Iraq, Saddam, Blackwater: Week in Review

Wars in Iraq, Afghanistan to Cost US $190 Billion in 2008

Congress has been asked to approve a funding package of $190 billion to continue the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through 2008 – making next year the costliest since the conflicts began.

There are currently 165,000 US troops in Iraq, which the Pentagon plans to reduce to about 130,000 next summer. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday that he hopes to be able to reduce the US combat forces in Iraq to about a quarter of their current levels, yet he conceded, “I don’t know what that timeline looks like.”

President Bush said in his recent national televised address that the war would continue for years after he leaves office in January 2009.

Saddam Hussein Offered to ‘Disappear’ for $1 Billion

Less than one month before the US-led invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein offered to go into exile on the proviso that he could take with him $1 billion and information on weapons of mass destruction, according to a meeting transcript published on Wednesday by Spanish newspaper El Pais.

Mr Hussein’s offer was discussed at a meeting between US President George Bush, former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas on February 22, 2003.

In one exchange, Prime Minister Aznar said, “The greatest success would be to win the game without firing a single shot, and going into Baghdad.”

President Bush responded, “For me that would be the perfect solution. I do not want the war. I know what wars are. I know the destruction and the death that bring with them. I am the one that has to comfort the mothers and widows of the dead. By all means, for us that would be the best solution. In addition, it would save us 50 billion dollars.”

The transcript reveals the close rapport between the two heads of state and is peppered with colorful phrases, mostly from President Bush. Discussing former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s efforts to slightly postpone the invasion, Mr Bush said: “This is like a good cop, bad cop routine. It doesn’t matter to me if I’m the bad cop and Blair is the good cop.” He also joked that former French President Jacques Chirac saw himself as “Mister Arab”.

Blackwater Sent Contractors to Their Deaths in Fallujah

According to incident reports and eyewitness accounts of the ambush and mutilation of four Blackwater employees in the Iraqi insurgent stronghold of Fallujah in March 2004, management at Blackwater USA ignored multiple warnings, cut essential personnel from the mission, and sent an unprepared team “into the hottest zone in Iraq in unarmored, underpowered vehicles”.

  • Read the 18-page report released on Friday by the US House Oversight Committee

Private Security Firms in Iraq Impede Counterinsurgency

Blackwater USA and other private security firms are obstructing the US military’s counterinsurgency operations and further endangering US troops in Iraq, according to a study released on Thursday by the independent research organization, the Brookings Institution.

Iraqis regard the private contractors as little more than dangerous, lawless mercenaries – an unhelpful image for the US counterinsurgency which aims to provide a greater sense of security for Iraqis. Aggressive behavior by contractors also serves to inflame anti-American sentiment among Iraqis, which puts contractors and US troops at greater risk of harm.

US military commanders have long complained of the lack of oversight, management, doctrine, accountability and coordination attending the deployment of military contractors in Iraq.

  • Read the 26-page report released by the Brookings Institution

Accountability Introduced for Military Contractors in Iraq

On Tuesday, US Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England sent a memo to US military commanders around the world advising that they have the responsibility and authority to “disarm, apprehend and detain” security guards under contract to the Department of Defense if they are “suspected of having committed a felony offence” – which includes the use of excessive force.

The memo is a response to a September 16 incident in Baghdad in which Blackwater contractors shot and killed 11 unarmed Iraqi civilians. Five witnesses in Baghdad insist that Blackwater fired without provocation, forcing civilians and Iraqi police to run for cover, and that the Iraqi officers did not return fire.

The Pentagon memo will not affect employees of Blackwater, which is contracted by the State Department. Meanwhile, reports surfaced this week that Backwater has been involved in twice as many shootings as other security companies in Iraq.

On Tuesday, the Iraqi government announced that it had drafted its own law to hold all private contractors accountable for any further shootings in Iraq.

Bombings Kill 94 and Injure 126 Across Iraq

Suspected al Qaeda militants unleashed a wave of violence across Iraq this week, killing 94 people and wounding 126.

