Amidst rising criticism from Republican ranks and a deepening split with Iraqi leaders, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has issued a new message to critics of the Iraq war — “back off.” At a Pentagon briefing Thursday, Rumsfeld told reporters: “This is complicated stuff. It’s difficult. We’re looking out into the future. No one can predict the future with absolute certainty. So you ought to just back off, take a look at it, relax, [and] understand that it’s complicated… but it will get worked out,” he said. Rumsfeld’s comments come as increasing numbers of Republicans are calling for his dismissal. On Wednesday, Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine said President Bush should have accepted Rumsfeld’s resignation when it was first offered. Republican Senator Mike DeWine of Ohio and Congressmember Anne Northup of Kentucky also called for Rumsfeld’s replacement this week. Northup said: “You cannot afford to lose the numbers we are losing now and just keep slugging away.”
A US marine has pleaded guilty to assault and conspiracy in the killing of an unarmed Iraqi in the town of Hamdania. The marine, Private First Class John Jodka, is the youngest and lowest ranked of the seven charged for the murder of Hashim Ibrahim Awad. The marines shot Awad after pulling him from his home last April. They initially tried to cover up the slaying by placing a rifle at the scene to give the appearance Awad was an insurgent.
In other Iraq news, a senior UN official is warning Iraqi women are facing increasing violence for speaking out. Appearing before the UN Security Council Thursday, U.N. Development Fund for Women Executive Director Noeleen Heyzer said women are becoming assassination targets when they affirm women’s rights in public decision-making. Heyzer also warned of a similar plight for women in Afghanistan and Somalia.
Meanwhile, former chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix has issued some of his harshest criticism to date of the Iraq war. In an interview with a Danish newspaper this week, Blix calls the war “a pure failure.” Blix says although Saddam Hussein would still be in power had the US not invaded, “what we have gotten is undoubtedly worse.”
New details have emerged in the killings of dozens of Afghan civilians by a NATO air strike earlier this week. Local leaders say the attack occurred in the village of Panjwayi. Residents were celebrating the end of the month-long holiday fast of Ramadan. Between fifty to eighty five people were slain — most of them women and children. Dozens more were wounded and several homes destroyed in over four hours of continuous bombing. At least twenty people were buried in a mass grave. Abdul Aye, a resident of a nearby village, said: “Everyone is very angry at the government and the coalition. There was no Taliban. These tragedies just keep continuing.”
In other news, the German military says six people are under investigation over published photographs showing German soldiers desecrating a human skull in Afghanistan. The skull was reportedly taken from a mass grave at least two years ago. Four of the six under investigation are no longer in the military. The publication of the photographs has sparked outrage in Afghanistan.
Afghan government spokesperson Sultan Ahmad Baheen: “The government and the people of Afghanistan have been saddened by the news of the desecration of human skull by German soldier in Afghanistan, the ministry of foreign affairs of Islamic republic of Afghanistan strongly condemns this action which goes against Islamic values and Afghan traditions.”
In Colombia, the Bush administration has pledged to renew an annual $600 million dollars in military assistance to President Alvaro Uribe. The funding expired last year with the end of the $4 billion dollar Plan Colombia program enacted under the Clinton administration. US Under-Secretary of State Nicolas Burns made the announcement in Bogota.
US Under-Secretary of State Nicolas Burns: “We want to see a continuation of Plan Colombia and we are here to discuss with President (Alvaro) Uribe and his cabinet how that might be possible, what their own ideas are. We think the counter terrorism and counter narcotics efforts have been very successful, but there could be further progress.”
US assistance for Colombia has come under criticism from human rights groups who’ve accused the government-backed paramilitary forces of committing the bulk of atrocities there. US aid has also helped fund a reconciliation plan that has granted amnesty to scores of militants accused of massacres and abuse.
At the UN, a meeting between the Foreign Ministers of Venezuela and Guatemala has failed to resolve the impasse in their race for an open seat on the UN Security Council. Both sides say they’ll withdraw their candidacy if they can compromise on a replacement. In an interview with the Reuters news agency Thursday, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said Venezuela would rather lose outright than drop out the race under pressure from the US.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro: “We are not going to tolerate any blackmail by a given president or accept any pressure from any country. And for the first time in sixteen years since the unipolar world started, the United States has clearly demonstrated that they have a fatal obsession against Venezuela, they want to prevent Venezuela from becoming a member of the Security Council. No one is going to humiliate Venezuela, Venezuela is going to struggle to the end.”
Maduro went on to say his government has the support of eighty percent of Latin American and Caribbean countries at the UN.
Here in the United States, President Bush has signed legislation to build new walling on the border with Mexico. The 700 mile-long barrier would run along parts of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The President held a signing ceremony Thursday at the White House.
