At least 40 people have been killed in a series of bombings in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. The first three bombs went off consecutively in a Shiite neighborhood, resulting in dozens of deaths and more than 80 injuries. It was the worst violence to hit Iraq in months. A U.S. contractor working on education projects was killed in a separate attack.
President Obama met with soldiers in upstate New York Thursday as part of his effort to drum up support for his plan on maintaining the war in Afghanistan. Obama has announced he will scale back his troop surge but will keep a large troop force in Afghanistan until 2014. Obama told soldiers, “There’s still some fighting to be done.”
President Obama: “Our job is not finished. If you looked at the schedule that I set forth, you know, we’re only bringing out 10,000 by the end of this year. We’re going to bring out all 33,000 that we surged by next summer. But there’s still some fighting to be done.”
Obama spoke as military leaders appeared before Congress to discuss the Afghanistan war plan. The chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said he had reservations about ending the troop surge this year but said he still supports the President.
Admiral Mike Mullen: “I do not intend to discuss the specifics of the private advice I rendered with respect to these decisions. As I said, I support them. What I can tell you is the President’s decisions are more aggressive and incur more risk than I was originally prepared to accept. More force for more time is, without doubt, the safer course.”
U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy reminded lawmakers the U.S. troop force in Afghanistan will still be larger than it was when Obama took office, despite the President’s pledge to reduce the military presence in the country.
Michele Flournoy: “Even after the recovery of the surge forces, totaling about 33,000 troops, we will still have 68,000 U.S. service members in Afghanistan. That is more than twice the number as when President Obama took office. Clearly, this is not a rush to the exits that will jeopardize our security gains. More importantly, at the end of summer 2012, when all of the surge forces are out, there will actually be more Afghan and coalition forces in the fight than there are today.”
In other congressional testimony, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed the Obama administration’s recent acknowledgment of holding preliminary talks with the Taliban.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “The United States has a broad range of contacts at many levels across Afghanistan and the region that we are leveraging to support this effort, including very preliminary outreach to members of the Taliban. This is not a pleasant business, but a necessary one, because history tells us that a combination of military pressure, economic opportunity and an inclusive political and diplomatic process is the best way to end insurgencies.”
The House is expected to vote today on up to three measures concerning the war on Libya. The proposals would either restrict or end offensive operations as well as withdraw funding. The Obama administration has criticized the congressional opposition. On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “The bottom line is, whose side are you on? Are you on Gaddafi’s side, or are you on the side of the aspirations of the Libyan people and the international coalition that has been created to support them?”
The Senate Armed Services Committee has advanced a sweeping measure establishing new guidelines for the detention of prisoners in the so-called “war on terror.” The new rules would establish a system of hearings for military judges to determine the status of prisoners captured abroad. The provision would apply to foreign prisons such as the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, where the United States is jailing more than 1,700 people without trial. Another rule would mandate military detention for anyone suspected of being a “high-value” al-Qaeda suspect, excluding U.S. citizens. Human Rights Watch has denounced that provision, saying, “Mandatory military detention is what martial-law states do, not democracies.”
The United States and other Western countries have agreed to tap their oil reserves for only the third time in history. The U.S. International Energy Agency will release around 60 million barrels over the next month, half of that amount coming from the United States. Democratic Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts called the move a signal to rival oil-producing countries.
Ed Markey: “Because of the reduction in the amount of oil coming in from Libya, because of the amount of oil that’s now been taken off the market in Yemen, this is the right time to strike, to make a statement that we are not going to allow the markets to be disrupted. And that’s a signal to Iran, to Venezuela and others that we are going to fight back, that they will not be able to exploit this opportunity to hold prices high.”
Republicans have pulled out of bipartisan talks on increasing the debt limit ahead of an August 2 deadline, when the government is expected to reach its $14.3 trillion borrowing cap. Republicans had been meeting with Vice President Joe Biden but are now insisting on direct talks with President Obama. Democrats are seeking to boost revenue by introducing up to $400 billion in taxes on corporations and the wealthy, while Republicans are pushing for deep spending cuts.
Relatives of Mexicans killed in their country’s drug war have had an extraordinary public confrontation with Mexican President Felipe Calderón. On Thursday, a group of family members who have lost loved ones to the drug fight met with Calderón in Mexico City. The group included poet and activist Javier Sicilia, who has recently become the spokesperson for a growing anti-violence movement in Mexico after his son’s torture and murder. At a joint news conference with Calderón and other family members, Sicilia called on Calderón to apologize for the tens of thousands who have died in Mexico’s drug war.
Javier Sicilia: “The Mexican state is failing in its obligation to protect its people and defend their rights. That is why, Mr. President, in your state role, you are responsible, together with the state governments, for the deaths of 40,000 people, thousands of missing and orphaned. We have come here, firstly, so that the Mexican state recognizes its debt with the victims, their families and society. As a representative of the state, Mr. President, you are obliged to apologize to the nation, in particular to the victims.”
