In an important development in the growing Congressional debate over the US occupation of Iraq, a hawkish Democrat who voted to authorize the war has introduced a bill calling for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. Democratic Congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania said: “It is time for a change in direction. Our military is suffering. The future of our country is at risk. We cannot continue on the present course. It is evident that continued military action in Iraq is not in the best interest of the United States of America, the Iraq people or the Persian Gulf region.” Murtha is an army veteran with close ties to military commanders. He’s also the top Democrat on the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, and has visited Iraq several times since the war began. His proposed bill reads in part: “The deployment of US forces in Iraq, by direction of Congress, is hereby terminated and the forces involved are to be redeployed at the earliest practicable date.” The bill marks the first time a resolution has been submitted to Congress calling for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. In response, White House spokesperson Scott McClellan said: “Congressman Murtha is a respected veteran and politician who has a record of supporting a strong America. So it is baffling that he is endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party.”
Although Murtha joins a growing list of pro-war Democrats that have reversed their positions, Democratic Congressional leaders distanced themselves from Murtha’s stance. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi said: “Mr. Murtha speaks for himself,” while Senate Minority Harry Reid added: “I don’t support immediate withdrawal.”
Meanwhile in Iraq, separate bombing attacks have killed at least 60 people. Earlier today, two suicide bombers attacked a Shiite mosque in the town of Khanaqin, near the Iranian border. At least 52 people were reported dead. In Baghdad, two car bombs exploded outside the Hamra Hotel, killing at least eight people and wounding over 40 others. The Hamra is popular among foreign journalists.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have announced a broad inquiry into prison conditions at detention centers across the country. The announcement follows the discovery Sunday of over 170 prisoners in the basement of an Interior Ministry compound. Iraqi officials insisted Thursday no more than seven detainees showed signs of torture. But the US government-run Voice of America broadcast service says at least a third of the detainees: “appeared severely emaciated and many showed cuts and bruises on their faces, arms and legs.” One man was taken out of the compound on a stretcher because he was unable to walk. The detainees were transferred to the US-run Abu Ghraib prison.
Meanwhile, South Korea announced today it plans to withdraw one-third of its forces from Iraq in the next year. With over 3,000 troops in the country, South Korea maintains the third-largest foreign military presence in Iraq after the United States and Britain. The announcement appeared to take the Bush administration by surprise. A National Security Council spokesperson said : “They have not informed the United States government of that.”
The Washington Post is reporting the CIA has set up joint counter-terrorism centers with local intelligence agencies in more than two dozen countries. The Counterterrorist Intelligence Centers, or CTICs, conduct joint operations based on tips mostly provided by American intelligence. The network includes countries that have been criticized by the US for human rights violations, such as Uzbekistan and Indonesia. The revelation comes as public outcry is growing in several countries around the world over the possible use of their airports for the rendition of CIA detainees.
Peace activists in North Carolina are holding a protest against a private airline company. Aero Contractors provides a fleet of chartered jets and pilots to the CIA for transporting detainees to foreign countries that practice torture in a practice the government calls “extraordinary rendition.”
Congressional officials announced Thursday the Defense Department will investigate the pre-war activities of one of the Iraq war’s key architects. The office of the Pentagon’s inspector general says it will comply with a Senate request to review the intelligence activities of former U.S. defense undersecretary Douglas Feith. The investigation will focus on whether Feith gave the White House uncorroborated evidence to support the case for invasion in the lead up to war.
A new indictment has led to the disclosure the US government hired a convicted felon to oversee over $80 million dollars in reconstruction money in Iraq. Robert Stein was charged this week with accepting kickbacks and bribes while working as a financial officer for the Coalition Provisional Authority. Prosecutors say Stein received at least $200,000 dollars a month for his role in steering reconstruction contracts to American businessman Phillip Bloom. Bloom was charged with several offenses Wednesday. A court filing says Stein used money earmarked for Iraqi library and police facilities to buy cars, property, and jewelry for himself and his wife. According to the New York Times, Stein was hired as a comptroller for the US occupation authority despite having served a prison sentence in the mid-1990s for fraud. A Florida construction company also says it fired Stein in 2002 after it was discovered he had falsified invoices and payroll records.
The New York Times is reporting a new government study has found the military is falling far behind in recruiting goals for key combat positions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Government Accountability Office says the military has failed to staff 41 percent of combat and non-combat specialist positions. The report says the shortfall was disguised by the overstaffing of other positions in order to meet overall recruiting goals. Derek Stewart, the G.A.O.'s director of military personnel, commented : “The aggregate recruiting numbers are rather meaningless. For Congress and this nation to truly understand what's happening with the all-volunteer force and its ability to recruit and retain highly qualified people, you have to drill down into occupational specialties. And when you do, it’s very revealing.”
On Capital Hill earlier today, the House narrowly approved a budget measure that cuts funding for programs for the poor, for college students and for farmers. The $50 billion dollar cost cutting plan passed by just two votes. The Washington Post reports the House measure would cut about 220,000 people off food stamps, allow states to impose new costs on Medicaid beneficiaries, squeeze student lenders, cut aid to state child-support enforcement programs and trim farm supports. Meanwhile, the Senate passed a $60 billion tax bill that includes a $4 billion dollar tax penalty on oil companies. That penalty has drawn the threat of a veto from the White House. Senate Democrats failed to add an amendment that would have imposed a 50 percent tax on certain oil profits if those profits were not reinvested in increasing the country’s energy supplies.
On Thursday, dissenting Republicans joined Democratic House colleagues to defeat a major GOP health and education spending measure. Democrats had criticized the bill for ending more than 20 existing programs and preventing eight others from being introduced. The cuts included $900 million dollars in funding for federal disease control and $8 billion dollars towards preparing for a potential flu pandemic.
And in South Korea, thousands of protesters demonstrated outside the APEC summit in the port city of Busan today. Police used water cannons and barricades to hold back protesters chanting slogans against President Bush, who is there meeting with 20 other Asia-Pacific leaders. Demonstrators burned an effigy of Bush attached with the slogan: “No APEC, No Bush.” Police said they have assembled a security force of up to 46,000 officers for a protest expected to reach 30,000 people. Rallies have taken place all week in the lead up to summit. Earlier this week, two Korean farmers committed suicide in protest to the South Korean’s plans to lift trade barriers to foreign produce.