Just before dusk on Wednesday, twin car bombs ripped through a crowded market in Bayaa, a Shia area in south-western Baghdad, killing 32 people and injuring 28. The simultaneous blasts occurred as people were preparing for the evening meal to break their daylong fast, observed throughout the holy month of Ramadan.

Earlier in the day, two suicide car bombers slammed into an Iraqi Army patrol and a court building under construction in Mosul, capital of the mostly Sunni Nineveh province in northern Iraq. These attacks killed 13 people and wounded at least 50. Near the town of Sinjar in Nineveh, another suicide car bomber ploughed into the home of a tribal leader opposed to al Qaeda, leaving 10 people dead and 9 injured.

Two more coordinated car bombings in the Salah ad Din governorate immediately north of Baghdad left 7 dead and 5 injured. Meanwhile, in the south of Iraq, a roadside bomb exploded outside a Sunni mosque in the town of Abi Khasib (5 miles south of Basra), killing 4 people.

Prior to Wednesday’s bloodshed, a suicide bomber targeted a reconciliation meeting between Sunni and Shia Muslims in a mosque near the city of Baquba, capital of Diyala province northeast of Baghdad. The blast killed 28 people and wounded 34.

Washington Climate Change Conference: Undermining the UN?

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice opened a two-day conference on climate change in Washington DC on Thursday, insisting that the meeting was not intended to undermine the United Nations’ efforts to forge a new global framework for mandatory cuts to greenhouse gas emissions and defending the Bush administration’s record on climate change.

“We come together today because we agree that climate change is a real problem — and that human beings are contributing to it,” she said in her opening speech. “I want to stress that the United States takes climate change very seriously.”

Among the delegates were officials from Australia, Britain, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Russia and South Africa – who combined account for 90 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change representatives from the European Union and the United Nations were also in attendance.

“The purpose of this gathering … is to ensure that all of us are working pragmatically toward a common purpose, to contribute to a new international framework for addressing climate change beyond Kyoto and to help all nations fulfill their responsibilities under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change,” said Dr Rice. “The United States supports the goals of that event.”

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hosted the day-long Framework Convention on Climate Change in New York on Monday to help accelerate the global response to global warming and to build momentum for the major climate change summit to be held in December in Bali, Indonesia. Officials from over 150 nations gathered to discuss strategies for mitigation, adaptation, the global carbon market and financing responses in an effort to develop a blueprint for an agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012.

But on Thursday, Dr Rice stressed that individual “nations should tackle climate change in the ways that they deem best” – marking the Bush administration’s long-standing resistance to mandatory emissions caps articulated by UN protocols.

This approach has been rejected as inadequate to meet the challenges of global warming by most US allies in Europe and around the world. On Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel used her address to the UN General Assembly to make clear that individual approaches could “never replace” a binding global UN framework.

“Any contribution from individual or groups of states is welcome,” said Dr Merkel. “However I would like to add most emphatically that such contributions can only complement a post-Kyoto agreement under the auspices of the United Nations. They can never replace it.” She called for global greenhouse gas emissions to be halved by the year 2050.

Defending the progress made under the Bush administration’s approach, which advocates individual voluntary targets, Dr Rice cited “new mandates on renewable fuels and appliance efficiency” in the US and said that “President Bush is working to reduce our gasoline consumption by up to 20 percent in ten years, and to cut greenhouse gases through aggressive new mandatory standards for alternative fuels and improved vehicle efficiency.”

However, the Washington Post was quick to point out on Thursday that the Bush administration had done little to promote these much-touted initiatives and in some cases had strenuously opposed them. In one case, the administration’s repeated delays to set improved energy-efficiency standards for 22 appliances led to a court battle with the Natural Resources Defense Council; under a settlement reached in 2006, the Energy Department is now finalizing these standards. In a separate lawsuit, the NRDC managed to overturn the White House’s previous reversal of strict efficiency standards for air conditioners.

