In Iraq, four U.S. soldier died Friday. One of them was killed when a US helicopter was shot down near Fallujah. Later at the scene of the crash, the Reuters news agency reported that U.S. troops fired on its own journalists who were trying to cover the crash. Three journalists with Reuters were detained at the scene. On Saturday the Reuters bureau chief in Baghdad told the Associated Press “Our guys are still in detention and we still haven’t been informed of any specific accusation against them.” Several local Iraqi journalists also reported being detained for questioning after they approached the crash site. The U.S. claimed that troops had come under fire from men wearing vests that read Press. The U.S. responded to the attack on the helicopter by bombing parts of southern Baghdad and conducted house-to-house searches in Fallujah. Meanwhile in Samarra, U.S. forces blew up the house of a man Talab Saleh they accused of orchestrating attacks against U.S. troops. The U.S. also reportedly arrested the man’s wife and brother and said they would be jailed until his surrender.
On Thursday U.S forces raided a Sunni mosque in Baghdad on Thursday and detained 32 people. A large arms cache was reportedly found at the mosque. On Friday hundreds of Iraqis gathered outside the mosque to protest the raid.
The Washington Post is reporting that the U.S. will formally launch this week the process to handover of power in Iraq by the deadline of June 30. According to the Post several key questions remain unanswered including: what kind of government will Iraq have? what will the role of Islam be? How much local rule will be given to ethnic, tribal or religious groups? Among other things the U.S. is likely to demand that all U.S. forces in Iraq be given immunity from any legal action.
The New York Times is reporting that the Bush administration has decided to let the Kurdish region of Iraq remain semi-autonomous. The Sunday Herald in Scotland is suggesting that there might be a connection between the U.S. position and reports that Kurdish fighters were the ones who captured Saddam Hussein three weeks ago. Kurdish media as well as news outlets in Britain, Scotland and Australia have reported that Hussein was tracked down by a team of Kurds and then handed Hussein over to the U.S. Since Hussein’s capture, Kurdish leaders have greatly increased its calls for more autonomy and power over the city of Kirkuk. Over the last week violent clashes broke out in Kirkuk between Kurdish and Arab students and between Kurds and Turkemans.
British Troops May Be In Iraq Until 2007
British Prime Minister Tony Blair made a surprise visit to Basra on Sunday where he signalled that British troops would remain in Iraq until 2006. And today British foreign secretary Jack Straw said British troops could be in Iraq until 2007.
Meanwhile the London Independent is reporting that British forces beat to death an Iraqi man in custody in September. An Iraqi detainee who witnessed the death said the man was tied and hooded and then repeatedly kicked and assaulted.
White House officials are saying presidential envoy James Baker will travel to the Middle East later this month in order to ask nations in the Persian Gulf to forgive portions of Iraq’s huge debt. Iraq owes about $45 billion to Middle Eastern nations, with the largest owed to Saudi Arabia. The New York Times reported Baker’s visit but did not list specific countries on his itinerary. Baker has close ties to the Saudi royal family. His law firm Baker Botts is representing Saudi Arabia in a lawsuit filed by families of victims who died on Sept. 11. He has also worked for the investment firm Carlyle Group which has close financial ties to Saudi Arabia.
In Kabul on Sunday, Afghans approved the country’s first constitution since the fall of the Taliban. The agreement came after a three-week grand council [or loya jirga] attended by 502 delegates. The constitution will put in place a strong presidential system with a two-chamber national assembly as called for by the U.S.-backed interim president Hamid Karzai. Presidential elections will take place in June followed by parliamentary elections six months later. Under the constitution, women will be recognized as equal citizens and about one-fifth of the lower-house assembly seats will be reserved for women. Afghanistan will be ruled in accordance with international codes on human rights but the constitution states that no law can be contrary to the “provisions and principles of Islam.” The country will be officially renamed the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
Bush Budget Cuts To Hurt Poor, Veterans and Unemployed
The New York Times is reporting that the White House is working on a new budget that would cut health care benefits for veterans, place new restrictions on housing vouchers for the poor and eliminate some job training and employment programs. Administration officials say the cuts in this election-year budget are designed not to alienate what the Times describes as “politically influential constituencies.” According to the Times total federal revenues have decreased for three years in a row, for the first time since the 1920s. Over the same three years, federal spending has increased by 20 percent. Spending on defense and homeland security have fueled the increases. Even with the cuts, the federal budget deficit is expected to top $400 billion for the first time.
