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Clashes between US-backed Iraqi forces and rival Shiite militias have spread to several areas around Iraq. At least fifty-five people have died and more than 300 have been wounded since the Iraqi government launched an offensive against Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in the southern city of Basra. Fighting has been reported in several areas of Baghdad, as well the towns of Kut and Hilla. Earlier today, at least three Americans were wounded when rocket fire hit the Green Zone in Baghdad, the second time in three days. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has given Sadr loyalists in Basra a Friday deadline to hand in their weapons. On Tuesday, Sadr aide Hazim al-Araji vowed a national civil disobedience campaign in response to the crackdown.
Hazim al-Araji: “If the Iraqi government will not respond to the demands of the Iraqi people, the second step will be staging a civil revolt. If the government will not respond, the third step will be issued soon.”
The offensive could end Sadr’s seven-month-old ceasefire, seen as a major factor behind the recent drop in violence in Iraq.
In other Iraq news, nine former employees are suing the war contractor KBR for knowingly exposing them to toxic chemicals without adequate protection. The workers, all US citizens, say KBR falsely assured them a chemical strewn across their work site was only a mild irritant. It turned out to be sodium dichromate, known as highly cancerous. KBR is seeking a dismissal through the Defense Base Act, which limits employee lawsuits against war contractors. But KBR’s own previous tax-dodging could undermine its attempt. Earlier this month, the Boston Globe revealed KBR has avoided paying hundreds of millions of dollars in federal taxes by hiring workers through shell companies based in the Cayman Islands. Lawyers plan to argue KBR’s foreign tax status excludes it from protection under federal law.
In Washington, the Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in the case of two US citizens seeking to challenge their transfer to Iraqi military custody. Shawqi Ahmad Omar and Mohammad Munaf are being held at Camp Cropper near the Baghdad airport. An Iraqi court has convicted Munaf of kidnapping Romanian journalists in a case widely seen as a sham. Munaf’s lawyers say the judge had been prepared to dismiss the trial until two US military officials intervened and told him to order the death penalty. Munaf’s death sentence was recently overturned, but he could face more charges. Omar, meanwhile, was detained by US forces at his Baghdad home. He’s been accused of harboring insurgents.
Meanwhile, at the UN, the Bush administration is suggesting the Security Council and other bodies end public debate on the Israel-Palestine conflict. On Tuesday, US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told the Security Council that discussion has become futile.
US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad: “If these types of meetings do not contribute to that effort, or worse, if they fuel the tensions that impede constructive engagement, then we need to ask ourselves whether the public format of debates in New York truly help create the environment necessary to facilitate the pursuit of the two-state solution.”
The UN General Assembly annually passes resolutions calling for an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
In Afghanistan, a coalition of charities on the ground says a large part of international aid is being wasted and exploited for donor gain. In a new report, the Agency Co-ordinating Body for Afghan Relief, known as ACBAR, says as much as 40 percent of aid to Afghanistan is being sent back to donor countries in the form of corporate profits and consultant salaries. Some foreign contractors in Afghanistan make as much as half a million dollars per year. The average consultant salary is $200,000, 200 times the annual take of an Afghan civil servant. The report also faults donor countries for failing to meet their pledged donations. The Bush administration has disbursed only half its $10.4 billion commitment to Afghanistan.
The Pentagon has admitted to mistakenly shipping nuclear parts to Taiwan. On Tuesday, military officials said four fuses for nuclear missiles were accidentally sent in the fall of 2006. Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne said the fuses were returned without incident.
Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne: “Upon learning of the error, the US government took immediate action to acquire positive control of the components and arranged for their safe and secure recovery to the United States. These items have now been safely returned to the United States.”
The disclosure comes six months after the Pentagon admitted to mistakenly flying a B-52 bomber loaded with five nuclear warheads across part of the United States. Each of the five nuclear warheads has about ten times the destructive force of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Joseph Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund says the latest incident shows the US has “too many nuclear weapons with too little control over them.”
Ecuador’s Foreign Minister is accusing Colombia of ratcheting up tensions that had seemingly eased following this month’s Colombian attack on a FARC base in Ecuador. More than twenty people were killed in the cross-border bombing, including civilians. On Sunday, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said Colombia would carry out further attacks wherever FARC rebels are based. Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Maria Isabel Salvador called the threat “aggressive” and “warlike.”
Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Maria Isabel Salvador: “The declarations of the Colombian defense minister are absolutely aggressive, absolutely warlike, and not just in respect to Ecuador, but to the entire continent. To say, to affirm that they are going to continue carrying out these types of missions wherever that may be is nearly a declaration of war from them.”
Lebanon has announced it’s boycotting the upcoming Arab League summit in Syria. Information Minister Ghazi Aridi says Lebanon is protesting Syrian interference in its internal politics.
Lebanese Information Minister Ghazi Aridi: “The Council of Ministers has decided that Lebanon will not take part in the Arab summit in Damascus that is scheduled for March 29 and 30 and will also not participate in the preparatory meetings before the summit. This is a regrettable precedent that has been imposed on us, and Lebanon did it for the first time since the date when Arab Summits started.”
Saudia Arabia and Egypt are also expected to boycott the Arab Summit.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has weighed in on the US presidential race. On Tuesday, Chavez said he fears a McCain presidency could be more dangerous than President Bush’s, calling a McCain “a man of war.”
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez: “McCain also seems to be a man of war. He said yesterday that Bush has been very tolerant with Chavez, imagine that. [McCain] has traveled to Iraq to offer up more weapons and more
dollars and more war.”
Chavez went on to say he hopes for reconciliation between the US and Venezuela after President Bush leaves office.
Back in the United States, the Supreme Court has ruled the International Court of Justice has no jurisdiction over the US judicial system. In a six-to-three decision, the Court said neither President Bush nor the World Court can order Texas to reopen the death penalty case of a foreign national. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer said the decision contradicts the Constitution, which calls international treaties “the supreme law of the land.”
In environmental news, scientists are blaming global warming for the collapse of a massive chunk of ice in the Antarctic. The British Antarctic Survey says the area is about seven times the size of Manhattan. It began breaking off in late February after being there for perhaps 1,500 years. Scientists say the rest of the Wilkins Ice Shelf is maintained only by narrow beams of thin ice and may collapse entirely.
And the New York Times has revealed the cigarette company Vector helped fund a widely publicized 2006 study that claimed more than three-quarters of lung cancer deaths could be avoided through CT scans. The Weill Cornell Medical College study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers were supported by a charity called the Foundation for Lung Cancer, itself almost entirely underwritten by more than $3.6 million in grants from Vector. Vector owns Liggett Group, which makes five different brands of cigarettes.
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