In the Iraqi town of Hilla over 125 people have died in one of the deadliest car bombings since the Iraq war began almost two years ago. Scores more were injured in the blast. The car exploded outside a medical center where dozens of Iraqi seeking work had gathered outside waiting to pick up medical certificates. The head of the local hospital told Agence France Press “All the hospital’s rooms, even those used for cardiology, are filled with the wounded.” Hilla is a mainly Shiite town located 60 miles south of Baghdad.
The attack comes just days after top U.S. military commander Air Force Gen. Richard Myers admitted that the Iraqi resistance could keep fighting for another decade. Myers told a crowd in Los Angeles that over the past century, similar insurgencies around the world have lasted anywhere from seven to 12 years. He said “This is not the kind of business that can be done in one year.”
In other news from Iraq, Syria has handed over 30 Baathists to Iraq including Saddam Hussein’s half-brother. The men are believed to have been arrested in Syria and connected to the Iraqi resistance. Hussein half-brother, Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan, once headed some of Iraq’s most powerful security agencies including the Mukhabarat and the General Security Directorate. Hassan is also believed to be a leader among the Iraqi Sunnis fighting the U.S. presence in Iraq. Syria’s move comes at a time that the country is under increasing pressure from the U.S. and Israel.
Israel is now blaming Syria for Friday’s suicide bombing outside a karaoke bar in Tel Aviv that killed five. The attack marked the first suicide bombing in Israel since November 1st and the first breach of a ceasefire agreement brokered three weeks ago between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel warned it may attack Syria in retaliation. The Palestinian group Islamic Jihad, which has an office in Damascas, claimed responsibility for the attack. Israel has also threatened to freeze peace efforts if the Palestinian leadership does not crack down on militant groups following the bombing.
Meanwhile in Lebanon, the Syrian-backed government has banned all anti-government demonstrations. But thousands of Lebanese protesters ignored the ban today to take to the streets of Beirut where they called for the resignation of the government and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. The protests come two weeks after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri.
In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak has bowed to pressure and called on parliament to change the constitution to allow opposition candidates to run for president. In recent months Egypt has seen a series of rare protests calling for open elections. Under the current system, Egyptians vote for president every six years, choosing “yes” or “no” for a candidate approved by parliament. Mubarak has ruled since 1981 and will seek a fifth six-year term in September. If Parliament approves the political reform, Mubarak will face opposition for the first time. However one of the most powerful political outfits in Egypt–the Muslim Brotherhood–will be barred from seating a candidate. The Islamic organization remains outlawed in Egypt. One opposition leader hailed Mubarek’s announcement saying “For the first time since the days of the pharaohs, the Egyptian people will choose their ruler.” The U.S. State Department described the move as a step towards a “more open political system”.
In other news, the Bush administration announced Saturday it would resume training the Indonesian military for the first time in over a decade. All training was suspended in 1992, months after U.S.-trained Indonesian forces killed two hundred 271 pro-independence demonstrators in East Timor in what became known as the Santa Cruz Massacre. The U.S. cut off all official military ties with Indonesia in 1999 following the killing of over fifteen hundred in East Timor. The decision to resume training was made by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with strong backing from Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who once served as U.S. ambassador to Indonesia. State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher said Saturday “Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has determined that Indonesia has satisfied legislative conditions for restarting its full international military education and training program.” The East Timor Action Network condemned the decision describing it as a setback for justice, human rights and democratic reform.
In New York, the Justice Department is asking a federal judge in Brooklyn to toss out a lawsuit filed by one hundred Vietnamese citizens seeking compensation for being exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. The Justice Department claims the lawsuit is a dangerous threat to the president’s power to wage war. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for today. The class action suit charges that Dow Chemical and other U.S. chemical companies committed war crimes by supplying the military with Agent Orange. The suit seeks billions of dollars in damages and for an environmental clean-up of Vietnam. Agent Orange contained the toxic dioxin which has been blamed for causing health disorders and birth defects in both the Vietnamese population and U.S. war veterans. The Vietnamese Red Cross estimates 150,000 children have been born with birth defects since 1975 because of Agent Orange. The National Academy of Sciences has concluded that the U.S. military sprayed over 3,000Vietnamese villages with Agent Orange affecting between two and five million people.
In medical news, the HIV infection rate among African-Americans has doubled over the past decade while holding steady for the white population. This according to a new report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The hardest hit-group is African-American men in their 40s. About one in twenty-seven of them are now infected with HIV. Overall the HIV infection rate in African-Americans is now thirteen times higher than among whites.
The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the Bush administration has begun barring private U.S. AIDS organizations from winning billions of dollars in federal grants to provide health services overseas — unless they pledge their opposition to prostitution. Many AIDS organizations criticized the move saying it will further stigmatize sex workers overseas and make it harder for them to receive AIDS prevention and treatment services. Republicans in Congress are also working to yank federal funding from private groups that advocate or discuss clean-needle exchange programs overseas or from groups that don’t back the president’s push for sexual abstinence.
In other health news, a landmark global anti-tobacco treaty came into force Sunday. It is the world’s first public health treaty. The agreement calls on nations to ban or severely restrict tobacco advertising and promotions, require large health warnings on cigarette packets and bars tobacco companies from certain deceptive marketing practices. According to the World Health Organization, tobacco kills nearly five million people a year and is the world’s second leading cause of death. 168 countries have signed the accord, but only 57 have so far ratified it. The United States has not ratified the treaty. The Bush administration agreed to it nine months ago but has not yet sent the treaty to the Senate for ratification. Earlier this month another major global treaty, the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, also went into effect without the support of the United States.
In business news, Riggs National Bank has agreed to create an eight million dollar fund for victims of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. The bank is creating the fund as a settlement in a lawsuit that accused the Washington bank of helping Pinochet concealing and spiriting over one million dollarout of Britain in 1999 at a time he was under investigation for human rights abuses. Riggs helped put Pinochet’s money into accounts held under aliases and took other measures to hide the identity of his accounts. The settlement marks the first time any institution or person other than the Chilean government has been forced to compensate Pinochet’s victims. Between 1973 and 1990 Pinochet’s regime killed some 3,300 people in Chile.
In entertainment news, Jamie Foxx has won the Oscar for best actor becoming only the third African-American to win the award. Foxx portrayed Ray Charles in the film Ray. Morgan Freeman won Best Supporting Actor for his role in Million Dollar Baby. It marked the first time in history that African Americans won best actor and best supporting actor in the same year. Overall Clint Eastwood was the big winner of the night. His film Million Dollar Baby won best picture and he won best director.
And Peter Benenson, the founder of Amnesty International, has died at the age of 83. He formed the human rights organization in 1961 after reading about how two Portuguese students were jailed after they were seen drinking a toast to liberty. The first international conference on amnesty for prisoners of conscience was held in 1961. Amnesty’s symbol became a candle in barbed wire — the design was based on the Chinese proverb “it is better to light a single candle than curse the darkness.” In 1977 Amnesty International was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Today the group has over one million members around the world.