News reports out of Damascus say that Syrian President Bashar Assad is expected to announce the pullout of some Syrian troops from Lebanon. He is expected to address the Syrian parliament on Saturday amid increasing international pressure and threats led by Washington. According to Reuters, Assad is expected to announce that the remaining Syrian troops in Lebanon will be redeployed close to the border. Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on Friday warned Damascus to withdraw from Lebanon or risk becoming a “pariah” state. Washington also raised the threat of punishment if Syria failed to pull out, with U.S. officials suggesting possible unspecified sanctions and a tougher U.N. resolution. We will have more on this later in the program.
The Los Angeles Times is reporting that the Bush administration is considering increasing it’s funding of dissidents within Iran beginning with a new $3-million fund. A Senior White House official told the paper that now that Condoleezza Rice is Secretary of State “We can now be much more aggressive [about Iran] than we had been. The guys at the State Department were too afraid to try anything during the first term.” But a State Department official asked, “Is the policy regime change? Everyone says it’s not, including Condi. So what is it we’re trying to do, and how are we going to do it without having a lot of blood on our hands?” One official who will have a big say on Iran policy is Elizabeth Cheney, the daughter of the vice president, who returned to the State Department this month to head so-called democracy promotion efforts. The United States is already spending more than $14 million a year to broadcast Persian-language radio and television programs into Iran, and the White House is seeking a sharp increase in that funding.
Michael Chertoff was sworn in as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security yesterday. President Bush was on hand for the ceremony and in his remarks, he mentioned Osama bin Laden by name for the first time in recent memory. “Recently, we learned that Osama bin Laden has urged the terrorist Zarqawi to form a group to conduct attacks outside Iraq, including here in the United States,” said Bush. “We’re on a constant hunt for bin Laden. We’re keeping the pressure on him, keeping him in hiding. And today Zarqawi understands that coalition and Iraqi troops are on a constant hunt for him as well. Coalition and Iraqi forces have caught and killed several of his key lieutenants. We’re working every day and night to dismantle his network and to bring him to justice.”
The Iraqi Health Ministry official sent to Fallujah to assess health conditions after the US laid siege to the city has found that, in their attacks, US forces used substances that are internationally banned–including mustard gas, nerve gas, and other burning chemicals. The official predicted the city’s residents would be suffering health consequences for many years to come.
Meanwhile, The New York Times is reporting that the US military’s major prisons in Iraq have swelled to capacity and in some cases are overflowing with prisoners. As of this week, the military is holding at least 8,900 detainees in the three major prisons. That’s 1,000 more than in late January. At Abu Ghraib, where eight American soldiers were charged last year with abusing detainees, 3,160 people are being kept. That is significantly higher than the military’s own recommended level of 2,500 prisoners. The largest center, Camp Bucca in the south, has at least 5,600 detainees.
Meanwhile, the number of Marines who committed suicide last year jumped by nearly 30 percent over the previous year. The 31 Marines suicides marked the highest total in at least a decade. Another 83 Marines attempted to commit suicide. The majority of the Marines who killed themselves were under the age of 25.
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and other civil rights groups are expressing outrage over one of syndicated right-wing columnist Anne Coulter’s latest columns in which she refers to veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas as “that old Arab.” Coulter’s February 23 column for Universal Press Syndicate focused on the controversy surrounding ex-White House reporter James Guckert, better known as Jeff Gannon. Coulter wrote, “Press passes can’t be that hard to come by if the White House allows that old Arab Helen Thomas to sit within yards of the president.” The American Arab Discrimination Committee called the story outright racist. Helen Thomas is known as “The Dean” of the White House press corp. and has covered every president since John F. Kennedy.
In an op-Ed published in The British Guardian newspaper, the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, called Israeli Prime Minister General Ariel Sharon a “war criminal” and accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing,” saying Sharon should be imprisoned for the Sabra and Shatila massacres in Beirut. He also accused Israel of demonizing Muslims. In the Guardian piece, Livingstone rejected accusations of anti-Semitism arising from his confrontation two weeks ago with a Jewish newspaper reporter he likened to a German concentration camp guard. He accused Israel of spreading misinformation about the scale of anti-Semitism in Europe, and seeking to silence critics by calling them anti-Semitic. Livingstone wrote, “The reality is that the great bulk of racist attacks in Europe today are on black people, Asians and Muslims. They are the primary targets of the extreme right.”
Cuba’s highest ranking Catholic official Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the Archbishop of Havana, released a statement yesterday confirming weekend press reports that he was harassed by Homeland Security officers in the Miami International Airport last Friday when he arrived on a charter flight from Havana. News reports said that Ortega was questioned about issues unrelated to his travel, including his views on the Castro government and the U.S. economic blockade on the island. Ortega said that an agent indicated that he was opening a file on Ortega reserved for “dangerous persons” and that in order to enter the U.S., the Cardinal had to answer his questions. The Cardinal carries a diplomatic passport issued by the Vatican and has a multiple entry visa issued by the U.S. State Department.
Martha Stewart walked out of federal prison in the middle of the night and then waved goodbye to media and cheering onlookers before flying home on a private jet. In a statement posted on her website, Stewart said, “The experience of the last five months in Alderson, West Virginia has been life altering and life affirming.” She continued, “Someday, I hope to have the chance to talk more about all that has happened, the extraordinary people I have met here and all that I have learned.” She will spend the next five months on home confinement at her massive New York estate.
Newly released FBI files show that U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond tried to get the FBI to build a case against civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965 on the grounds that King was “controlled by communists.” Earlier this week the FBI released 600 pages of Thurmond’s FBI file. The files show that an aide of Thurmond once met with FBI officials in order to inquire whether “there was a concerted effort on the part of the FBI to discredit King.” Around the same time Thurmond publicly criticized King for “injecting himself into matters of foreign policy.” Thurmond died in 2003 at the age of 100 after serving nearly a half-century in the Senate. While Thurmond was one of the fiercest opponents of the civil rights movement, he kept a secret that only emerged in recent years. 80 years ago he fathered a daughter with his black house servant. Their offspring, Essie May Washington Williams, recently wrote a memoir titled Dear Senator.