In response, Calderón defended his militarization of the drug fight, saying intensified operations could have saved the life of Sicilia’s son.
Mexican President Felipe Calderón: “Javier, you are mistaken. Yes, we should apologize for people who have died at the hands of criminals, for not having acted against those criminals. If I regret something, it’s not having sent federal security forces to fight against criminals, who nobody used to confront because they were scared of them, because they had been bought! I also regret not sending them before and not having had a fair operation in Cuernavaca to catch them before they killed Francisco!”
The Obama administration is warning U.S. peace activists not to join the upcoming aid flotilla to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. In a new travel advisory, the U.S. Department of State warns Americans not to travel to Gaza, including by sea, citing the Israeli killing of nine people in the first Freedom Flotilla just over a year ago. The warning was issued after members of the U.S. delegation called on the White House to back their safe passage. In a statement, flotilla passenger Hagit Borer said, “Apparently, the State Department subscribes to the view that Israel’s anticipated violence against unarmed protesters is an immutable act of nature.” Democracy Now! will be covering the voyage of the Audacity of Hope, the U.S. ship that will carry about 50 Americans, part of a larger flotilla that is challenging the Israeli blockade on Gaza.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who worked for the Washington Post has publicly admitted he is an undocumented immigrant. In a lengthy New York Times magazine article, Jose Antonio Vargas said he has been hiding his true immigration status for nearly 20 years, causing him great personal turmoil. Originally from the Philippines, Vargas’ mother put him on a plane to the United States when he was 12 years old in the hopes of giving him a better life. In a videotaped message for his new project, Define American, Vargas said he hopes to spur discussion around the issue of immigration.
Jose Antonio Vargas: “I am an American. I just don’t have the right papers. I take full responsibility for my actions, and I’m sorry for the laws that I’ve broken. What would you do if you were a choir teacher and found out that a student in your glee club can’t travel for a competition? What would you do if you were a high school principal and found out that one of your students can’t apply for financial aid? What would you do if your child’s best friend didn’t have papers? As a journalist, I’ve decided to do what I know best: ask questions.”
Vargas says he was inspired to come forward by DREAM Act activists who publicly declared their undocumented status in an effort to pass legislation allowing undocumented children a path to citizenship.
New Jersey lawmakers have pushed through radical cuts to the benefits and wages of public workers over heavy protest. On Thursday, the New Jersey State Assembly approved a massive rollback of benefits for more than 750,000 government workers and retirees. The measure will sharply increase workers’ contributions for health insurance and pensions, raise the age of retirement, freeze cost-of-living increases for pension checks, and restrict unions’ collective bargaining rights. In a scene reminiscent of similar efforts nationwide, thousands of people rallied at the statehouse in Trenton to protest the cuts. Demonstrators carried signs and chanted slogans criticizing Democratic lawmakers for siding with Republican Gov. Chris Christie to ensure the bill’s passage. The state Senate is expected to approve the measure on Monday. Meanwhile in New York, the state’s largest public-employee union has agreed to new cutbacks in a bid to avert mass layoffs. The Civil Service Employees Association and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have reached a deal that includes a three-year wage freeze, an increase to health insurance premiums, and the first furloughs ever for New York state workers.
Amidst the new setbacks for public workers across the country, thousands of nurses have staged a protest on Wall Street demanding a new tax on the financial sector. The nurses and other public workers are calling on banking giants to pay a small fee on transactions involving trades, derivatives and other financial instruments as a way to boost public coffers while also curbing speculative actions that caused the nation’s financial crisis. National Nurses United Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro addressed the crowd.
Rose Ann DeMoro: “Just like working people pay taxes on all of their purchases, that these yo-yos who buy and sell and buy and sell our country should pay a minimum tax on that. That money, that money, can—a very minimum tax could amount to at least $350 billion that can go back to our communities, that can go back to jobs, that can go back to healthcare.”
Among the signs carried by nurses was one reading, “Heal America, Tax Wall Street.”
Former Vice President Al Gore has issued a lengthy public critique of President Obama’s policies on climate change. Writing in the magazine Rolling Stone, Gore says, “President Obama has thus far failed to use the bully pulpit to make the case for bold action on climate change,” taking him to task for the lack of a binding agreement at Copenhagen, the failure of his green jobs bill, and the White House support for offshore drilling. Gore concludes that only sustained public pressure will force meaningful government action on the environment, writing: “When enough people care passionately enough … [about] the climate crisis, politicians will look at their hole cards, and enough of them will change their game to make all the difference we need.”
The mothers of two American hikers detained in Iran since June 2009 have resumed a rolling hunger strike in protest of the pair’s upcoming trial. Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal were due in court last month, but the Iranian government unexpectedly postponed the case. Their next hearing has been rescheduled to July 31—the two-year anniversary of their arrest while hiking near the Iran-Iraq border. Their mothers, Laura Fattal and Cindy Hickey, will be joined in the hunger strike by supporters, including former Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt and peace activist Ela Gandhi, the granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi.