The US has officially withdrawn its last designated combat brigade from Iraq, two weeks ahead of a deadline for the withdrawal of some 14,000 troops. In a surprise announcement, the Pentagon said the last combat brigade crossed over into Kuwait earlier today. Although the withdrawal has been hailed as a major milestone in the Iraq war and an end to combat operations, most of the remaining 56,000 US troops are still trained in combat and will continue to carry out armed attacks. The Obama administration also plans to double its private military force in Iraq to an estimated 7,000 contractors. According to the New York Times, the bulk of the private military force will be deployed at five compounds across Iraq, where they’ll perform duties including operating drones, deploying reaction forces and operating radars to detect militant attacks. In an interview on Democracy Now! earlier this month, independent journalist Jeremy Scahill said the Obama administration’s withdrawal plan amounts to a rebranded occupation.
Jeremy Scahill: "What is essentially unfolding here is a downsized and rebranded occupation, Obama-style, that is going to necessitate a surge in private forces. The State Department is asking for MRAP vehicles, armored vehicles, for Black Hawk helicopters and for these paramilitary forces. So, yes, you can say that officially combat has ended, but in reality you’re continuing it through the back door by bringing in these paramilitary forces and classifying them as diplomatic security, which was Bush’s game from the very beginning."
In Afghanistan, hundreds of people have blocked a main highway outside the city of Jalalabad to protest the killings of two Afghan civilians and the arrest of several others in a US raid. A local police commander said the victims were a father and his son.
Col. Ghafoor Khan: "As a result of the operation in the house, two people have been martyred, a father and his son, and three others have been taken away. Those who have been killed and those who have been taken away are farmers working in the lands."
The Obama administration is warning that an Afghan government ban on private military firms could harm US aid and development work in Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued a decree this week ordering all private firms to disband within four months. About 26,000 armed security contractors work with the US government in Afghanistan, including 19,000 with the US military. In a statement, the US embassy in Afghanistan said, "We are concerned that any quick action to remove private security companies may have unintended consequences, including the possible delay of US reconstruction and development assistance efforts."
The United Nations General Assembly is holding an emergency session today to raise emergency aid for the millions of Pakistanis devastated by massive floods. The UN says vital supplies have reached just one million of the eight million people in urgent need. The number of Pakistanis left permanently homeless by the floods has been doubled to four million, with some 20 million people displaced overall. The US is expected to announce it’s increasing aid to $150 million from the $90 million pledged so far.
In Peru, the US activist Lori Berenson has been sent back to prison just three months after she was freed on parole. Berenson had served nearly fifteen years following her 1996 conviction for collaborating with the rebel group, the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA. Her return to jail appears to rest on a narrow technicality around the location of her home during her parole. We’ll have more on the story after headlines.
Newly disclosed court records show the US is still holding an emotionally ill Yemeni prisoner at Guantánamo Bay six years after he was first cleared for release. The prisoner, Adnan Abdul Latif, was granted Pentagon approval to be freed in 2004 but was only placed on a transfer list three years later. Latif has remained at Guantánamo Bay since, because the US has stalled most transfers of Yemeni prisoners back home. Defense attorneys say he’s spent long periods in Guantánamo’s psychiatric ward following multiple suicide attempts. A federal judge again ordered Latif’s release last month, but the Obama administration has refused to comply while it considers an appeal.
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit accusing the US government of stonewalling an attempt to unearth details of the alleged torture and imprisonment of a US citizen in the United Arab Emirates. The alleged victim, Naji Hamdan, was held for nearly three months without charge and was denied access to a lawyer and contact with his family. Hamdan says he was beaten, kicked in the liver, strapped to an electric chair, and told his wife would be raped in front of him. Hamdan moved to the UAE from the United States in 2006 after being the target of intense FBI scrutiny and was jailed just weeks after FBI agents questioned him at the US embassy in Abu Dhabi. The ACLU says the federal government has ignored a six-month-old Freedom of Information Act request for information about the FBI’s long-term surveillance of Hamdan, as well the US role in his imprisonment and torture. Hamdan has also claimed an unidentified American took part in his interrogation.
Former Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean has become the latest high-profile Democrat to oppose the construction of an Islamic community center blocks from New York’s Ground Zero. In a radio interview, Dean said he thinks the plans for a Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan would be "an affront" to 9/11 victims. Dean also appeared to erroneously suggest the proposed center would be built at Ground Zero.
Howard Dean: "We have to understand that it is a real affront to people who’ve lost their lives, including Muslims. That site doesn’t belong to any particular religion. It belongs to all Americans and all faiths. So I think a good, reasonable compromise could be worked out. I think it’s great to have mosques in American cities. There’s a growing number of American Muslims. I think most of those Muslims are moderate. I hope that they’ll have an influence on Islam throughout the world, because Islam is really back in the twelfth century in some of these countries, like Iran and Afghanistan, where they’re stoning people to death. And that can be fixed. And the way it’s fixed is not by pushing Muslims away, it’s by embracing them and have them become just like every other American — Americans who happen to be Muslims."
Dean is the most prominent Democrat to oppose the center since Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid came out against it last week. President Obama has said he supports the right of Muslims to build a center at the site, but has refused to comment on whether he supports the project itself. Asked about his comments during a visit to Ohio on Wednesday, Obama maintained his stance.
Reporter: "Any regrets jumping into the Islamic center?"
President Obama: "The answer is no regrets."
The Obama administration is being accused of leveraging millions in development aid to pressure the Indian government for leniency on the company responsible the 1984 Bhopal industrial gas disaster that left an estimated 15,000 people dead. The company, Union Carbide, is now a subsidiary of Dow Chemical. Dow has faced calls to clean up the contaminated site, increase compensation for victims, and fund studies to assess damages to the environment and public health. India has also demanded the extradition of former Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson, who fled India shortly after his arrest in the disaster’s aftermath. In a newly disclosed letter to an Indian government official, White House Deputy National Security Adviser Michael Froman appears to link US support for World Bank loans to India with India’s cooperation in easing up on Dow. Froman writes, "We are hearing a lot of noise about the Dow Chemical issue. I trust that you are monitoring it carefully. I am not familiar with all the details, but I think we want to avoid developments which put a chilling effect on our investment relationship." The White House hasn’t denied the email’s authenticity, but says it sees the two issues as unrelated.
New figures show the US deported over 393,000 foreign nationals in 2009, a record high for the seventh consecutive year. The Department of Homeland Security says just over a quarter of the deportees had been convicted of criminal offenses. Seventy-two percent of the total number were undocumented immigrants from neighboring Mexico.
The Justice Department is threatening to sue Arizona’s Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio if he does not cooperate with their civil rights investigation into whether he discriminates against Hispanics. The probe was launched last year following widespread allegations Arpaio has overseen a discriminatory enforcement of federal immigration laws. Federal prosecutors say Arpaio’s office has refused to hand over documents and turned down requests to meet with investigators. A federal grand jury is also looking into whether Arpaio has used his position to target political opponents.
And the bailed-out auto giant General Motors has taken steps to sell off company shares in a public offering later this year. On Wednesday, GM filed papers with regulators that would allow the US government to unload its majority stake. GM avoided collapse with a taxpayer-funded $50 billion bailout last year, earning it the nickname "Government Motors."