Iraqi security forces battled militants with the self-proclaimed Islamic State Thursday inside Iraq’s largest oil refinery. The United States has been conducting airstrikes in the area around the Baiji refinery. Meanwhile, a top Iraqi military official told the Associated Press Iraqi forces have managed to take control of an area south of the refinery, securing the towns of al-Malha and al-Mazraah. The fierce fighting came as Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi continued his visit to Washington, meeting with Vice President Joe Biden. Biden pledged to seek a “strategic partnership” with Iraq.
Vice President Joe Biden: “And, Mr. Prime Minister, we stand with you and your government, ready to help and unite Iraq, but you are a sovereign nation, a sovereign government, and we are here to offer what you may want. It’s for you to decide what we have to offer, whether it’s of value.”
In Yemen, al-Qaeda fighters have seized an airport, military base and oil export terminal as they continue to gain ground in the country’s south. The militants appear to be taking advantage of the country’s descent into chaos, as Shiite Houthi rebels battle forces loyal to ousted President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, while Saudi-led airstrikes target the rebels. Meanwhile, a U.N. spokesperson announced the U.N.’s special adviser on Yemen is stepping down.
Stéphane Dujarric: “The secretary-general’s special adviser on Yemen, Jamal Benomar, has expressed an interest in moving on to other assignments. The secretary-general greatly appreciates the tireless efforts Mr. Benomar has made over the years to promote consensus and trust on a peaceful way forward in Yemen. A successor is expected be named in due course. Until that time and beyond, the U.N. will continue to spare no efforts to relaunch the peace process in order to get the political transition back on track.”
WikiLeaks has published a full searchable database of more than 170,000 emails from Sony Pictures Entertainment. The documents first came to light last year following a hack U.S. officials blamed on the North Korean government. WikiLeaks says the full database shows a close relationship between Sony and the Obama administration, with nearly 100 U.S. government email addresses in the archive. The emails show Sony executives reacting to WikiLeaks’ publication of a leaked chapter of the secret Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and discussing an upcoming meeting with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman. The archive also shows close ties between Sony and the RAND Corporation, a military think tank whose board members include Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton.
In the latest tragedy facing African migrants seeking passage to Europe, Italian police have arrested 15 migrants they say threw 12 Christians overboard into the Mediterranean Sea. Authorities say the Muslim migrants attacked Christians from Nigeria and Ghana. The killings followed news of a shipwreck which killed another 41 migrants.
President Obama has signed the so-called “doc fix” law to overhaul how doctors receive payment under Medicare, the federal health insurance program for seniors and people with disabilities. The bill averts a cut in doctors’ pay, embracing a structure aimed at rewarding doctors for quality of care, rather than the number of office visits. It also extends a children’s healthcare program for another two years. But the measure cuts billions of dollars from Medicare and increases insurance costs for higher-income seniors. The group Physicians for a National Health Program has criticized the measure as a step toward Republicans’ goal of privatizing Medicare.
Students at Wesleyan University in Connecticut have occupied the office of President Michael Roth to demand the university divest from fossil fuel companies, the prison industry and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. The action marks the anniversary of President Roth’s own participation in a sit-in for divestment from South African apartheid as a Wesleyan student in 1978. Their sit-in comes as students at Harvard University demanding fossil fuel divestment continued to block the entrance of an administration building after President Drew Gilpin Faust offered to meet with them only on the condition they end their blockade.
A 61-year-old mailman who flew a gyrocopter onto the lawn of the U.S. Capitol in a call for campaign finance reform has been released pending federal charges. Doug Hughes could face up to four years in prison on charges of violating national defense air space and operating an unregistered aircraft. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Hughes literally flew below the radar, going undetected, before landing on the Capitol lawn. At Thursday’s press briefing, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest was asked to describe President Obama’s reaction to the protest.
Josh Earnest: “I wasn’t on the trip so I didn’t see his initial reaction. It might have been, ’What’s a gyrocopter?’ I know that was my reaction. But beyond that, I don’t know what his reaction was.”
Doug Hughes was carrying 535 letters to every member of Congress demanding they take action on campaign finance reform.
The Vatican has ended its takeover of the largest group of U.S. nuns two years early, marking an apparent move by Pope Francis to heal ties with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. In 2012, under Pope Benedict, Vatican officials accused the nuns of promoting “radical feminist themes” and appointed three male bishops to oversee them, sparking popular protests. Another investigation of U.S. nuns ended in December with the Vatican praising the nuns’ role.
