At least sixty people have been killed in several attacks around Iraq over the last day. Earlier today, at least twelve Iraqi civilians were killed when a suicide bomber hit a US convoy in Baghdad. Seven members of a US-backed Sunni militia died when a suicide bomber attacked their base in Kirkuk. The attacks come one day after forty-one people were killed and another seventy wounded in a car bomb attack on a Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad.
In Afghanistan, at least eight civilians have been killed in a NATO bombing in the southern Helmand province. NATO says its forces were responding to nearby insurgent gunfire. The attack came after Afghan President Hamid Karzai renewed a demand for an end to US-led air strikes following last month’s bombing deaths of an estimated 140 people. The Pentagon, meanwhile, is now reviving its attempt to downplay the toll, saying between twenty to thirty civilians were killed.
Meanwhile, the New York Times reports leaders of the Taliban and other groups are discussing a potential peace agreement through intermediaries. The militant groups are reportedly demanding a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops as a precondition for laying down their arms.
Senate Democrats have followed through with a pledge to block funding for the closure of the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay. On Wednesday, the Democratic-led Senate voted 90-to-6 to remove $80 million from a war appropriations bill that would have gone toward closing Guantanamo Bay and investigating torture there. Lawmakers have called on Obama to submit details on his plans for closing Guantanamo. Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois was one of the six to vote against stripping the funds.
Sen. Dick Durbin: “What happened in Abu Ghraib and what happened at Guantanamo has sullied the reputation of the United States and has endangered alliances which we’ve counted on for decades. President Obama is trying to change that. By closing Guantanamo and responsibly allocating those detainees to safe and secure positions, he is going to send a message to the world that it’s a new day in terms of America’s foreign policy.”
The Obama administration, meanwhile, is reportedly considering a “preventive detention” system that would indefinitely jail terror suspects in the United States without bringing them to trial. The New York Times reports President Obama discussed the proposal at a meeting with human rights advocates at the White House. Two anonymous advocates told the Times that Obama indicated he favored applying the system to future cases, not prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. Obama is set to deliver a speech later today outlining his plans on how to deal with closing Guantanamo.
A federal judge has ruled the government can continue to indefinitely jail prisoners without charge. In a ruling this week, US District Judge John Bates said anyone determined to have engaged in clashes with the US military or its allies, or to have belonged to the Taliban or al-Qaeda, can be held without trial. But Bates also rejected the Obama administration’s assertion it can jail anyone who “supports” those groups. The ruling came in a case challenging the jailing of several Guantanamo prisoners.
A newly disclosed Pentagon report says that about one in seven of the 534 prisoners released from Guantanamo Bay have gone on to engage in militant activity. Opponents of due process rights are expected to use the report to advance their arguments in favor of the continued indefinite jailing of Guantanamo prisoners. But as with prior claims, the Pentagon report offers few details and prevents independent verification. Of the seventy-four prisoners said to have engaged in militancy after their release, only five can be independently verified to have actually engaged in or threatened to carry out militant acts. The report also fails to say how many of the former prisoners were believed to have gone on to militant activity as a result of their torture at Guantanamo. The most deadly act by a former Guantanamo prisoner was carried out by Kuwaiti national Abdallah al-Ajmi, who drove a bomb-laden truck into an Iraqi army base in March 2008, killing thirteen people. Al-Ajmi’s attorney has said he was radicalized and left mentally unstable following his four years at Guantanamo.
Two US contractors with the private military firm formerly known as Blackwater have reportedly fled Afghanistan to avoid prosecution for a fatal unprovoked shooting earlier this month. The two fleeing contractors and another two colleagues reportedly fired on a vehicle in Kabul after a night of drinking. One Afghan civilian was killed and another two were wounded in the attack. The contractors say Blackwater supplied them with guns even though the Pentagon hadn’t granted them authorization. Defense attorney Daniel Callahan identified the two fleeing contractors as Steve McClain and Justin Cannon. Callahan says they fled their compound on Saturday and have now made it back to the United States.
A congressional probe has found the US Army paid more than $83 million in bonuses to the military contractor KBR, despite its responsibility for the electrocution deaths of at least four troops in Iraq. On Wednesday, Senate Democratic Policy Committee chair Byron Dorgan accused the military of “stunning incompetence” for rewarding KBR. In addition to the four electrocution deaths, hundreds of troops have received electrical shocks because of KBR’s electrical work in Iraq. The committee’s probe says more than half of the bonuses were awarded after the Pentagon first heeded warnings about the electrocutions. KBR is a former subsidiary of Halliburton, the company formerly run by Dick Cheney.
