The Iraq debate continues on Capitol Hill. On Wednesday, Republicans defeated an amendment that would require U.S. troops to get as much or more rest between deployments as the time they were deployed. Seven Republicans joined Democrats in support, but the measure failed to attract the 60 votes needed to move ahead. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid criticized Republicans, saying: “Our troops are not machines, they are human beings.” Meanwhile, Maine Senator Olympia Snowe became the second Republican to back a bill that would start bringing troops home within three months. On Wednesday, Snowe joined Republican Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon in co-sponsoring Michigan Democratic Senator Carl Levin’s proposal.
The Washington Post is reporting internal CIA assessments of the Iraqi government have differed sharply from public statements by President Bush and other top officials. In November of last year, CIA Director Michael Hayden told a meeting of the Iraq Study Group the Iraqi government is “unable to govern” and “cannot function.” He described the situation as “irreversible.” Hayden’s comments came just hours after President Bush appeared before the same panel to give a starkly different picture. Neither Hayden nor President Bush have mentioned the CIA assessment publicly.
The news comes as The Washington Post reports the Bush administration has blocked a second convening of the Iraq Study Group. Congress voted last month to fund the bipartisan panel for a follow-up to its initial December 2006 report. But the plan stalled after the White House refused to authorize the panel co-chair, former Secretary of State James Baker, to take part.
New figures show U.S. soldiers have killed or wounded more than 400 Iraqi civilians at checkpoints or near convoys during the past year. McClatchy Newspapers reports the figures mark the first official accounting of civilian shootings since the war began. Monthly totals show an increase in casualties as the U.S. implemented its so-called troop surge in Iraq.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is coming under criticism for saying he has “a gut feeling” the U.S. faces an increased risk of terrorist attack this summer. Speaking with the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune on Tuesday, Chertoff cited reports of increased al-Qaeda activity and public threats from its leaders.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff: “All these things give me kind of a gut feeling that we are in a period of, not that I have a specific threat in mind right now, but that we are entering a period of increased vulnerability.”
Chertoff drew an immediate rebuke from House Homeland Security Committee chair Congressmember Bennie Thompson. In a statement addressed to Chertoff, Thompson said, “You must choose [your words] wisely — especially when they relate to the lives and security of the American public. … Are the American people supposed to purchase duct tape and plastic sheeting because of your 'gut feeling?'”
Chertoff’s comments come as the Bush administration is set to release a new intelligence report saying al-Qaeda is gaining strength and planning new attacks from remote bases in western Pakistan. The report is titled “Al-Qaida Better Positioned to Strike the West.”
In Lebanon, the Lebanese army has resumed attacks on a Palestinian refugee camp that was the scene of intense fighting last month. More than 150 civilians have fled the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp since clashes broke out Wednesday.
The violence comes on the one-year anniversary of Israel’s month-long attack on Lebanon. The invasion came after Hezbollah fighters killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two others in a raid near the border. Hezbollah said it launched the attack to recover its prisoners captured in previous Israeli cross-border raids and to ease an Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip. More than 1,200 Lebanese died in the ensuing war, most of them civilians; 158 Israelis were killed, most of them soldiers. One year on, Lebanese professor Amal Saad-Ghorayeb says Hezbollah maintains its high standing in Lebanon.
Amal Saad-Ghorayeb: “Hezbollah has the support of the overwhelming majority of Shi’ites and a sizable Christian segment of the community. At the same time, I would say that Hezbollah’s support was heightened both during and after the war. Hezbollah’s rationale for maintaining its arms has increased because of the Israeli threat to Lebanon and because the Shi’ite southerners bore the brunt of the war and the Shi’ites in the southern suburbs of Beirut.”
In a report released to mark the war’s first anniversary, Amnesty International is calling for an investigation into war crimes committed by each side. The report criticizes both Hezbollah for firing nearly 4,000 rockets at Israeli cities and Israel for bombing civilian areas and dropping more than a million cluster bombs, most in the last few days of the war. Amnesty says Israel should hand over maps of areas in Lebanon where the cluster bombs were dropped. Amnesty also says the U.N. should impose an arms embargo on both sides until restrictions can be imposed to ensure compliance with international law.
In Chile, a Supreme Court judge has rejected Peru’s request for the extradition of its ex-President Alberto Fujimori. Fujimori faces several corruption and human rights charges stemming from his decade as Peru’s president in the 1990s. The charges include the killing of political opponents, illegal phone tapping and bribery. The extradition request will now go before a second Supreme Court hearing, which will have final say.
In Britain, four men have each been sentenced to 40 years in prison for a failed suicide bombing of London’s subways two years ago. The attempt came two weeks after the July 7 attacks that killed 52 people. They failed because the bombs didn’t explode. On Wednesday, eyewitness Arthur Burton-Garbett described the aftermath.
Arthur Burton-Garbett: “I saw him standing there when the bomb had gone off. I realized the detonator hadn’t exploded the bomb. My first reaction was: 'How lucky can you get?' The second reaction was: ’He’s tried to murder me and everyone on that train.’ And I thought: 'God, I'm going to do something about this and go after this man.’ So I did.”
In Peru, thousands of people turned out for protests across the country to call for better working conditions, more social spending and the rejection of a pending trade deal with the U.S. Public school teachers and farmers were among the largest contingents to take part.
Union leader Mario Huaman: “We don’t agree with this free trade agreement that is going to make our people go hungry. We want to change the political stance toward economics.”
Former White House political director Sara Taylor appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday to testify on the firings of nine U.S. attorneys. Senator Patrick Leahy grilled Taylor on President Bush’s role in the attorney firings, but Taylor claimed Bush’s invocation of “executive privilege” prevented her from answering.
Sen. Patrick Leahy: “Did you speak with President Bush about replacing U.S. attorneys?”
Sara Taylor: “Senator Leahy, I have a letter from” —
Sen. Leahy: “That’s not my question. I’m not asking what was said or anything else. Did you speak with the president about replacing U.S. attorneys? Not what the content of the discussion — but did you speak with him, yes or no, about the replacement of U.S. attorneys?”
Taylor: “Senator, I have a very clear letter from [White House Counsel Fred] Fielding. That letter has asked me to follow the president’s assertion of executive privilege.”
Taylor went on to say President Bush did not speak to her about the firings and played little role in the discussions. Democrats say Bush shouldn’t have invoked executive privilege if his role was minimal. Meanwhile, former White House counsel Harriet Miers refused to follow her subpoena to testify. Miers has also been told by White House counsel Fred Fielding not to answer questions before Congress.
In other congressional news, the House has approved a measure to impose new changes to the student loan industry. The bill cuts $19 billion in federal subsidies to student lenders while increasing grants and cutting interest rates on loans to low-income students.
Here in New York, a group of tenants have filed suit against one of the city’s largest landlords, Pinnacle Group. The suit cites the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act — RICO — to accuse Pinnacle of employing illegal tactics to evict tenants and increase rents. Democracy Now! co-host Juan Gonzalez has investigated the company in the New York Daily News. His reports have documented cases showing abuses of tenants in order to drive them out.
Former first lady Lady Bird Johnson, wife of President Lyndon Johnson, has died. She was 94 years old.