In Iraq, the death toll from Monday’s double car bombing in Baghdad has reached at least 88. The bombing targeted a crowded market filled with predominantly Shiite shoppers. Another 12 people died in a double car bombing in the Shiite town of Khalis. The attacks come as Shiites are celebrating the holy festival of Ashura to commemorate the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson. Ashura marks the highpoint of the Shiite religious year. Middle East commentator Juan Cole described Monday’s bombings as the Ashura Massacres. Meanwhile in Baquba, armed gunmen abducted the city’s mayor and burned down his offices. Overall, at least 137 people were killed or found dead across Iraq yesterday.
Meanwhile, U.S. and Iraqi officials are claiming more than 600 members of the militia run by Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr have been detained. The Pentagon recently announced that Sadr’s milita — the Mahdi Army — had replaced al-Qaeda in Iraq as the most dangerous factor fueling the sectarian violence in the country. Up until this week, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki relied on Sadr’s Mahdi Army as his security force.
New opinion polls show that President Bush’s approval rating has dropped to a new low of 33 percent just ahead of tonight’s State of the Union address. Only twice in the past six decades has a president delivered the State of the Union in a weaker condition in the polls — Harry Truman in 1952 and Richard Nixon in 1974.
A new BBC survey found that support for the United States has deteriorated around the world. A survey of 25 nations found 73 percent of respondents disapprove of the U.S. role in Iraq. More than two-thirds of respondents believe the U.S. military presence in the Middle East provokes more conflict than it prevents.
During his State of the Union tonight, President Bush is expected to defend his escalation of the war in Iraq despite increasing congressional opposition. On Monday, Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters of California announced she would take part in Saturday’s antiwar rally in Washington organized by United for Peace and Justice. Waters sent a letter to every other member of the House urging them to participate.
The former Republican chair of the Senate Armed Forces Committee has also come out criticizing the president’s plan in Iraq. Senator John Warner of Virginia introduced a resolution Monday calling the escalation of the war a mistake.
During the State of the Union, President Bush is also expected to put forward proposals on healthcare, immigration, the economy and global warming. On Monday, a group of leading corporate executives met in Washington to urge the president and Congress to set mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to stop global warming.
Alain Belda, CEO of Alcoa: “We cannot put this problem on the backs of our children and grandchildren. It is a very significant step that we call on the leaders in Washington, the president and members of the United States Congress to take action now and make sure that the planet’s future is protected for future generations.”
Peter Darbee, CEO of Pacific Gas and Electric: “The U.S. has a unique opportunity and a unique responsibility. Our emissions far eclipse that of any other nation in the world, and so we are undeniably part of the problem. We also have the wealthiest and the most innovative economy, so financially and technologically we are in the best position to help solve the problem.”
After tonight’s State of the Union address, newly elected Virginia Senator Jim Webb will give the Democrat’s formal response. Webb recently called for cutting off funding for Iraq’s reconstruction in order to pay for Hurricane Katrina recovery.
A group of 9/11 responders who became sick by the toxic air at Ground Zero will also be attending tonight’s State of the Union. They are calling on more federal support for treatment programs. On Monday, New York senator and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton visited Ground Zero and addressed the issue.
Sen. Hillary Clinton: “There is a lot of medical work, prescriptions that are needed to keep people going, the medical interventions that are required. I believe this is a moral responsibility of our nation. We owe it to these responders, the residents and others who were sickened because of the attack on our country.”
In other news, the Bush administration is being asked to release more information about the president’s assertion that he has the authority to open and read the mail of U.S. citizens without a warrant. Last month, President Bush issued a signing statement that claimed he could ignore a new law that expressly prohibits the opening of first-class mail without a warrant. On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for National Security Studies filed three Freedom of Information Act requests seeking the immediate release of related records.
In Lebanon, thousands of protesters are taking part in a general strike today. Roadblocks have been put up across the country. Smoke can be seen high above Beirut from burning tires. Roads to the international airport in Beirut have been closed, forcing airlines to cancel flights. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called for the general strike.
Hassan Nasrallah: “Hezbollah invites you all to take part tomorrow in what the opposition have called for regarding the general strike and for whatever the opposition will call for regarding movements in an orderly and strong manner.”
For the past two months, Hezbollah has organized a series of protests in an effort to bring down the pro-U.S. Lebanese government. Backers of the government accused Hezbollah of trying to stage a coup.
In the African nation of Guinea, security forces shot dead as many as 30 protesters on Monday during anti-government demonstrations. At least four children died. Police also arrested 50 union leaders who helped organize the protests against President Lansana Conté, who has been in power for 23 years.
Kemoko Bangorua, student activist: “We have had enough. You know, there is a saying: 'Enough is enough.' You can hurt us once, twice, three times. But after the third time, it becomes impossible. Once it’s like that, people have had enough. So the people of Guinea, we now want to try another regime. If it works, OK; if it doesn’t work, then we change that regime, too. So this is our objective.”
Earlier today, the African Union called on the government of Guinea to end its “repression” of protesters.
The Independent of London is reporting that senior Israeli politicians and analysts appear to be preparing the Israeli public for a military conflict with Iran. Iran has been the central topic of discussion at a major security forum this week in the Israeli resort of Herzliya. Speakers at the forum have included top Israeli and U.S. officials, four U.S. presidential candidates and several leading neoconservatives, including Richard Perle and former CIA Director James Woolsey. A reporter from the Financial Times wrote: “The war drums are beating pretty loudly here in Herzliya.” State Department official Nicholas Burns said there is no doubt that Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon. James Woolsey likened Iran to Nazi Germany. Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards told the conference: “The challenges in your own backyard represent an unprecedented threat to the world and Israel.” Republican presidential candidates Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain have also addressed the forum.
Meanwhile, here in this country, federal investigators have revealed that the Pentagon has accidentally sold surplus military gear to Iran, including engine parts for Chinook helicopters. Iran managed to buy the contraband with the help of front companies and international arms brokers. The Associated Press reports Iran has also attempted to buy parts for its fleet of F-14 Tomcat fighter jets. The United States sold Iran the fighter jets in the 1970s when the two countries were still allies.
In Bolivia, 15,000 people gathered in La Paz on Monday to mark Evo Morales’ first year as president. Earlier in the day, Morales addressed the Bolivian Congress.
Evo Morales: “To get this far into the government — and from here we can establish a completely different state — after more than 500 years of exclusion, submission, scorn, hate — to arrive here, as we have said before, from the protests to the proposals.”
Evo Morales vowed to increase state control over natural resources, including the country’s mining industry.
An Australian man is threatening to sue the airline company Qantas after he was barred from flying. At the time, Allen Jasson was wearing a T-shirt depicting President Bush that read “World’s number one terrorist.” A spokesperson for the airline said: “Whether made verbally or on a T-shirt, comments with the potential to offend other customers or threaten the security of a Qantas group aircraft will not be tolerated.”
Here in this country, new passport rules go into effect today. American citizens flying home from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean must produce a passport when they return. Until now, all a person needed when flying between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean was a driver’s license or birth certificate.
And in Berkeley, California, protesters are continuing to fight plans by the University of California to cut down a grove of native Coast Live Oaks in order to build a new sports complex. For the past seven weeks, community members have been engaged in a tree-sit in an effort to save the trees. On Monday, Berkeley’s former Mayor Shirley Dean and longtime conservationist Sylvia McLaughlin joined the protest.