President Bush’s recent endorsement of improved gasoline mileage for cars in the US – announced during his 2007 State of the Union Address – is also some considerable way from being introduced as regulation. And although the Bush administration has voiced support for renewable portfolio standards, which would require utilities to use set levels of renewable energy, it opposes the adoption of nationwide standards.

In December 2006, the US Supreme Court heard its first case dealing with climate change when the state of Massachusetts (and eleven other states, three cities and environmental groups) challenged the US Environmental Protection Agency’s refusal to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. The EPA maintained that it had no authority or obligation to regulate the emissions and that the science of climate change was “uncertain” – based on a 2001 National Academy of Sciences/National Research Counsel report entitled Climate Change Science.

In that case, the scientists who authored the report hit back with an amicus brief which stated that the EPA has misrepresented their findings. “The science of climate change indicates that it is virtually certain that greenhouse gas emissions from human activities cause global climate changes, endangering human health and welfare,” stated the brief. “There was and is sufficient scientific evidence to enable the EPA to make a determination under the Clean Air Act that greenhouse gas emissions may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.”

The Supreme Court recently handed down its decision that the EPA has the authority and responsibility to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Blackwater USA Hurting War Counterinsurgency

Blackwater USA and other private security firms are obstructing the US military’s counterinsurgency operations and further endangering US troops in Iraq, according to an independent study due to be released today.

Earlier this week the US and Iraqi governments took action to make private contractors in Iraq accountable for their actions, stemming from a September 16 incident in Baghdad in which Blackwater personnel shot and killed 11 unarmed Iraqi civilians.

The new report to be released by the Brookings Institution today was authored by Dr Peter Singer, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Institution and author of the 2003 book Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry.

An advance copy of the new study was obtained by TPM Muckraker, who reported that Dr Singer had found that the US military has become functionally dependent on private contractors in Iraq for a range of combat operations and logistical tasks, even though the firms serve to impede the counterinsurgency effort.

A major problem is that Iraqis have come to regard the private contractors as little more than lawless mercenaries due to their intimidating and dangerous behavior, and apparent lack of accountability – an unhelpful image for the counterinsurgency plan led by General David Petraeus, which works to provide a greater feeling of security for Iraqis. The criminal immunity of private contractors – under both US and Iraqi laws – also infuriates Iraqis and puts contractors and US troops at greater risk of harm.

The lack of oversight, management, doctrine, accountability and coordination has been a festering issue for some time in terms of the overall US military mission in Iraq. In a recent Wired News article, Dr Singer cites a 2006 Government Accountability Office report which found that “private security providers continue to enter the battle space without coordinating with the US military, putting both the military and security providers at a greater risk for injury.”

He also notes that Colonel Peter Mansoor, a top military advisor on counterinsurgency and currently General Petraeus’ executive officer – told Jane’s Defense Weekly earlier this year that the US military needs to take “a real hard look at security contractors on future battlefields and figure out a way to get a handle on them so that they can be better integrated — if we’re going to allow them to be used in the first place. If they push traffic off the roads or if they shoot up a car that looks suspicious … they may be operating within their contract (but) to the detriment of the mission, which is to bring the people over to your side. I would much rather see all armed entities in a counterinsurgency operation fall under a military chain of command.”

The military commanders appear to have gotten their wish, nearly a year after Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced an amendment enabling contractors to be placed under the US military’s Uniform Code of Military Justice.

In response to the September 16 shooting in Baghdad – the seventh Blackwater shooting incident come under investigation – US Defense Secretary Robert Gates sent a team of Pentagon investigators to Iraq to discuss the use of military contractors with General Petraeus. Two days later, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England sent a three-page memo to Pentagon officials and US military commanders around the world to make clear that they have the responsibility and authority under the UCMJ to “disarm, apprehend and detain” security guards under contract to the Department of Defense if they are “suspected of having committed a felony offence” – which includes excessive force.

However, according to the Los Angeles Times, the Pentagon directive will not affect private contractors engaged by the State Department, including Blackwater – the firm which has the lead role in guarding diplomatic convoys in Baghdad.