A United Nations commission says it’s facing obstacles from the Israeli government ahead of its probe of alleged war crimes during Israel’s three-week assault on Gaza earlier this year. The commission is probing allegations of war crimes committed by both Israeli forces and Hamas fighters. But inquiry head Richard Goldstone says his team will likely have to enter Gaza through Egypt, because Israel has refused to cooperate.
Richard Goldstone: “It would have been our wish to start there, to visit southern Israel, Sderot, to go into Gaza through the front door to go to the West Bank, which is also included in our mission. I made a number of approaches to the Israeli ambassador in Geneva, even a direct approach to Prime Minister Netanyahu, but we’ve really received no official response.”
Goldstone says his team plans on holding public hearings for Gaza residents to share their testimony. More than 1,400 Palestinians were killed during the Israeli attack, most of them civilians. Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said Israel will ignore the inquiry’s mission.
Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon: “We have shown the UN all the documents, all the data, and I think we put this issue behind us. And certainly, there should never be a moral equivalency drawn between terrorists and those who fight terrorism. And any attempt to try to single out Israel and to investigate this preposterous suggestion of war crimes is just ridiculous, and of course Israel will not cooperate with such an idea.”
In Pakistan, the UN is warning the exodus of Swat Valley residents fleeing government-Taliban clashes could turn into the worst displacement crisis since the Rwandan genocide. Around two million people have fled their homes since fighting broke out three weeks ago. The Obama administration, meanwhile, has pledged $110 million in humanitarian aid for the displaced refugees. Critics have called the pledge a PR move, as the US has put increasing pressure on the Pakistani government to engage in the fighting that has caused the displacements.
In Bolivia, US and Bolivian officials have held their first talks since last year’s expulsion of a US ambassador on allegations of aiding the opposition to President Evo Morales. On Wednesday, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon met with Bolivia’s foreign minister in La Paz.
In other news from Bolivia, lawmakers have voted to declassify archives that could hold information on victims of Bolivian dictatorships from 1960 to 1980. A group of relatives of those disappeared under the dictatorships have been on a hunger strike seeking the documents’ release. Olga Flores Bedegal is one of three women on the fifteenth day of the hunger strike.
Olga Flores Bedegal: “Right now, we think it’s a clear sign that the government intends to clear up this dark time in Bolivia’s history and answer our questions about where our relatives are. Once we see the results and it’s what we want, we will lift the strike. If not, we are willing to die. What we are asking for, no less and no more, is that they follow the law, that they comply with the Inter-American Convention against the disappearance of people.”
Here in New York, four people have been arrested over an alleged plot to bomb two Jewish synagogues and a National Guard air base. The suspects were arrested after planting what they believed to be bombs outside a synagogue. New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said the bombs were actually fake and had been supplied by an FBI informant.
Ray Kelly: “In essence, four individuals were arrested for planting bombs in front of two synagogues in the area. The bombs had been made by the FBI technicians. They were totally inert. No one was ever at risk or in danger of being injured this evening.”
Kelly says the suspects have been under investigation for over a year. All four are Muslim. One of the suspects is of Afghan descent and reportedly said he was motivated by anger over the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.
In Missouri, the death row prisoner Dennis Skillicorn was executed Wednesday after a last failed attempt at clemency. Skillicorn was convicted for the 1994 murder of a commuter who had stopped to help him and two other men. But the court that tried him never got to hear that Skillicorn didn’t actually commit the murder and that the killer claimed Skillicorn didn’t know it was going to take place. I interviewed Amnesty International USA executive director Larry Cox about Dennis Skillicorn on Tuesday’s broadcast.
Larry Cox: “This illustrates one of the central truths about the death penalty, that the person you kill is often not the same person who committed the crime. He has become a model prisoner. He has reached out to the victims of crime, to restorative justice. He’s worked in a hospice. He has helped young offenders. And that’s the reason why you have this incredible assembly of people from the Corrections Department, you have Republicans, you have Democrats, you have people of faith, all speaking out, saying, 'What purpose could possibly be served by killing this man, who has become, by all accounts, a very good man?'”
And a group of twenty-seven former judges and prosecutors is asking the Supreme Court to grant an appeal by the Georgia death row prisoner Troy Anthony Davis. Davis, an African American, was convicted for the 1989 killing of a white police officer. Seven of the nine non-police witnesses have recanted their testimony since the trial. Three witnesses say another man later admitted to the killing. There is also no direct physical evidence tying Davis to the crime scene. In a filing to the Supreme Court, the group urged the Supreme Court to accept a final appeal from Davis’s attorneys to have the case sent back to a federal judge to hear from the witnesses who recanted their testimony. The signatories include former Deputy US Attorney General Larry Thompson, two former state Supreme Court chief justices, and nine former US attorneys, including former Georgia Congress member Bob Barr and former FBI Director William Sessions.