In Spain, authorities detained former International Monetary Fund director Rodrigo Rato and searched his home and office as part of a probe into money laundering. Rato is also under investigation for suspected fraud during his tenure as head of Bankia, the Spanish bank which received a taxpayer bailout. Rato led the IMF from 2004 to 2007, during a period when Argentina was struggling to recover from a financial meltdown many believe was brought about by IMF-led policies. Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner responded to news of Rato’s detention.
President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner: “They just announced that former International Monetary Fund Director-General Rodrigo Rato, who was the former economy minister and vice president for (former Spanish Prime Minister) José María Aznar, was just detained for laundering money, imprisoned for laundering money. That’s who used to come and tell us how we had to direct and manage our economy. Moreover, it was they who even dared to talk about corruption in Argentine politics.”
In the latest sign of the revolving door between Wall Street and government regulators in the United States, former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has taken a post as adviser to Citadel, one of the country’s largest hedge funds. Bernanke ended an eight-year stint as Fed chief last year. Meanwhile, another financial regulator will reportedly become chief financial officer of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Bloomberg reports Clinton will tap Gary Gensler, former chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
A U.S. judge has advanced a lawsuit over the 1973 murder of musician Víctor Jara in Chile. Pedro Pablo Barrientos Núñez, now a U.S. citizen living in Florida, has been accused of torturing and murdering Jara in the days after the U.S.-backed coup against democratically elected President Salvador Allende. The judge’s decision allows a lawsuit brought by Jara’s family to move forward.
Amnesty International has released a new report detailing what it calls a “chilling crackdown on dissent” in the U.S.-backed Gulf kingdom of Bahrain. Despite promises of reforms, Amnesty reports rampant abuses, including torture, arbitrary detention of human rights activists and excessive force against protesters have continued in Bahrain, following a 2011 uprising against the Sunni monarchy. The report comes as Bahrain hosts the Formula One Grand Prix auto race. Bahrain is a close ally of the United States, home to the Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush has called on Congress to confirm Loretta Lynch as attorney general after her nomination has been stalled for 160 days. Lynch’s fate remains on hold as Republicans seek passage of an anti-trafficking bill which contains an anti-abortion component that Democrats have objected to. Bush said Thursday, “I think that presidents have the right to pick their team.”
In Massachusetts, the parents of an eight-year-old boy killed by the Boston Marathon bombings have asked the federal government to drop its pursuit of the death penalty for bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. In an essay published in The Boston Globe, Bill and Denise Richard wrote: “We believe that now is the time to turn the page, end the anguish, and look toward a better future — for us, for Boston, and for the country.”
A leading Jewish studies scholar has cancelled a lecture at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign over the ouster of professor Steven Salaita. The university withdrew a job offer to Salaita last year after he posted tweets harshly critical of the Israeli assault on Gaza. Todd Samuel Presner, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA, criticized university Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s insistence on “'civility' as the dubious touchstone for all academic discourse,” citing examples of “uncivil speech acts” by prophets in the Hebrew Bible who condemned injustice, nationalism and war.
In New York City, protesters continued the fight against income inequality following Wednesday’s historic protests for a $15-an-hour minimum wage and the right to unionize. On Thursday, activists marched to One57, a luxury building where a condo recently sold for $100 million, becoming the most expensive single residence ever purchased in New York City. The protesters targeted Bill Ackman, billionaire founder and CEO of Pershing Square Capital, who owns a condo in the building, for profiting off investments in Burger King and private prison firm Corrections Corporation of America.
Daniel Ismael Aguilar: “Bill Ackman is one of the largest stakeholders in poverty wages.”
Sabaah Folayan: “They’re treating prisons as a real estate investment. They’re banking on the occupation of these prisons to return their investments, which means they’re banking on black and brown men, women and children being put into these facilities so that they can make money.”
The protest in New York came as House Republicans in Washington have passed a measure to effectively deepen income inequality by providing a $269 billion tax break to the wealthiest 0.2 percent of Americans. The House voted along party lines to repeal the federal estate tax, which only applies to estates worth more than $5.43 million. President Obama would veto the measure if it cleared the Senate.