New information has emerged about yesterday/s helicopter crash in Iraq. It now appears that an Iraqi resistance group shot down the Russian-made helicopter with missile fire north of the capital. A group identifying itself as the Islamic Army in Iraq said they also captured and shot to death the lone crew member who survived. In all 11 people were killed, including six US bodyguards from the Blackwater mercenary firm who were on a State Department contract to guard U.S. diplomats. The chartered flight is being called the first civilian aircraft shot down in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion began two years ago. An Internet statement by the resistance group was accompanied by a video showing the repeated shooting of a man who was found in tall grass and forced to stand up and walk. The video showed burning wreckage just before the shooting. The man who was shot to death in the grassy field spoke English with an accent and was wearing a blue flight suit, indicating he was one of the three Bulgarian crew members. Two Fijian helicopter security guards were also on board the flight. The video also showed two charred bodies near the burning wreckage. The helicopter was shot out of the air as growing numbers of contractors, diplomats and other civilian officials are turning to aircraft to avoid attacks on Iraq’s roads. The downing is part of a surge of attacks that have caused heavy casualties in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, a retired US Army general just back from a fact-finding trip to Iraq has warned that the resistance may be planning spectacular large-scale attacks. Gen. John Keane told The Hill newspaper this week “The insurgency is viable and resilient and has the capacity to achieve significant surprise.” Keane spent about a week in Iraq late last month at the request of Lt. Gen. John Vines, commander of Multinational Corps Iraq. Keane retired as Army vice chief of staff in 2003 after 37 years in the military.
On Capitol Hill yesterday, the Senate overwhelmingly approved $81 billion for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in a spending bill that would push the total cost of combat and reconstruction past $300 billion. The Pentagon says it needs the money by the first week of May, so Senate and House negotiators are expected to act quickly to send the president a final bill.
A member of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division was convicted yesterday of premeditated murder and attempted murder in a grenade and rifle attack that left two other soldiers dead and 14 wounded in Kuwait during the opening days of the invasion of Iraq. Sergeant Hasan Akbar now faces a possible death sentence, which the same 15-member military jury will consider at a hearing that begins Monday.
Now to the political turmoil in Ecuador. The country’s new President Alfredo Palacio took possession of the presidential palace yesterday and officially swore-in his new cabinet. As the official ceremony took place within the palace, crowds demonstrated outside in the streets and were confronted by security forces. Chanting “Out Congress!” they demanded that Palacio fire all members of Congress. Meanwhile, talks continue between Brazil and Ecuador over the fate of the ousted President Lucio Gutierrez. Brazil granted him political asylum following his removal from office, but the Brazilian ambassador to Quito says he has been unable to secure safe passage for him to leave the Brazilian embassy for the airport. The new president has ordered Gutierrez’s arrest. He is the third president of the Andean nation to be toppled amid popular unrest in eight years.
In legislative news, the House passed the controversial Republican-authored energy bill. But the GOP first had to beat back a flurry of amendments, including a last-minute attempt to eliminate liability protection for producers of MTBE, a gasoline additive blamed in groundwater pollution nationwide. The narrow 219-to-213 vote to retain that provision virtually guarantees a clash with the Senate, where opposition to legal immunity for MTBE blocked the energy bill in 2003, sidelining one of the chief domestic initiatives of the Bush presidency.
The Senate confirmed John Negroponte as the country’s first director of national intelligence, giving him power over the nation’s 15 spy agencies. The vote was 98-to-2. The only no votes came from two Democratic senators, Tom Harkin of Iowa and Ron Wyden of Oregon.
The chair of the Democratic National Committee Howard Dean has come out in support of President Bush”s current Iraq policy. In a speech earlier this week in Minnesota, Dean said, “The president has created an enormous security problem for the United States where none existed before. But I hope the president is incredibly successful with his policy now that he’s there.” Dean said a US pullout could endanger the United States in three ways: By leaving a Shiite theocracy worse than that in Iran; by creating an independent Kurdistan in the north, with destabilizing effects on neighboring Kurdish regions of Turkey, Iran and Syria, and by making the so-called Sunni Triangle a magnet for what Dean called Islamic terrorists similar to the former Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Dean was portrayed as an antiwar candidate in the media during the 2004 presidential race.
In what could be the beginning stages of a future US-backed attempt at regime change, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with opposition groups from Belarus. The meeting took place on the sidelines of a NATO summit in neighboring Lithuania. Rice told the dissidents there will be “a road to democracy in Belarus”, which she has described as the “last true dictatorship” in central Europe. Belarus and Russia accused Rice of interfering in the country’s internal affairs. Belarus is an important defense partner to Russia and a vital part of its gas export pipeline network.
The rightwing Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia got more than he bargained for when he accepted the New York University Annual Survey of American Law’s invitation to engage students in a question and answer session. Randomly selected to attend the limited-seating and closed-to-the-press event, NYU law school student Eric Berndt asked Scalia to explain his dissent in Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 Supreme Court case that effectively struck down the nation’s sodomy laws. Not satisfied with Scalia’s answer, Berndt asked the Justice, “Do you sodomize your wife?” Scalia demurred and law school administrators moved quickly to turn off the student’s microphone. In a post to fellow law school students after the event, Berndt defended his question, saying it was an entirely fair question to pose to a Justice whose opinion—had it been in the majority—would have allowed the state to ask that same question to thousands of gays and lesbians, and to punish them if the answer is yes. Berndt wrote “How am I to docilely engage a man who sarcastically rants about the “beauty of homosexual relationships” and believes that gay school teachers will try to convert children to a homosexual lifestyle? Berndt said he asked the question to “subject a homophobic government official to the same indignity to which he would subject millions of gay Americans.”
Five Muslim-Americans filed a suit this week against Homeland Security and US Customs officials, claiming their constitutional rights were violated when they tried to return home from an Islamic conference in Toronto last December. The five plaintiff are all residents of New York. They claimed that federal agents at the Buffalo border crossing singled them out with at least 30 other Muslims, then interrogated, fingerprinted, searched, photographed and held them for up to 6 1/2 hours after learning that they had attended the event.
A lawyer for three activists removed from one of President Bush’s town hall events in Colorado said Thursday that the Secret Service has opened a criminal probe into whether the man who escorted them from the hall was impersonating an agent. The man was dressed in a dark suit and wore an earpiece when he escorted the three from the March 21 event. The Secret Service has said it has determined the man was not one of its agents, but a staff member with the host committee. The White House has said the man was a volunteer who probably feared the three might have disrupted Bush’s event. The man threatened the activists with arrest if they “did anything” and told them they had to leave because it was a private event. The three had tickets to the event, which they obtained from a Congressperson.
Lawyers for Native American political prisoner Leonard Peltier are pressing a federal judge for immediate and unfettered access to 90,000 pages of documents they say were wrongly withheld during their client’s 1977 trial. U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank said he would rule on the request by the end of next week. It was the latest in a series of legal challenges to Peltier’s conviction in the killings of two FBI agents during a standoff on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975. Peltier’s attorneys believe the thousands of pages compiled by the FBI’s Minneapolis field office could contain information about informants and evidence he could use to win his release or a new trial. Peltier has always maintained his innocence.