U.S. officials say intelligence indicates the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has used deadly chemical weapons in its conflict with rebel fighters. The announcement raises the prospect of more direct U.S. intervention in Syria since President Obama has referred to the use of such weapons as a “game changer.” But the White House says the current information is not conclusive enough to spur action. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel described the findings Thursday.
Chuck Hagel: “The U.S. intelligence community assesses with some degree of varying confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin. We still have some uncertainties about what was used, what kind of chemical was used, where it was used, who used it.”
Hagel’s remarks came a day after he had rebuffed similar claims made by the Israeli government about chemical weapons use by the Syrian regime.
In Iraq, some 190 people have died in four days of violence. Clashes began Tuesday when troops raided a Sunni protest encampment in Hawija, but violence has erupted in other areas amid mounting tensions between Sunni groups and the Shiite-led government. Reuters said this week’s violence was the most widespread since U.S. combat troops withdrew in December 2011.
The U.S.-led war in Iraq began under former President George W. Bush, who was honored Thursday at the opening of a library and museum in Texas that bears his name. Protests against Bush’s legacy of torture and war have been taking place all week. Three people were arrested Thursday as hundreds protested near Southern Methodist University. Two of those arrested wore papier-mâché masks depicting Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney, prompting some to joke the pair had finally been arrested for their crimes. During his tribute to Bush at Thursday’s event, Obama did not mention the Iraq War once.
The New York Times has weighed in on another aspect of George W. Bush’s legacy: the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In an editorial, The Times editorial board said Guantánamo was “essentially a political prison.” They wrote: “That prison should never have been opened. It was nothing more than Mr. Bush’s attempt to evade accountability by placing prisoners in another country.” Meanwhile, Kenneth Wainstein, who was the top national security official at the Justice Department under Bush, told The New York Times an “exit strategy” is needed for the prison. Officials now admit 93 out of 166 prisoners are participating in a hunger strike at Guantánamo, while lawyers for the prisoners say nearly all prisoners are taking part. One attorney said the hunger strikers have despaired as Obama has failed to deliver on vows to close the prison. The lawyer said: “Many innocent men have chosen death over a life of unjust indefinite detention.”
Authorities in Bangladesh fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters during a massive rally by garment workers following a building collapse, the death toll for which is now nearing 300. Hundreds more remain unaccounted for. Late Thursday, 41 people were rescued alive after being trapped in the rubble for nearly two full days.
In Russia, 38 people, including 36 mental health patients, were reportedly killed when a psychiatric institution burned to the ground. Only three people managed to escape. There were reports it took more than an hour for firefighters to reach the site from the nearest station many miles away.
President Obama spoke at a memorial service Thursday for victims of last week’s explosion at a fertilizer plant in the town of West, Texas. At least 15 people died in the disaster, many of them firefighters and other first responders, and more than 200 were wounded. The blast flattened the surrounding area, causing an estimated $100 million in damages. The facility had not been inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration since 1985. During his speech, Obama praised the town of West.
President Obama: “America needs towns that holds fundraisers to help folks pay the medical bills and then take the time to drop off a home-cooked meal because they know a family is under stress. America needs communities where there’s always somebody to call if your car gets stuck or your house gets flooded. We need people who so love their neighbors as themselves that they’re willing to lay down their lives for them. America needs towns like West.”
The fertilizer plant in West was reportedly storing 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate needed to trigger oversight by the Department of Homeland Security, but had not reported that fact. Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi said: “We understand that DHS did not even know the plant existed until it blew up.”
A United Nations official is facing calls for his ouster following his comments about the role of U.S. policy in the Boston Marathon bombings. Richard Falk, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, wrote: “The American global domination project is bound to generate all kinds of resistance in the post-colonial world. In some respects, the United States has been fortunate not to experience worse blowbacks … We should be asking ourselves at this moment, 'How many canaries will have to die before we awaken from our geopolitical fantasy of global domination?'” Officials in Canada and Britain as well as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice have called for Falk to be fired. Officials who questioned the surviving suspect in the bombings say they were motivated at least in part by the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was badly wounded in an overnight standoff with police last week. He has now been moved from a hospital to prison.
The English-language newspaper Egypt Independent, known for its in-depth coverage of Egypt’s revolution and aftermath, is closing. Its owner, Al-Masry Media Corporation, has cited financial issues, but many say the true motive is to quash revolutionary voices. Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd El-Fattah wrote: “Egypt Independent had to be killed because they dared to explore what it sounds like when you silence the bullets instead of the riots, what it looks like when you clear the tear gas instead of the sit in.” In the final edition, published online, after it was reportedly blocked from going to press, Chief Editor Lina Attalah wrote: “We leave you with the hope of coming back soon, stronger and unbeaten.” Click to watch our recent interview with Attalah.
The U.N. Security Council has voted to send peacekeeping troops to Mali, where French troops are aiding the government in its struggle against militants. The force of roughly 11,000 soldiers and 1,400 police officers would deploy July 1.
Venezuelan authorities have arrested a U.S. filmmaker and accused him of fomenting violence on behalf of the U.S. government. President Nicolás Maduro said he ordered the arrest of 35-year-old Timothy Hallet Tracy on allegations of “creating violence in the cities of this country.” A frend of Tracy’s told the Associated Press that he is just “a kid with a camera.”
Joan Baez Sr., activist and mother of folk singer Joan Baez, has died just days after her 100th birthday. Known as “Big Joan,” she was arrested along with her daughter and dozens of others in 1967 for blocking the entrance to an armed forces induction center in Oakland, California. While imprisoned at the Santa Rita County Jail, the mother and daughter received a visit from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who gave a news conference outside the jail praising their act of civil disobedience.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr.: “As an expression of my appreciation for what they are doing for the peace movement and for what they have done for the civil rights movement, I would take time out of my schedule to come out to see them, to visit them, and let them know that they have our absolute support. And I might say that I see these two struggles as one struggle. There can be — there can be no justice without peace, and there can be no peace without justice.”
King spoke outside the Santa Rita County Jail in January 1968 after visiting with the mother-daughter duo and the peace activist Ira Sandperl, who had all been imprisoned for protesting the Vietnam War. Sandperl died recently on April 13, at the age of 90, from a respiratory infection.