More than one week after the U.S. death toll in Iraq passed 3,000, President Bush has announced plans to escalate the war and send over 20,000 more troops. In a prime-time address Wednesday, the president called the situation in Iraq “unacceptable” and said he took responsibility for past mistakes. But he insisted more troops are needed on the ground.
President Bush: “America will change our strategy to help the Iraqis carry out their campaign to put down sectarian violence and bring security to the people of Baghdad. This will require increasing American force levels. So I have committed more than 20,000 additional American troops to Iraq. The vast majority of them — five brigades — will be deployed to Baghdad.”
The troop increase appears to have already begun. ABC News is reporting 90 advance troops from the 82nd Airborne Division arrived in Baghdad on Wednesday.
While most of his speech focused on Iraq, President Bush explicitly threatened Iran and Syria. Bush announced he recently ordered the deployment of a second aircraft strike group to the Persian Gulf. He also vowed to seek out and destroy those who are providing material support to U.S. enemies in Iraq. Hours after Bush’s speech, U.S. forces raided the Iranian Consulate in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil and arrested five employees.
Bush’s announcement comes despite record levels of opposition to escalating the war. A Gallup poll this week found 61 percent percent of Americans oppose sending more troops to Iraq. And a record low of 26 percent approve of the president’s handling of the Iraq War. Recent polls in Iraq also showed seven out of 10 Iraqis want U.S. troops to withdraw within the next year. At least one Republican senator joined calls rejecting the president’s plan. Kansas Republican Sam Brownback said he opposes the troop increase because Iraq requires a political rather than a military solution.
As the Bush administration sends more troops to Iraq, the British government is reportedly preparing to reduce its force by nearly half. The London Daily Telegraph is reporting today British Prime Minister Tony Blair plans to withdraw 3,000 British troops by the end of May.
In other Iraq news, new details have been revealed in the rape of an Iraqi teenager and the murder of her and her family by U.S. troops in the town of Mahmoudiya. The Associated Press reports the military knew the alleged ringleader in the case had homicidal tendencies and spoke about his desire to kill Iraqis. The suspect, former Private Steven Green, is accused of raping 14-year-old Abeer Kassem Hamza al-Janabi and then killing her along with her two parents and five-year-old sister last March. Three months earlier, Green told an Army stress team he desired to avenge the death of fellow soldiers and kill Iraqi citizens. Green was prescribed a mood drug and told to get more sleep. He returned to duty the following day. One soldier has already been sentenced to 90 years. Green and four others face charges.
In other news, Hamas appeared to break new ground Wednesday over its stance on recognizing Israel. In an interview with the Reuters news agency, exiled Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal said Hamas sees Israel as a “reality” that exists. Meshal suggested formal recognition of Israel would come if Israel agreed to recognize a Palestinian state.
Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal: “This is reality, but I do not deal with it from the point of view of recognizing or admitting it. It is a fact that was the result of historical factors. We today are talking of Arab and Palestinian readiness to accept a state on 1967 borders on the assumption that this will provide an important amount of stability and peace in the region. The question is: Is there Israeli, American and international readiness to admit this Palestinian demand?”
In Sudan, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said Wednesday he’d agree to a new two-month ceasefire in Darfur. Rebel groups are also said to have agreed to the temporary truce, but both sides have defied similar efforts in the past. Bashir also repeated his government’s rejection of a peacekeeping force led by the U.N. Meanwhile at the U.N., Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pledged to address the Darfur crisis at his first overseas trip to this month’s African Union summit in Ethiopia.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon: “I’m formally committed to resolve this issue as soon as possible to prevent further sufferings of innocent people in the Darfur area.”
In Ethiopia, exiled former leader Mengistu Haile Mariam was sentenced to life in prison Thursday after an absentee trial that spanned more than a decade. Mengistu was found guilty of killing thousands of people during his 17 years in power beginning in 1974. Mengistu currently lives in Zimbabwe, where government officials say he will not be extradited.
In environmental news, the European Union unveiled a new energy policy Wednesday that claims the fight against global warming as a central factor. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso made the announcement in Brussels.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso: “Today the European Commission will call on the European Council to agree to promote a 30 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 for developed countries in international negotiations. But European Union needs to act now. This is why we propose a European Union commitment now to reduce European Union greenhouse emissions by at least 20 percent by 2020 as compared to 1990 levels.”
Protests are being held around the world today on the fifth anniversary of the opening of the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay. In Washington, a nonviolent direct action is planned outside the federal court. Meanwhile, in Cuba the first-ever international delegation of former prisoners, families of current prisoners, U.S. lawyers and human rights activists will protest today in front of the gates of Guantanamo. In Britain, dozens gathered in London Wednesday to call for the release of Guantanamo prisoners. Ten-year-old Anas el-Banna called for the release of his father, British resident Jamil el-Banna, and family friend Bisher al-Rawi.
Anas el-Banna: “My dad has been away for four years. It has been a very difficult time for all of us. Is there any justice in this world, can help my dad and also Uncle Bisher? My dad is a human, even though he didn’t have a British passport. Where is the human rights?”
Both el-Banna and al-Rawi have been held at Guantanamo since 2002.
In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez was sworn in for a third term Wednesday following his landslide re-election last month. Chavez won with more than 60 percent of the vote.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez: “I will give up my days and my nights and my entire life to construct Venezuelan socialism, to construct a new political system, a new social system and a new economic system.”
Chavez unveiled new plans this week to nationalize telephone and electric companies and increase government control over major oil projects.
Hours later, Chavez flew to Nicaragua for the inauguration of Daniel Ortega. Tens of thousands of people packed the streets of the capital of Managua waving the red and black colors of the Sandinista party. Ortega won re-election in November — 16 years after he was voted out of office following a decade-long U.S. campaign against his government. The Bush administration opposed Ortega’s bid to return to office and suggested economic sanctions would follow if he won.
Back in the United States, Democrats continued their 100-hour agenda in Congress Wednesday with the passage of a measure to raise the minimum wage. The hourly wage would increase to $7.25 from the current minimum of $5.15. The legislation now goes to the Senate. The White House has opposed the measure and insisted any wage increase should be accompanied by a tax cut for business.
In media news, the controversial chair of the Broadcasting Board of Governors has announced he’s stepping down. Kenneth Tomlinson was forced out of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting after it was revealed he improperly tried to promote conservatives in the organization and monitored programs he accused of having a liberal bias. He’s also been accused of ethics violations in doling out government contracts and using federal employees for personal business.
And this update to a story we’ve been following: The charity of Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda has announced it will conduct a review to determine whether its investment holdings and policies are compatible with its social mission. The announcement follows a lengthy expose in the Los Angeles Times that revealed the Gates Foundation has invested nearly $9 billion in companies whose practices run counter to the foundation’s charitable goals. See our interview with the lead reporter who broke the story, Charles Piller, here.