Syrian activists are reporting an ongoing spate of killings by government forces despite a visit from Arab League monitors. At least 15 people were reportedly killed on Wednesday as the monitors visited the flashpoint city of Homs. The head of the Arab League mission, Mustafa al-Dabi of Sudan, angered activists after saying he had seen quote "nothing frightening" in his initial tour of Homs.
Tensions are on the rise between the United States and Iran in a standoff over new economic sanctions and Iran’s threat to block a Gulf passageway in response. Iran said this week it would close off the Strait of Hormuz if President Obama enacts new economic sanctions targeting Iran’s oil exports. The sanctions were passed as part of a congressional measure targeting Iran’s alleged nuclear activities and now await Obama’s signature. About one-fifth of the world’s oil is said to pass through the Strait of Hormuz. On Wednesday, the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, said any disruption of the strait "will not be tolerated." Iran meanwhile says it has video of a U.S. aircraft carrier during a naval exercise near the strait.
The Obama administration is reportedly preparing to announce a new round of military sales to Saudi Arabia. The Associated Press reports the United States has reached a deal to provide Saudi Arabia with 84 new fighter jets and upgrades for 70 more for a total of nearly $30 billion. The sale would come just over a year after the United States reached a $60 billion agreement to sell advanced military aircraft to Saudi Arabia, the largest-ever single arms deal in U.S. history.
Kurdish officials have accused the Turkish military of carrying out a massacre in northern Iraq. The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party claims 35 smugglers were killed in an overnight air strike by Turkey Wednesday night. The Turkish military claims the targets were determined to be militants making their way toward the Turkish border under the cover of night.
New details have been revealed on the extensive growth of the U.S. secretive drone program under President Obama. The Washington Post reports the U.S. drone program currently operates out of dozens of clandestine locations and at least six secret bases on two continents. Targets of drone strikes are determined by alternating military and intelligence agencies including the Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA, who both work off of overlapping, yet different assassination lists. The division of authority allows the military and the CIA to avoid the operational review of a single committee. Since President Obama took office in 2009, the drone program has expanded outside of Pakistan, where it was initiated, and the number of strikes has risen from 44 over the course of five years, to nearly 240. The number of casualties resulting from drone strikes has reportedly skyrocketed from roughly 400 to more than 1,600. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and counterterrorism adviser John Brennan have all been outspoken supporters of the program in recent years. The only member of Obama’s team known to have formally raised objections is Dennis Blair, who was forced out from his role as director of national intelligence last year.
In Afghanistan, two French troops with the U.S.-led NATO occupation force have been killed in an attack by an Afghan soldier. The attack marked the latest shooting by an Afghan army member against the NATO coalition. In other news from Afghanistan, U.S. public relations advisers have pulled out of a Kabul media center in a rumored dispute over criticism of NATO. Afghan officials say U.S. officials quit their posts after a news conference at the Afghan Government Media Information Center featured criticism of civilian deaths as a result of NATO raids. U.S. officials claim to have pulled out of the center in accordance with the slow drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Republican presidential hopefuls continue to woo voters in Iowa before the state’s caucuses open the 2012 primary season next week. In campaign stops on Wednesday, both Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney took shots at President Obama.
Newt Gingrich: "Let me say in passing, I think the disaster of the President and Congress passing a two-month extension and going home as though they had accomplished something is really embarrassing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Washington more dysfunctional on a bipartisan basis than it is right now."
Mitt Romney: "And we also have to have someone who can post up against President Obama on the economy, who knows the economy, who has credibility on the economy. And I do. It’s where I spent my life. I understand America because I’ve lived America, I’ve lived the American dream. And I want to be able to bring the promise of America to all of our people and make sure that we send President Obama back to his hometown, where he can go back and learn what it’s like to work in the private sector."
With less than a week before the Iowa caucuses, the latest polls show Romney in a tight race with Texas Rep. Ron Paul. Paul has surged in Iowa polling this week, despite a recent controversy over bigoted statements in newsletters bearing his name in the 1980s and 1990s. Paul has distanced himself from the newsletters, saying he was unaware of their content. On Wednesday, Paul told Iowa voters he is gaining traction in part for his calls to change U.S. foreign policy.
Rep. Ron Paul: "We’re in 130-some countries, 900 bases, and believe me, we are not out of Iraq. That’s a dream, if you think we’re out of Iraq. We’re in there for long term, unless the people, not me, unless the people change their attitude about what we should do in how to run this—how to run the foreign policy. Right now, I sense the people are ready for a change in our foreign policy, they are ready for a change in our domestic spending policy. And I think that probably is a good indication why we’re doing a little bit better in the polls."
Rick Santorum is also surging in Iowa, with some polls showing he has surpassed Newt Gingrich.
Social justice activists with the "Occupy the Caucus" movement in Iowa continue to hold protests in the run-up to the vote. On Wednesday, three people were arrested at a Wells Fargo branch in Des Moines in protest of the bank’s donations to Mitt Romney’s campaign. Another seven protesters were arrested at Romney’s Iowa headquarters.
Newly released satellite photos reveal the dramatic expansion of extraction of tar sands oil in Alberta, Canada. Over the course of the last 10 years, approximately 232 miles have been exposed by the energy-intensive process. According to Canada’s environmental ministry, the expansion is expected to double in the next decade, which could result in the destruction of 740,000 acres of boreal forest and a 30 percent increase in carbon emissions.
Fourteen Muslim leaders in New York City are boycotting an event with Mayor Michael Bloomberg over a spying operation targeting local Muslims. Bloomberg has expressed public support for an New York City Police Department program that’s monitored Muslim New Yorkers — even without evidence of wrongdoing. The Muslim leaders were due to attend Bloomberg’s annual interfaith breakfast on Friday. But in a joint statement, they said: "Muslim New Yorkers are united in our opposition to the unjust, warrantless surveillance… [We] do not feel that we can accept his invitation without substantial discussion of what we view as a civil liberties crisis that affects all New Yorkers."