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Fires continue to rage for a fourth day in Southern California. The flames have engulfed 585 square miles and forced upwards of half a million people from their homes. More than 1,000 buildings have been destroyed so far. At least five people have been killed and more than three dozen injured. Ten thousand evacuees have taken refuge at the emergency shelter at San Diego’s pro football stadium.
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger: “I think that the coordination between the locals, the state and the federal government is very important. This is a really fast moving fire, and it has really been disastrous for so many people, and we want to make sure there’s enough manpower and enough equipment and resources available for the firefighters.”
Today’s forecast calls for higher winds and soaring temperatures for the affected areas. President Bush has declared a federal emergency ahead of a visit to the region tomorrow.
A top California official has criticized President Bush’s visit and called on him to order California National Guard out of Iraq to help out in their home state. Speaking on MSNBC, California Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi said Bush’s visit would distract from the relief effort. He said: “What we really need are those firefighters. We need the equipment. We need — frankly, we need our troops back from Iraq.” His comments come as California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer said the California National Guard is operating with just half the equipment it needs because of the war in Iraq.
In Iraq, at least six civilians are among as many as 14 dead in a U.S. air strike north of Baghdad.
Unidentified resident: “Farmers were watering plants when planes attacked them. A wounded man was brought to the house, and a large group of people gathered to see. There were a large number of people, and I was one of them, when the Americans fired a missile on us. I was standing outside the house. Twelve or 13 people were killed, and nine others were wounded.”
The deaths follow two other lethal U.S. attacks on Iraqi civilians this month. At least 13 civilians, including two toddlers, died in a U.S. raid on Sadr City this weekend. And earlier this month, at least nine children and six women were killed in a U.S. attack northwest of Baghdad.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has approved new rules governing private military contractors that fail to provide any legal framework for holding them accountable for their actions in Iraq. The rules were proposed by a panel formed in the wake of last month’s killing of 17 Iraqi civilians by Blackwater guards in Baghdad. The panel concluded there is no alternative to the reliance on private contractors to guard U.S. officials. Neither the U.S. military nor the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service are prepared to take responsibility. The panel says it found no legal precedent for subjecting contractors to legal jurisdiction and urged the Bush administration to take up the issue. Other new measures include mandatory “cultural sensitivity” training for private contractors and the formation of new panels based out of the U.S. embassy to investigate violent incidents. The Washington Post reports the rules appear to reject Pentagon calls to put the contractors under military control.
The news comes as the Bush administration has admitted State Department contracts to private security contractors have quadrupled to nearly $4 billion per year. The rise in payments has not been accompanied by an increase in oversight. According to The New York Times, administration officials admit they have hired few new officials to monitor the contracts. There are currently only 17 contract compliance officers overseeing the billions of dollars in contracts to companies like Blackwater and DynCorp. In addition to work in Iraq and Afghanistan, the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs has doled out more than $2.2 billion for police training and drug eradication abroad, 94 percent of which has gone to DynCorp.
Meanwhile, a new estimate says the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could cost upwards of $2.4 trillion over the next decade. The Congressional Budget Office says the figure takes into account more than $700 billion in interest since the wars are being funded with borrowed money. The total amounts to nearly $8,000 for every U.S. resident. The Iraq war accounts for roughly 80 percent, at $1.9 trillion. In the lead-up to the Iraq war four years ago, the Bush administration estimated the invasion would cost no more than $50 billion.
The Bush administration continues to push its plan for a missile system in Eastern Europe. On Tuesday, President Bush said the system is needed as protection against a possible Iranian attack.
President Bush: “The need for missile defense in Europe is real, and I believe it’s urgent. Iran is pursuing the technology that could be used to produce nuclear weapons, and ballistic missiles have increasing range that could deliver them. Last November, Iran conducted military exercises in which it launched ballistic missiles capable of striking Israel and Turkey, as well as American troops based in the Persian Gulf.”
Critics say the missile system would give the Bush administration a first-strike option in a key strategic area. The Bush administration wants to host the system in Poland and the Czech Republic over a majority public opposition in both countries.
The Bush administration is being accused of severely editing the congressional testimony by a senior health official on the impact of climate change. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Julie Gerberding appeared before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Tuesday. The Associated Press reports two sources familiar with both her initial draft and the White House’s revisions say the administration imposed major changes. Gerberding’s final testimony is said to have omitted lengthy passages she had initially included on the health risks of global warming. Her final document was whittled down to four pages from an initial 14. An anonymous CDC official said the White House “eviscerated” the testimony. The White House had no comment. Democratic Senators are calling for the release of Gerberding’s full, unedited statement.
In other news from Washington, a Republican lawmaker called for the arrest of three college students Tuesday to prevent them from appearing at a press conference on Capitol Hill. The students are all children of undocumented workers who have been in the U.S. for more than a decade. They were speaking out in support of passage of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act. The DREAM Act would grant permanent citizenship to undocumented workers’ children if they completed two years of college, trade school or military service. But before the press conference, Congressmember Tom Tancredo of Colorado said the students should be arrested. He said: “Just because these illegal aliens are being used for political gain doesn’t mean they get immunity from the law.” The press conference was initially postponed but went ahead — with no arrests.
In other congressional news, Democratic Congressmember Pete Stark of California has apologized for controversial remarks last week on the House floor. Stark made the comments during debate over President Bush’s veto of an expansion to child’s health insurance. He said: “You don’t have money to fund the war or children. But you’re going to spend it to blow up innocent people if we can get enough kids to grow old enough for you to send to Iraq to get their heads blown off for the president’s amusement.” A Republican measure to censure Stark fell short Tuesday on the House floor. Stark initially refused to apologize but finally backed down under pressure from Democratic leaders. Stark says he apologized in part to focus attention on the issues, not on his comments.
And President Bush is expected to announce new measures today intensifying the U.S. economic and diplomatic isolation of Cuba. Advisers say Bush will announce the U.S. will not accept a political transition in which President Fidel Castro hands off authority to his brother Raúl. Raúl Castro has served as acting Cuban president since Fidel Castro stepped down to undergo medical treatment last year. President Bush is expected to encourage Cuban military and police to work against the Cuban government, telling them: “There is a place for you in a new Cuba.” He is also expected to unveil plans for a so-called “freedom fund” that Cuba would receive under different leadership.