In Iraq, popular outcry is growing over a looming agreement that would help cement the US occupation of Iraq. On Friday, tens of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets to protest ongoing talks between the US and Iraqi government. The pact is expected by July. It would cover the future of US military bases, the powers of occupying US forces, immunity for US personnel, and control of Iraqi airspace. Over the weekend Iraqi government officials expressed reservations with some US proposals. A government spokesperson said the two sides have different “visions” so far. Iraq’s Foreign Minister says the Iraqi government will study agreements in Germany, Japan and Turkey that have kept US military bases there.
As the talks advance, the Bush administration continues to award lucrative long-term contracts for US companies in Iraq. The Washington Post reports the US has recently advertised several deals. One includes a call for "mentors" that would work alongside officials in Iraq’s Defense and Interior Ministries. A State Department deal would hire contractors to create a marshals service for the US-overseen Iraqi court system. And another deal indicates there will be a new US-run prison opening in September. Prospective contractors would be responsible for providing food for up to 5,000 prisoners and 150 employees.
Meanwhile, the Australian government has begun to withdraw its troops from Iraq. On Sunday, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Australian troops have ended combat operations. Rudd took office last year after promising to withdraw troops. Australia was one of the key early backers of the US-led invasion of Iraq.
On the campaign trail, Senator Hillary Clinton has won the Puerto Rico Democratic primary with 68 percent of the vote. Shortly after polls closed, Clinton addressed supporters in San Juan.
Sen. Hillary Clinton: "Thank you so much. I have four words for you: Te quiero Puerto Rico [I love you Puerto Rico]."
Clinton’s Puerto Rico victory is largely seen as symbolic following a Democratic National Committee ruling that will benefit Senator Barack Obama. On Saturday, the DNC rules committee agreed to recognize the primary results from Florida and Michigan but only seat a portion of their delegates. The Florida and Michigan primaries had gone uncounted because they were held ahead of schedule. Clinton won both contests, although candidates had agreed not to campaign in either state and Obama’s name wasn’t even on the ballot in Michigan. On Saturday, Clinton campaign staffer Harold Ickes criticized the ruling.
Howard Ickes: “This body of thirty individuals has decided that they’re going to substitute their judgment for 600,000 voters, and that’s what I call democracy."
The ruling essentially splits the Michigan vote with Clinton awarded sixty-nine delegates to Obama’s fifty-nine. Clinton will gain a larger share of the Florida delegates. Democratic National Committee member Everett Ward said the decision is fair.
Everett Ward: "This motion puts an opportunity for the people of Michigan supported by the Michigan Democratic Party to have an opportunity to participate in this process. Not anywhere in this motion does it say that the unpledged delegates will go to Senator Obama. Not in the motion. So for a colleague who exercises selective amnesia conveniently too often to sit at this table and try to suggest that we are doing something that blocks voters
and hijacks a process, I find it somewhat subjective."
The final two primaries will be held tomorrow in Montana and South Dakota. Native American issues have gone largely ignored despite South Dakota’s large native population. An Oglala Lakota Native American said he will not be voting.
Rex: "Just a lot of promises, and then they will do nothing again. That’s how usually it works, no? A lot of good speaking and talking to people and stuff, and then they don’t really come through with all their promises. So, yeah, I’m not going to vote this year. I don’t want to."
In other campaign news, Senator Obama has left his Chicago church over controversy around its political leanings. Obama said the decision is a painful one.
Sen. Barack Obama: "I had discussed it with Reverend Moss. We had prayed on it. We had consulted with a number of friends and family members who are also connected to the church. And so, this is not a decision I come to lightly. And frankly, it’s one that I make with some sadness."
Obama’s departure follows controversy over the sermons of his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Reverend Wright has criticized US foreign policy and the treatment of African Americans. And last week a new controversy erupted after a visiting priest mocked Clinton and accused her of embodying “white entitlement.”
The Israeli government has announced another new round of settlement construction in the Occupied Territories. Israel says it will build more than 800 new homes in Har Homa, a settlement outside East Jerusalem. Israel has previously agreed to halt settlement expansion under the US-backed Road Map. But it now claims the pledge only applies to those settlements it doesn’t ultimately want to keep. Israeli Interior Minister Meir Shitreet defended the new settlement expansion by citing biblical claims.
Israeli Interior Minister Meir Shitreet: "Har Homa is part of Jerusalem. It’s not a settlement. And one sometimes people are regularly forget Jerusalem is our capital, not since King David — Camp David, but since King David, so that claims that they cannot build in Jerusalem is totally nonsense. No one in the government of Israel ever stop building in Jerusalem."
Israel has expanded settlements around Jerusalem since occupying it in 1967. Palestinian senior negotiator Saeb Erekat said Israel should choose between settlement expansion or peace.
Saeb Erekat: "We condemn the Israeli government decision to build 820 settlement housing units. This is a flagrant violation of the Annapolis process. This undermines our effort to continue with the peace process. And President Abbas today personally contacted all the members of the Quartet, and he launched a very strong protest, and he intends to put this issue tomorrow when he meets with [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert. This cannot stand. The government of Israel has the choice either to continue the settlement activity or to continue the peace process. It cannot have both."
It’s at least the fourth time Israel has announced a major construction project in occupied territory since the US-brokered Annapolis summit late last year.
Meanwhile, the US State Department has reversed a decision to withdraw Fulbright scholarships to Palestinian students in Gaza. The State Department had said it would redirect the scholarships elsewhere, because the Israeli blockade on Gaza prevents Palestinians from leaving. But the US officials say they’ll award the grants after assurances from Israel to grant the students exit permits. Around 600 Palestinian students remain barred from studying abroad.
In Italy, a coalition of activists and small farmers have launched a parallel summit to a meeting of world leaders on the global food crisis. The five-day alternative is called "Rethinking the Food System." Paul Nicholson of Via Campesina said the food crisis cannot be addressed without evaluating neoliberal policies.
Paul Nicholson: "We are stating that this model of free trade has caused hunger and has caused poverty in the rural world and now also in the cities. The food crisis, the spiraling crisis of food, is a consequence of leaving all food in the hands of the transnationalists."
The forum will continue over the next five days.
Meanwhile, at Guantanamo Bay, the Pentagon has abruptly removed a judge who had ruled in favor of the imprisoned Canadian Omar Khadr. The judge, Army Col. Peter Brownback, was replaced Thursday after threatening to suspend Khdar’s trial unless military prosecutors hand over evidence. The Pentagon has not explained why he was replaced.
And in immigration news, the Washington Post is reporting the Bush administration has increased criminal prosecutions in immigration cases to record levels. Virtually every person caught crossing the US-Mexico border without a permit has been charged with a crime instead of returned home without charge.
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