The founder and chair of the private military contractor Blackwater USA appeared before Congress Tuesday to defend his company. Erik Prince was called before the House Xommittee on Oversight and Government Reform amid a public firestorm over the role of private military firms in Iraq and a string of probes into Blackwater’s conduct.
Erik Prince: “We strive for perfection. We try to drive towards the highest standards. But the fog of war and accidents and the bad guys just have to get lucky once.”
Blackwater has come under heavy scrutiny since last month’s shooting in Baghdad in which up to 28 Iraqis were killed.
Congressmember Dennis Kucinich: “So Blackwater’s shoot-first-and-don’t-ask-questions-later approach undermines the United States’ position and jeopardizes the safety of our soldiers. How much more do we need to know to conclude that the war against Iraq has been a disaster for the Iraqi people and for the people of this country, as well?”
In Burma, the military junta has intensified its crackdown on a pro-democracy uprising. Foreign diplomats say soldiers are pulling people from their homes in the middle of the night. Military vehicles are patrolling the streets vowing to arrest pro-democracy activists. Government employees are being forced to sign declarations of support to the junta. U.S. envoy Shari Villarosa says embassy staffers have found monasteries virtually empty or barricaded by the military. Estimates of those detained in the crackdown have entered the thousands. Agence France-Presse is reporting at least 1,700 people are being held at a college campus in Rangoon. The death toll remains unknown.
Buddhist monk U Chee Hrape: “The SPDC (State Peace and Development Council) is out of their mind to solve the problem with violence and by killing a number of people, which is against their religion as a Buddhist country. Buddhists are not doing this killing.”
Meanwhile, U.N. envoy Ibrahim Gambari wrapped up his four-day visit Tuesday after meeting with the junta chief Than Shwe and the detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won elections in 1990 but has been prevented from taking office.
In Iraq, Poland’s ambassador to Iraq has been wounded in a bombing attack earlier today. The ambassador’s convoy was driving through central Baghdad when it hit several mines. Poland has around 1,000 troops in Iraq.
In other Iraq news, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has announced plans to begin withdrawing British troops from the southern province of Basra.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown: “I believe that by the end of the year, the British forces, which have been 5,500, can be reduced to 4,500, and that by the end of the year, indeed by Christmas, a thousand of our troops can be brought back to the United Kingdom and to other purposes.”
Brown made the comments in a surprise visit to Iraq. Basra residents welcomed the news.
Basra resident: “We feel happy to hear the news, and God willing, they will all leave. We do not want any one of them to them to stay, so that welfare and security prevail in this country and from this nice city.”
On Capitol Hill, the House has overwhelmingly approved a measure giving the Bush administration two months to announce a plan for withdrawing troops from Iraq. The final vote was 377 to 46. A similar measure failed this summer after antiwar Democrats claimed it would provide meaningless bipartisan cover to continue the war. The measure does not impose a withdrawal time line or even require President Bush to implement his own plan.
In other news from Washington, President Bush is expected to issue the fourth veto of his presidency today on a bill expanding health insurance to millions of low-income children. Congress sent the bill to the White House on Tuesday. It calls for a $35 billion spending increase to the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as S-CHIP. The increase would be financed through a tax increase on cigarettes. Bush has promised a veto because he says the measure would encourage government-backed healthcare.
In Afghanistan, a new U.N. report says violence has reached its highest level since the U.S.-led invasion nearly six years ago. Figures show an average of 520 security incidents per month so far this year. That’s 100 more per month on average over last year.
At the United Nations, Venezuela has renewed calls for the extradition of the CIA operative Luis Posada Carriles, wanted for the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people. Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro made the call at a speech before the U.N. General Assembly.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro: “We ask from here we want to ratify to the government of the United States the legal petition so that the terrorist Luis Posada Carriles be extradited according to international laws and be tried for the crimes committed in Latin America and the Caribbean against our people.”
Meanwhile, in El Salvador Defense Secretary Robert Gates began a five-nation tour of Bush administration allies in Latin America with a salvo against Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates: “I think that the principal threat represented by Hugo Chávez is to the freedom and economic prosperity of the people of Venezuela. I think that he has been very generous in offering their resources to people around the world, when perhaps those resources could be better used to alleviate some of the economic problems facing the people of Venezuela. I think that’s the principal concern.”
Israel has admitted to bombing a Syrian military site in a cross-border attack last month. The Israeli government had kept silent on the strike so far. At the United Nations, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Moualem accused Israel of provoking hostilities.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Moualem: “The recently reported figures on the increased United States arming of Israel speak for themselves. The latest act of aggression against Syria on September 6, 2007, is a proof of Israel’s desire to escalate tension.”
In Sudan, former President Jimmy Carter and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu met with officials in southern Sudan Tuesday as part of a mission to restart peace talks. Violence has continued despite a north-south peace deal in January 2005. Archbishop Tutu and President Carter are among a newly formed “Group of Elders” formed to address ongoing conflicts.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “We hope that we can do something that will make a significant difference, that will bring peace to this land.”
A former top Bush administration lawyer has admitted he knew the White House’s warrantless spy program was illegal. Speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday, Jack Goldsmith said he could not find legal support for certain aspects of the government surveillance program. Goldsmith did not specify what he found illegal. The White House has barred him from giving any key details. As the former head of the Office of Legal Counsel, Goldsmith was the Justice Department’s top legal adviser to the White House from 2003 to 2004.
And in campaign news, a new poll shows Senator Hillary Clinton has opened a wide lead in the Democratic presidential race. The Washington Post says Clinton now has 53 percent support among Democrats. Her closest rival, Senator Barack Obama, is at 20 percent. The news comes as Clinton’s campaign announced leading Obama in the third-quarter fundraising race. Clinton pulled in $22 million over Obama’s $19 million. The Clinton campaign released the numbers as Obama gave an address to mark the five years since he gave his well-known speech against the invasion of Iraq. In a reference to Clinton, Obama said: “We need to ask those who voted for the war: How can you give the president a blank check and then act surprised when he cashes it?”