In the Occupied Territories, a video has been released showing the first new images of BBC correspondent Alan Johnston since his March 12 kidnapping in Gaza.
Alan Johnston: “First of all, my captors have treated me very well, they’ve fed me well, there has been no violence towards me at all, and I’m in good health. In three years here, in the Palestinian territory, I’ve witnessed the huge suffering of the Palestinian people, and my message is that their suffering is continuing and it’s unacceptable. Every day there are Palestinians arrested, imprisoned for no reason. People are killed on a daily basis. The economic suffering is terrible, especially here in Gaza (audio unclear). People here are in absolute despair after almost 40 years of Israeli occupation, which has been supported by the West.”
Johnston went on to criticize the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s unclear whether his comments were coerced. The undated video was posted by a group calling itself the Army of Islam. On the tape, the group repeats its demand that Britain free Muslim prisoners, including the Islamist cleric Abu Qatada. Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Johnston should be released unconditionally. Johnston is the only Western reporter permanently based in Gaza.
The Bush administration appears to have settled on a new talking points strategy to promote a long-term troop U.S. presence in Iraq. On Thursday, both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and a senior U.S. commander in Iraq said they favor a protracted stay in Iraq similar to the U.S. force in South Korea. The U.S. currently has 30,000 troops in South Korea in a presence dating back more than 50 years. The comments mark the second time this week the administration has invoked South Korea to discuss its long-term plans for Iraq, following White House Press Secretary Tony Snow on Wednesday. These development come as Iraqi President Jalal Talabani visited the White House and said the Iraqi government was prepared to meet U.S.-backed goals.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani: “I must tell you that I am committed, as the president of Iraq, to benchmarks and to do our best to achieve some progress forward for national reconciliation, for passing the new oil law, de-Baathification, investment, and other laws which are now under discussion.”
In what the State Department is calling a breach of security, the architectural firm designing the new U.S. Embassy in Iraq has posted its designs online. The firm, Berger Devine Yaeger, says the $600 million project will include “two office buildings, six apartment buildings, a gym, a pool, a food court and its own power generation and water-treatment plants.” The U.S. ambassador’s residence will be 16,000 square feet. The Embassy will be the size of nearly 80 football fields. The plans were removed after U.S. officials complained.
Meanwhile, reports are emerging of coerced labor and poor conditions for workers involved in the Embassy’s construction. Journalist David Phinney reports foreign construction workers contracted by the construction firm First Kuwaiti are living in overcrowded trailers, served low-quality food, abused by managers and subjected to unsafe conditions. A former medical technician says workers were deprived basic medical needs. The technician, Rory Mayberry, was dismissed just days after he complained to First Kuwaiti and U.S. officials.
In other Iraq news, the U.S. military says it’s seeking talks with one of its most prominent opponents, the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr’s aides say they’ve been approached but won’t sit down with “occupation forces.”
In Lebanon, fighting has resumed at a Palestinian refugee camp where the Lebanese military has squared off against the Islamic militant group Fatah Islam. Dozens of Lebanese military vehicles have fired artillery shells from around the Nahr al-Bared camp, setting off clouds of smoke inside. More than 25,000 residents have fled the camp since fighting began two weeks ago. The death toll has now topped 80 people, including civilians.
President Bush has unveiled a new climate change strategy that says leading nations should agree on a “long-term goal” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — but explicitly rejects setting mandatory caps.
President Bush: “By the end of next year, America and other nations will set a long-term global goal for reducing greenhouse gases. To help develop this goal, the United States will convene a series of meetings of nations that produce most greenhouse gas emissions, including nations with rapidly growing economies like India and China.”
An international accord would mark the first time the Bush administration agrees to a target on reducing gas emissions. But the new strategy continues the White House policy of rejecting mandatory emissions limits as called for by the Kyoto Accords. Germany, which is hosting the G8 summit next week, has called for a 50 percent emission cut by the year 2050. Critics say the president made the announcement with the global warming divide in mind.
Daniel Weiss of the Center for American Progress: “He made the announcement today to preempt the criticisms that he is sure to get at the G8 summit next week when our allies, like Germany and Britain, say don’t talk, cut.”
The standoff over U.S. plans for a missile shield in Eastern Europe continues to intensify. On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the U.S. policy was akin to “diktat” and “imperialism.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin: “Some members of the international community have a desire to dictate their will to everyone on any issue, without coordinating their actions with common norms of international law.”
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice responded to Putin during a visit to Germany.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: “Democratic institutions and an open society are not a source of weakness. Nor is freedom of speech and freedom of the press a nuisance. They are pillars of modern society. When we differ with Russia, we will consult, we will address their views seriously, and we will express our own views candidly. In that regard, I have to tell you that I find Russia’s recent missile diplomacy difficult to understand, and we regret Russia’s reluctance to accept the partnership if missile defense that we have offered.”
Rice is expected to visit Spain later today. On Thursday, hundreds of demonstrators rallied outside the U.S. Embassy in Madrid calling for an end to the Iraq War and the closure of the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Eva Suarez-Llanos of Amnesty International: “We demand the immediate closure of Guantanamo Bay prison, which has become the symbol of the war against terror, but it is only the tip of the iceberg. We also demand the release of all information regarding the secret centers operated by the CIA in different places around the world which are kept secret.”
In Nigeria, four American oil workers have been released following three weeks in captivity. The men were seized at gunpoint from an oil barge operated by the oil giant Chevron.
In Britain, the main union of British college teachers has endorsed a call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The measure calls Israeli academia “complicit” in Israel’s 40-year occupation of Palestinian lands. The congress of the University and College Union represents more than 120,000 British teachers. The move comes as South Africa’s largest trade union federation is preparing its own campaign to call for a national boycott on Israeli products and an end to diplomatic ties with Israel. Willy Madisha, president of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), said: “The best way to have Israel comply with United Nations resolutions is to pressure it by a diplomatic boycott such as the one imposed on apartheid South Africa.”
In media news, Dow Jones has announced its now open to talks on selling The Wall Street Journal. The news comes just one month after Dow’s controlling family, the Bancrofts, rejected a takeover bid from News Corp. owner Rupert Murdoch. Dow now says it’s open to Murdoch’s offer.
And the former top aide to chief White House strategist Karl Rove has stepped down as U.S. attorney for Arkansas. Tom Griffin’s resignation came just hours after Congressmember John Conyers had asked for information about Griffin’s role in a scandal first reported by the journalist Greg Palast for both the BBC and Democracy Now! Palast obtained internal Republican emails showing Griffin had sent so-called voter “caging-lists” designed to challenge voters from casting ballots. The caging lists were skewed toward targeting people of color, predominantly African Americans.