President Bush: “Ours is a nation of immigrants. We’re also a nation of law. Unfortunately, the United States has not been in complete control of its borders for decades and, therefore, illegal immigration has been on the rise. We have a responsibility to address these challenges. We have a responsibility to enforce our laws. We have a responsibility to secure our borders. We take this responsibility seriously.”
Critics are accusing the Bush administration of using the signing ceremony as a political tool to motivate support among anti-immigrant voters. The President already approved $1.2 billion dollars in spending for the wall in a bill signed earlier this month. And limits imposed by Congress call into question whether the money will go towards a physical barrier. Meanwhile, the wall continues to meet vigorous opposition in Mexico. On Thursday, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the US embassy in Mexico City.
Unidentified protester: “We reject the wall because it is a total cancellation of the human rights of the Mexican people and mainly because we know that the economy of the United States is supported by the efforts of the workers.”
Mexican President-elect Felipe Calderon also repeated his government’s opposition to the barrier. He spoke Thursday during a visit to Canada.
Mexican President-elect Felipe Calderon: “I would like to repeat that it seems to us a deplorable decision that the United States Congress and the government has made to go ahead and build a wall along the border. Walls do not resolve anything, humanity made a grave error when a wall was built in Berlin and I am certain that today, the United States has made a grave error in making the decision to construct a wall.”
In political news, new polling numbers show a widening lead for Democrats ahead of next month’s mid-term elections. According to Zogby International, 44% of Americans say they’ll vote for Democratic candidates. 33% say they’ll vote Republican. Meanwhile, Republican support is dropping among its key base of Evangelical Christians. According to the Pew Research Center, 57% of white evangelicals say they’ll likely vote Republican this year — a 21% drop from two years ago.
As Republican numbers continue to slide, one of the party’s leading figures is urging candidates to take voters’ focus off the Iraq war. In an interview with the Concord Monitor Tuesday, retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said QUOTE: “The challenge is to get Americans to focus on pocketbook issues, and not on the Iraq and terror issue.”
In other election news, Republicans have pulled a Tennessee campaign ad widely criticized for being racially divisive. The 30-second television spot features fictional characters satirizing Democratic Representative Harold Ford. Ford, an African American, is running for the Senate seat vacated by Majority Leader Bill Frist. Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman announced the withdrawal of the advertisement Thursday. Just days earlier, Mehlman insisted he had no authority take the spot off the air because of campaign finance laws.
This news from Guantanamo Bay — the Boston Globe is reporting the Bush administration is renewing a push to impose severe restrictions on how prisoners communicate with their attorneys. The administration wants new rules that would restrict attorney visits, limit mail communication, and control what topics attorneys and prisoners can discuss. The government also wants the military to exert authority over restricting communication rather than leaving it to the courts.
In Los Angeles, immigration officials have arrested a former El Salvadorian army officer convicted in the 1989 political murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daugter. The convict, Gonzalo Guevara Cerritos, illegally entered the US last year. He will be deported back to El Salvador.
In business news, Exxon Mobil has posted another record-setting profit. The oil giant made a third-quarter profit of $10.49 billion dollars. The earnings mark the second-highest total of any publicly traded company in US history — second only to Exxon’s own final quarter last year.
Some of the nation’s leading retailers and clothing brands are being accused of using an abuse-laden factory that employs child labor in Bangladesh. The National Labor Committee says around two hundred children are sewing clothing for Hanes, Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney, and Puma at the factory. Some of the children are younger than eleven years old. The youths told investigators they face routine beatings and workdays that extend through the night. Some say they’ve been paid as little six cents an hour. Charles Kernaghan, director of the National Labor Committee said: “Children belong in school, not locked in sweatshops. Wal-Mart, Hanes and the other companies owe these children.”
In media news, owners of the radio giant Clear Channel Communications are in talks to take the company private. The company could fetch up to $18.5 billion from a group of investors. Clear Channel currently owns more than twelve hundred radio stations across the country and could own more pending media ownership proposals currently before the FCC.
And finally, the private mercenary company Blackwater has hired former Independent Counsel and Whitewater investigator Kenneth Starr in its defense against a wrongful death lawsuit brought by families of four employees killed in Iraq. The news is revealed in a new piece on the Nation website by Democracy Now correspondent and Nation fellow Jeremy Scahill entitled “From Whitewater to Blackwater.” The families are suing Blackwater for wrongful death over its alleged failure to provide adequate protection to contractors killed in the Iraqi city of Fallujah in March of 2004. Starr has played a prominent role in Blackwater’s attempts to have the case dismissed or moved to federal court, where it would have a higher likelihood of being heard by Republican appointees.
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