The U.S. occupation of Iraq has reached another grim milestone. On Tuesday, the Pentagon confirmed that 2007 has become the deadliest year for U.S. troops in Iraq since the invasion four years ago. Six U.S. servicemembers were killed on Monday, bringing this year’s toll to 853.
Meanwhile, the Associated Press is reporting the Pentagon is secretly reviewing plans to ease enlistment standards to make up for a recruiting shortfall. The number of recruits seeking waivers for criminal behavior rose 3 percent last year to nearly one-fifth of all prospective servicemembers. Two-thirds of the waivers were approved.
The United Nations has issued a new warning over the role of private military firms in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a report set for release today, the U.N. calls the reliance on private companies “new modalities of mercenarism.” The report says private guards are akin to “irregular combatants.” The private military industry has come under unprecedented scrutiny following the September killing of 17 Iraqis by Blackwater guards. The U.N. panel says more countries should sign on to the International Convention Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries. Only 30 governments have ratified so far.
In Afghanistan, at least 60 people have been killed and 50 injured in a suicide bombing targeting Afghan lawmakers. The dead include six parliamentarians, as well as schoolchildren and senior citizens. It was the worst suicide bombing in Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion in 2001. The Taliban is denying responsibility, but it’s the lone group known for suicide attacks inside Afghanistan.
In Pakistan, police are vowing to shut down a planned rally against President General Pervez Musharraf’s imposition of a state of emergency. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto says she will lead the protest south of Islamabad today. Bhutto returned to Pakistan on Tuesday. She immediately denied charges of talks with Musharraf over a power-sharing deal.
Benazir Bhutto: “If you are hearing that a meeting is about to take place, no such meeting is scheduled. If you are reading reports that I was consulted, no such consultation took place.”
Lawyers continued a third day of demonstrations today, although in smaller numbers. Thousands of people have been detained in the crackdown.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved the nomination of Michael Mukasey as attorney general. Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer of New York and Dianne Feinstein of California joined all nine Republicans on the panel in backing Mukasey. Eight Democrats voted against. Mukasey’s confirmation was initially in doubt after he refused to condemn waterboarding as a form of torture. His nomination is expected to go to the Senate floor by next week where his confirmation is virtually assured.
House and Senate negotiators have approved a $459 billion military spending bill. Democrats rejected an amendment that would have added $70 billion for the Iraq war without restrictions. Senate Appropriations Chair Robert Byrd says Democrats will refuse to provide further blank checks for war funding. But senior Democrats say they still intend to provide up to $50 billion for the Iraq war as part of the bill.
A U.S. district judge has ruled Iraqi torture victims and their relatives can proceed with a lawsuit against a defense contractor involved in abuse scandals at Abu Ghraib and other U.S. prisons in Iraq. The lawsuit says interrogators with CACI International practiced torture or mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners. In the same ruling, Judge James Robertson dismissed claims against co-defendant Titan on the grounds the company’s guards were under the military’s exclusive control. But he said the case against CACI can go forward because company officials were also involved in the chain of command.
Local and gubernatorial elections were held in states around the country Tuesday. In Kentucky, Steve Beshear won an upset victory over incumbent Governor Ernie Fletcher. In Mississippi, Republican Governor Haley Barbour was re-elected to a second term. In Maryland, Sheila Dixon become the first African-American woman elected mayor of Baltimore. In Texas, Mayor Bill White was re-elected to a final two-year term. In Utah, voters overwhelmingly rejected the nation’s first statewide voucher program that would have subsidized private schools. With a Republican governor and legislature, Utah’s rejection was seen as a major defeat for Republican-backed school voucher proponents.
Civil rights leaders gathered in Washington Tuesday to renew calls for a massive march next week on the Justice Department. Leaders including the Rev. Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III have called the rally to protest what they call the government’s failure to prosecute hate crimes.
The march plans follow newly disclosed details of the Bush administration’s role in installing a Republican majority on the nation’s top racism and discrimination panel. According to The Boston Globe, President Bush maneuvered to ensure the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was composed of a Republican majority. The commission has long been staffed equally with members of both major political parties. To skirt the practice, President Bush appointed two Republican commissioners who then promptly changed their affiliations to independents. After the changes, the agency canceled a slew of planned evaluations supported by civil rights groups. These included assessing the budget for civil rights enforcement, financial aid to minorities, and whether inaccurate census collection has deprived non-white areas of entitled federal spending. Instead, the commission’s output has included reports criticizing school integration, affirmative action in school admissions and small-business incentives.
Six Nicaraguan farmworkers have been awarded more than $3 million in damages for being rendered sterile from pesticide spraying by the U.S. company Dole Food. Dole continued to spray the pesticide, DBCP, despite repeated warnings over its health risks. The judgment marks the first time foreign farmworkers have won a case against Dole in a U.S. court. The punitive damages will be on hold while Dole appeals. Dole is expected to face several more lawsuits for pesticide use abroad.
Two top officials with the Internet giant Yahoo were called before Congress Tuesday to testify on their role in the jailing of a Chinese journalist. Shi Tao was sentenced to 10 years after Yahoo passed on his email and Internet protocol address to Chinese officials. Speaking before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang and General Counsel Michael Callahan defended Yahoo’s role. Shi Tao’s mother was sitting in the room. At the urging of Congressmember Tom Lantos, Yang and Callahan bowed their heads to her in apology. Lantos told the pair: “While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies.”
In privatization news, new figures show electricity prices have risen far higher in states adopting market competition than in those using traditional government rates. According to the group Power in the Public Interest, customers in privatized areas paid over $7 billion more than customers in government-regulated areas. Since 1999, prices in deregulated markets tripled over regulated ones.
In Bolivia, President Evo Morales joined with thousands of elderly citizens to march for a proposed government stipend to Bolivians over the age of 60. Morales wants to steer funds from an energy tax to give seniors a monthly sum equal to $310.
Bolivian President Evo Morales: “From where and with what money was the Bonosol paid? It’s a stipend of solidarity, and we respect solidarity. The government must support the elderly. I repeat: It’s an obligation of the state to attend to our dear old men and women.”
The tax was created two years ago following the ouster of two U.S.-backed presidents.
The Department of Homeland Security has admitted it’s been slow to process some 15,000 requests for removals from the government’s terrorist watch list since February. Two thousand removals are asked for each month. The backlog now takes 44 days per case. The watch list still contains more than 750,000 names.
And in Illinois, nearly two dozen high school students have been suspended and now face possible expulsion for holding a peaceful protest against the war in Iraq. Last Thursday, students at Morton West High School in the town of Berwyn locked arms and sang protest songs in an approved area on school grounds. One participant said the group had been told they would face no more than a Saturday detention for missing class. But they were each given 10-day suspensions and told they could be expelled. The American Civil Liberties Union says it may take up the case.