jail sentence for any immigrant who doesn’t carry documentation, as well as longer sentences for crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. On Wednesday, McCollum said his bill "goes one step further" than Arizona’s and predicted that Arizona will want to pass a similar measure.
Bill McCollum: "This is our own law, not theirs. And I think when we’re done passing this law, Arizona is going to want our law. They’re going to want to pass our law, because we’re better, we’re stronger, we’re tougher, and we’re fairer."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is urging Senate passage of an arms control treaty with Russia following a delayed vote on the pact last week. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty calls for the US and Russia to cut their deployed arsenals to 1,550 nuclear warheads and 700 missile silos and bombers each. Democrats have moved a vote on the measure to next month to address Republican demands on preserving nuclear spending. Clinton said failure to approve the deal threatens national security.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: "Our national security is at risk. There is an urgency to ratify this treaty, because we currently lack verification measures with Russia, which only hurts our national security interests. Our ability to know and understand changes in Russia’s nuclear arsenal will erode without the treaty."
A military tribunal has sentenced a Guantánamo Bay prisoner who once served as Osama bin Laden’s cook to fourteen years in prison. Ibrahim al-Qosi is expected to receive a much shorter term, however, under a plea deal reached last month. Qosi’s conviction has forced the Pentagon to admit it has no written policies on where to hold prisoners convicted in military commissions after they’re sentenced.
The Argentine human rights group the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. The group started in 1977 when mothers who lost children under Argentina’s military dictatorship gathered to trade stories and provide support. That meeting later spawned the first of scores of demonstrations and actions against Argentina’s military leaders. The Grandmothers’ president, Estela Carlotto, was joined at a news conference Wednesday by the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón and Chilean senator Isabel Allende.
Estela Carlotto: "What we have done we did over time with perseverance, creativity, persistence, stubbornness, and the great love that we have for the two generations that we are looking for. And we didn’t realize that this could grow in such a way."
The Lebanese government says it will reject US military assistance, should it come with any conditions limiting its right to self-defense. Last week, House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Howard Berman used a legislative procedure to suspend $100 million in aid to Lebanon over what he said are concerns about Hezbollah’s influence there. Berman also said he’s concerned US weapons could be used against Israel, which has attacked Lebanon multiple times over the past four decades. On Wednesday, Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr said, "Those who want to help the army on condition that it doesn’t protect its territory, people and border from Israel, should keep their money — or give it to Israel instead."
A federal judge in California has ordered the banking giant Wells Fargo to change its policies on overdraft fees and return $203 million to customers who overpaid. In his ruling, US District Judge William Alsup said Wells Fargo had engaged in "profiteering" and "unfair and deceptive business practices" that led customers into paying excessive fees. Wells Fargo drove up fees by processing the most expensive transactions first, instead of in the order of when they took place.
And in Georgia, a chaotic mob scene unfolded Wednesday at an East Point shopping mall where some 30,000 people turned out to be placed on a wait list for government-subsidized housing. Witnesses say the overwhelming numbers, lack of coordination and the scorching summer heat led to fights amongst line-goers and standoffs with police. A number of people were treated for dehydration, and some sixty-two people were injured. It was the first time the East Point Housing Authority had offered the housing applications since 2002.