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US forces have completed a withdrawal from major Iraqi cities and towns on today’s deadline to hand formal control to the Iraqi military. Iraq has declared a national holiday to mark the pullout, and celebrations have been underway nationwide. Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, called the pullback a victory for national sovereignty.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari: “Definitely this is a significant day, and it is the first practical implementation of the agreement on the withdrawal of troops signed by the Iraqi government. No one has to play down the importance of this day or the importance of the withdrawal. This is the first step that will help pave the way for a full withdrawal of the American and foreign forces from Iraq.”
Despite losing formal control of Iraq’s urban centers, US forces will now be stationed in large military bases that in most cases encircle the areas they withdrew from.
Underscoring the continued US combat role, four US soldiers were killed late Monday in fighting in Baghdad. In an interview with Reuters, US Ambassador Christopher Hill said the US military occupation will continue unimpeded.
US Ambassador Christopher Hill: “After June 30, with the US out of — US combat forces out of the cities and villages, localities, we’ll still be in Iraq. We’ll still have a very robust number of US troops in Iraq. And, in fact, those troops will not begin to withdraw from Iraq until probably several months from now, probably in the context, you know, the beginning of the year, and then until August of 2010. That’s when you’ll start seeing major reductions in US forces. So, there are going to be a lot of US combat capabilities in Iraq for months to come.”
In other Iraq news, foreign oil companies are bidding to develop Iraqi oil for the first time since Iraq nationalized its oil industry in 1972. Thirty-two companies are taking part in the auction, including Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell.
In Honduras, large crowds continue to take to the streets to protest the ouster of President Manuel Zelaya. On Monday, police fired tear gas at demonstrators gathered outside the presidential palace. At least ten demonstrators were hospitalized and scores arrested. The coup government has ordered a statewide curfew, while private television networks have refused to carry any news. On Monday, workers gathered outside the headquarters of the state-owned telecommunications company to protest the takeover.
Protester: “Is this democracy? Only Channel 5 is working. The people, the Honduran population, want democracy, and this is not democracy. They want to gag us, and we will not allow that. Hondutel will not close.”
Zelaya says he plans to return to Honduras on Thursday after addressing the United Nations later today.
Meanwhile at the White House, President Obama condemned Zelaya’s ouster.
President Obama: “President Zelaya was democratically elected. He had not yet completed his term. We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the president of Honduras, the democratically elected president there. In that, we have joined all the countries in the region, including Colombia and the Organization of American States. I think it would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition, rather than democratic elections.”
Despite Obama’s comments, the US is refusing to apply any tangible pressure on Honduras. After Obama spoke, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the US isn’t ready to formally declare the ouster a military coup, which would force a cutoff of millions of dollars in aid. Clinton also refused to explicitly commit to seeking the democratically elected Zelaya’s return, saying only the US wants to restore what she called “full democratic and constitutional order.”
In contrast to the US response, the Honduran coup has been roundly condemned across Latin America and much of the world. In Nicaragua, leaders from countries including Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia gathered in a show of solidarity with Zelaya. In what they called a “first step” in punitive action, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua jointly announced the temporary suspension of overland trade with Honduras. Meanwhile at the United Nations, General Assembly President Miguel D’Escoto of Nicaragua condemned the coup.
UN General Assembly President Miguel D’Escoto: “As a Nicaraguan, I am ashamed that this coup has taken place in Central America during my presidency here at the General Assembly. This is a throwback to another era that we had hoped was now a distant nightmare.”
In Iran, the ruling Guardian Council has certified President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory in this month’s disputed national elections. On Monday, the council rejected widespread allegations of election fraud after a partial recount of ballots cast. The election’s certification leaves opposition groups with almost no legal means to pursue their calls for annulling the vote. The council announced its findings late in the evening in what critics called an attempt to avoid widespread protest. Reports on the ground say protesters were still heard throughout the night on the streets of Tehran.
The Israeli government has announced plans to expropriate a new swath of the occupied West Bank. Israel says it will take fifty-four square miles of Palestinian land, including shoreline near the Dead Sea. Palestinians will have forty-five days to contest the seizure in an Israeli court. A Palestinian cabinet minister called the move Israel’s single largest land takeover since it occupied the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 war. The Israeli government, meanwhile, has authorized the construction of new homes in the West Bank settlement of Adam. The building plans are the latest in Israel’s rejection of President Obama’s call to stop settlement expansion. They come on the eve of Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s visit to Washington for talks with US officials. Obama has so far refused to apply any meaningful pressure on Israel, including the suspension of billions of dollars in annual US aid.
