In Burma, a powerful tropical cyclone has killed nearly 4,000 people and left tens of thousands homeless. Aid groups say the toll could climb much higher. The top American diplomat in Rangoon said the storm had caused major devastation throughout the city. Dissident groups are urging Burma’s military junta to allow aid groups to enter the country and operate freely, but the UN says the government has not responded to its offer to help. Meanwhile, Burma’s military junta has announced it plans to proceed with a controversial referendum on Sunday on a new constitution.
In campaign news, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton spent the weekend campaigning in North Carolina and Indiana ahead of Tuesday’s primary. On Sunday, the candidates appeared simultaneously on competing news shows. On ABC’s This Week, Clinton was asked if she had any regrets over her recent threat to “totally obliterate” Iran if it attacks Israel with nuclear weapons.
Sen. Hillary Clinton: “Why would I have any regrets? I’m asked a question about what I would do if Iran attacked our ally, a country that many of us have a great deal of, you know, connection with and feeling for, for all kinds of reasons. And, yes, we would have massive retaliation against Iran.”
Appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press, Senator Obama said the US should defend Israel after any attack, but he criticized Clinton’s rhetoric.
Sen. Barack Obama: “Well, it’s not the language that we need right now, and I think it’s language that’s reflective of George Bush. We have had a foreign policy of bluster and saber-rattling and tough talk, and in the meantime, we make a series of strategic decisions that actually strengthen Iran.”
In news from Iraq, more than thirty people were injured on Saturday when a US missile struck a major hospital in Sadr City. The McClatchy Newspapers reports the rocket shattered hospital windows and sent many doctors running from the building, leaving the emergency ward without enough personnel to deal with injury victims. The US is continuing to carry out airstrikes in the densely populated Sadr City. Iraqi health officials said at least ten people, including two children, were killed on Sunday in Sadr City.
In other Iraq news, a bomb attack on Sunday targeted a motorcade carrying Iraq’s first lady. President Jalal Talabani’s wife, Hiro Ibrahim Ahmed, escaped unharmed, but four bodyguards were injured.
In Mosul, gunmen shot dead an Iraqi reporter on Sunday after hauling her out of a taxi. Serwa Abdul-Wahab was shot once in the head. A colleague said she had received a text message on her phone three weeks earlier warning her to stop reporting or she would be killed.
The Washington Post reports the military is planning to expand the role of private contractors in Iraq. For the first time, US commanders in Iraq are seeking private contractors to form part of the small military teams that train and live with Iraqi military units across the country. The contractors would live on Iraqi military bases and participate in special operations and convoy duties.
Meanwhile, military contractor KBR has reported its first quarter net profits tripled over last year largely because of its Iraq war contracts. KBR made $98 million in the first three months of the year.
In other campaign news, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton sparred Sunday over a proposal to temporarily suspend the federal gas tax. In an interview on Meet the Press, Obama described the proposal as a Washington gimmick.
Sen. Obama: “This gas tax, which was first proposed by John McCain and then quickly adopted by Senator Clinton, is a classic Washington gimmick. It is a political response to a serious problem that we have neglected for decades. Now, here’s the upshot. You’re looking at suspending a gas tax for three months. The average driver would save thirty cents per day for a grand total of $28. That’s assuming that the oil companies don’t step in and raise prices by the same amount that the tax has been reduced.”
During her appearance on ABC’s This Week, George Stephanopoulos questioned Clinton about her gas tax proposal.
George Stephanopoulos: “Can you name one economist, a credible economist, who supports the suspension?”
Sen. Clinton: “Well, you know, George, I think we’ve been for the last seven years seeing a tremendous amount of government power and elite opinion basically behind policies that haven’t worked well for the middle class and hard-working Americans in America.”
Stephanopoulos: “But can you name an economist who thinks this makes sense?”
Clinton: “Well, I’ll tell you what, I’m not going to put my lot in with economists, because I know if we did it right, if we actually did it right, if we had a president who used all the tools of the presidency, we would design it in such a way that it would be implemented effectively.”
The North Carolina NAACP has filed a formal complaint of possible voter suppression against the organization Women’s Voices Women Vote. Last week it was revealed that the D.C.-based nonprofit was behind a series of deceptive robocalls directed at African American households. Callers were falsely informed that they must first send in a “registration packet” before they’re allowed to vote.
Democratic Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and thirty-nine other lawmakers have called on the Pentagon’s inspector general to investigate the Pentagon’s propaganda program. Two weeks ago, the New York Times revealed the Pentagon had set up a secret program to use retired military officers to generate positive news coverage and to push for the war in Iraq. In a letter to the Pentagon, DeLauro described the program as a “unethical, and potentially illegal, propaganda campaign aimed at deliberately misleading the American public.”
Meanwhile, USA Today is reporting the Pentagon has set up a global network of foreign language news websites that promote US interests and counter anti-American messages. One such website, Mawtani.com, is geared towards Iraqis. The site is available in Arabic, Farsi and Urdu, but not in English. It is supervised by the Pentagon’s Iraq command. The US Southern Command is building a similar site for Latin American audiences, and Pacific Command is interested in setting up a news site to cover Asia. The military claims the sites are not a form of propaganda. Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Vickers said, “Is this propaganda? No. It’s intended to counter extremist propaganda…with truth.”
The Pentagon is considering expanding its presence in Afghanistan by sending as many as 7,000 more US troops. This would bring the total number of US troops in Afghanistan to a new high of roughly 40,000. On Sunday, presidential candidate Barack Obama said he supports a military surge in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban.
The UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees is set to suspend its food aid distribution in Gaza today because of a lack of fuel caused by the Israeli blockade. UNWRA spokesperson Chris Gunness said, “We have exhausted our stocks of fuel and are therefore forced to stop our food distributions to 1.5 million inhabitants in the Gaza Strip.” On Sunday, the Israeli military shut down two key border crossings through which Gaza receives most of its food, medical supplies, humanitarian aid and fuel.
Election officials in Zimbabwe have finally released results from the March 29 election. Officials say opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai beat President Robert Mugabe, but neither candidate passed the 50 percent threshold for an outright win. Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change said the result was “scandalous daylight robbery.” MDC Secretary General Tendai Biti said Tsvangirai should be declared president.
Tendai Biti: “This does not surprise us. This is consistent with a regime that is not ready to let go of power. This is consistent with an individual, Robert Mugabe, who will do anything and everything legally and extralegally to reproduce his repression, his tyranny in Zimbabwe.”
Sami al-Hajj has revealed more information about his imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay. Al-Hajj is the Al Jazeera cameraman who was held without charge for over six years at Guantanamo. He was released on Thursday. In an interview from Sudan, al-Hajj said US troops repeatedly desecrated the Koran.
Sami al-Hajj: “They hold the Koran in contempt, destroyed it several times and put their dirty feet on it. They also sat on the Koran while trying us to get us angry. They repeatedly committed violations against our dignity and our sexual organs.”
The US has rejected Sami al-Hajj’s claims. One US official told ABC News that al-Hajj was “a manipulator and a propagandist”.