Bush to Announce Election-Year Immigration Reform
On Wednesday, President Bush is expected to announce major changes to the nation’s immigration laws that would allow undocumented workers to receive benefits for money paid into the social security system. The main beneficiaries of the change are expected to be undocumented workers from Mexico. According to the Washington Post the move was calibrated by Bush’s senior advisor Karl Rove in an attempt to bolster support for the president with Latino voters who are seen as a key constituency in Florida and New Mexico, two states that Bush barely won in 2000.
In the former Soviet republic of Georgia, voters elected the 36-year-old U.S. educated lawyer Mikkhail Saakashvili to be the nation’s next president by a landslide margin. Saakashvili helped orchestrate the fall of former president Eduard Shevardnadze in November. The U.S. strongly supported the election of Saakashvilli. According to the Financial Times, the U.S. raised $14 million to help pay state salaries over the winter since Shevardnadze’s government fell. Saakashvilli is one of the most Americanized politicians to take power in the former Soviet Union. He is a graduate of Columbia University Law School and attended George Washington University. Georgia’s location has grown in strategic value for the United States in part because oil companies are building a new pipeline through the country to link the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean.
On Saturday, British Air resumed flights between London and Washington after two days of cancellations due to security concerns. Meanwhile it has been revealed that six cases of mistaken identity were the reason why Air France flights between Paris and Los Angeles were cancelled before Christmas. The U.S. said those flights contained passengers who were listed as suspected terrorists. But the so-called suspects included a five-year-old boy, an elderly Chinese woman and a Welsh insurance agent.
In Las Vegas, Newsweek is reporting that the FBI demanded hotels turn over the names of everyone who booked a room around the New Year’s holiday. When one hotel refused to turn over the information, the government subpoenaed the records.
148 people mostly from France died Saturday after a charter airline crashed minutes after take-off in Egypt. Egyptian and French authorities said mechanical problems likely caused the crash. The charter airline had been previously banned from Switzerland because of safety reasons.
In Israel, the country’s Justice Minister Yosef Lapid has publicly criticized the path of the new Israel security wall through the West Bank. The minister warmed if Israel proceeds as planned in building the wall, the international community may ostracize Israel as it did South Africa during the apartheid years. Meanwhile in Israel, the government has sentenced five of its own soldiers to one year in prison for refusing to serve in the West Bank or Gaza Strip.
Pakistan-India Hold Historic Meeting
For the first time in nearly three years Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf met today with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari marking a possible thaw in relations between the two nuclear powers.
The U.S. has stepped up efforts to protect Musharraf following two attempts on his life. According to the Washington Post the U.S. has increased intelligence sharing with Pakistan and has sent the country electronic jamming devices that can help foil bombings. The U.S. fears if Musharraf was assassinated Pakistan’s nuclear weapons could become more vulnerable.
Meanwhile the New York Times published a major article Sunday outlining how Pakistan helped the nuclear programs of Iran, Libya and North Korea. According to the Times, the U.S. has repeatedly looked away as Pakistan first became a nuclear power and then shared its wealth of knowledge. In 1986, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Pakistan had suceeded in making weapon-grade uranium. That same year President Reagan gave Pakistan $4 billion in aid. At the time Pakistan was working with the U.S. in its covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Now the U.S. is turning a blind eye to Pakistan’s nuclear dealings because it seen as an ally in the war on terror. One senior European diplomat told the Times “There is this almost empty-headed recitation of assurances that whatever Pakistan did in the past it’s over, it’s no longer a problem. But there’s is no evidence that it has ever stopped.”
The Guardian of London is reporting that the White House is attempting to repackage President Bush as a man of peace in the lead-up to this year’s election. Emphasis on traditional diplomacy will be heavily stressed over the Bush doctrine of regime change and pre-emptive military attacks.