Meanwhile, a ship trying to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza from Cyprus has been threatened by Israeli violence in international waters. The sailing is the Free Gaza movement’s first since it aborted an attempt in January after the Israeli navy threatened to shoot the civilian passengers on board. That sailing had come just weeks after an Israeli navy vessel deliberately rammed another of its boats, almost forcing it to sink. Before it left Cyprus on Monday, Free Gaza movement founder Huwaida Arraf said her group is undeterred.
Huwaida Arraf: “We do not constitute any threat to Israel’s security, and that we just want to get to the people of Gaza. And so, if they attack us, which they have threatened to do on previous occasions, and even this time they have informed the Cypriot authorities that they will not let us enter, then we hope it’s clear to the international community that this is a deliberate attack, and we hope it also opens their eyes to the policies of Israel, which have nothing to do with security. It has to do with punishing an entire population, and we just can’t accept this.”
The sailing comes as the International Committee of the Red Cross has criticized the Israeli blockade of Gaza. On Monday, the Red Cross said Israel’s restrictions are crippling reconstruction efforts.
In Afghanistan, the US is being partially blamed for the killing of the police chief of Kandahar by local guards. The chief, Matiullah Qati, was reportedly killed by private contractors recruited and trained by the CIA to fight the Taliban.
In Pakistan, the US has resumed sharing surveillance gathered from military drone flights across Pakistani tribal areas. The spying cooperation comes as the Obama administration is rushing the delivery of military equipment, including helicopters and body armor, to bolster US-backed Pakistani military operations against Taliban forces. Pakistan says it’s preparing for a major offensive to hunt down Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan.
Back in the United States, some 300 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists gathered at the White House Monday for a reception hosted by President Obama. In a speech, Obama addressed criticism his administration has failed to meet campaign pledges to fight for equal rights.
President Obama: “We’ve been in office six months now. I suspect that by the time this administration is over, I think you guys will have pretty good feelings about the Obama administration. I have some confidence about that.”
Despite a campaign promise, Obama has made no specific move to overturn the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays and lesbians in the military. Conceived in 1993 by the Clinton administration, “don’t ask, don’t tell” allows gay military personnel to serve as long as they don’t disclose that they’re gay or engage in homosexual conduct. Obama said he remains committed to a repeal.
President Obama: “I know that every day that passes without a resolution is a deep disappointment to those men and women who continue to be discharged under this policy, patriots who often possess critical language skills and years of training and who’ve served this country well. But what I hope is that these cases underscore the urgency of reversing this policy, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it is essential for our national security.”
Obama’s comments come as a military trial opens today for a ten-year veteran facing discharge for admitting he is gay. The soldier, US Army Lieutenant Dan Choi, is a graduate of the West Point military academy and an Arabic translator. If discharged, he would be the 266th member of the armed forces removed under President Obama for violating “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
In Texas, Fort Worth police are being accused of an anti-gay raid forty years to the day after New York police raided a nightclub and set off an uprising that launched the modern gay and lesbian rights movement. On Sunday, police raided a newly opened gay club called the Rainbow Lounge in the early morning hours. Seven people were arrested for public intoxication, and others were at least briefly detained. One man was reportedly hospitalized with a brain hemorrhage after police threw him to the ground. The raid came on the fortieth anniversary of Stonewall, when members of the gay community decided to fight back against a New York City police raid on the Greenwich Village gay bar the Stonewall Inn.
The billionaire financier Bernie Madoff has been sentenced to 150 years in prison, the maximum sentence allowed. Madoff pleaded guilty in March to running a massive Ponzi scheme that defrauded investors of some $50 billion. Many of Madoff’s victims attended the sentencing Monday and broke into applause after the jail term was announced.
President Obama is raising objections to a provision in the House climate bill that would impose trade penalties on countries refusing to limit emissions of greenhouse gases. The measure narrowly approved Friday would cut US emissions 17 percent by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050. At the White House, Obama says he hopes to avoid “protectionist” measures in seeking other countries to adopt emissions cuts.
The Supreme Court has imposed new restrictions on how workplaces can seek to promote racial diversity in employment decisions. On Monday, the court ruled in favor of a group of white firefighters in New Haven, Connecticut, who alleged rules aimed at promoting workplace diversity subjected them to discrimination. At issue was a decision by New Haven city officials to discount a promotions test that had yielded poor results for people of color. The case has come under greater scrutiny because Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor was part of a lower court panel endorsing New Haven’s actions.
And anti-torture activists are seeking the disbarment of two active CIA lawyers involved in authorizing the Bush administration’s torture of foreign prisoners. On Monday, a coalition of advocacy groups called the Velvet Revolution filed complaints to disbar Jonathan Fredman and John Rizzo. Fredmen is currently counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, while Rizzo is the CIA’s current Acting General Counsel. The same coalition filed similar complaints against twelve former Bush administration attorneys last month.
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