This is not welcome news for local Iraqis, especially since it was reported earlier this week that Backwater has been involved in twice as many shootings as other security companies while guarding American diplomats in Iraq. “You can find any number of people, particularly in uniform, who will tell you that they do see Blackwater as a company that promotes a much more aggressive response to things than other main contractors do,” a senior American official told the New York Times.

The action taken by the US government may seem too little, too late – and perhaps too confusing – for the Iraqi government, whose parliament has drafted its own law to hold all private contractors accountable for any further shootings of civilians. A spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry, Major General Abdul-Karim Khalaf, told the New York Times, “This legislation will cover all aspects of these companies’ operations and bring them all under Iraqi law and the mechanisms of the Interior Ministry. They will be strictly accountable for all actions committed on the streets.”

Considering this week’s developments, it seems that the days of footloose and accountability-free private security contractors may be coming to an end.

Iran President Ahmadinejad Slams US, Israel at UN and Columbia

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used his address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday to slam the United States and Israel as “illegitimate occupiers” in the Middle East, to attack their human rights records and to declare the nuclear issue “closed”.

His appearance sparked mass protests outside the UN and also at Columbia University – where his address to the World Leaders Forum on Monday drew a mixture of laughter, boos and applause from the audience. Thousands gathered at both sites to protest Mr Ahmadinejad’s own human rights record and his past attacks on Israel.

On Tuesday, Mr Ahmadinejad told the UN that “human rights are being extensively violated by certain powers”, then made numerous references to controversial US policies including “secret prisons, trials and secret punishments, without any regard to due process, and extensive tappings of telephone conversations”.

He also levelled scathing criticism at the state of Israel for its occupation of the Palestinian people. “For more than 60 years, Palestine … has been under occupation of the illegal Zionist regime,” he said. “The Palestinian people have been displaced or are under heavy military pressure, economic siege, or are incarcerated under abhorrent conditions” – meanwhile, “the occupiers are protected and praised.”

He then accused the US of its own prolonged, illegitimate and bloody occupation: “Iraq was occupied under the pretext of overthrowing a dictator and the existence of weapons of mass destruction. The Iraqi dictator, who had been supported by the same occupiers, was disposed of, and no weapons of mass destruction were discovered.” He added, “No day passes without people being killed, wounded or displaced.”

Mr Ahmadinejad maintained that his country would flatly reject calls by “arrogant powers” for Iran to end its uranium enrichment program and declared to the General Assembly, “All our nuclear activities have been completely peaceful and transparent.”

The day before his speech to the United Nations, thousands attended a noon rally directly across from the UN building to protest his address. Among the crowd was Israel’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Tzipi Livni, and US Congressman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.).

“The United Nations discredits itself by having Ahmadinejad speak,” said Rep. Engel according to the Los Angeles Times, “and so does Columbia University.”

Outside the gates of Columbia University, thousands of protesters awaited the Iranian leader’s arrival on Monday afternoon, waving placards including one that read “Hitler Lives” – illustrated with a cartoon of Mr Ahmadinejad with his arms and legs configured into a swastika. Students remained divided on the issue of whether Mr Ahmadinejad should have been allowed to participate in the World Leaders Forum.

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger has defended the university’s decision to include the Iranian President. As expected, Mr Bollinger’s introduction of Mr Ahmadinejad to the forum began with a series of sharp criticisms of human rights abuses in Iran.

“Why have women, members of the Baha’i faith, homosexuals and so many of our academic colleagues become targets of persecution in your country?” asked Mr Bollinger.

He continued the introduction with a blistering broadside on the Iranian leader’s repeated denials of the Holocaust. “For the illiterate and ignorant, this is dangerous propaganda,” said Mr Bollinger. “When you come to a place like this, this makes you, quite simply, ridiculous.  You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated. (Applause) … The truth is that the Holocaust is the most documented event in human history.”

Mr Bollinger identified Columbia University as a world center for Jewish studies and Holocaust studies and then challenged Mr Ahmadinejad regarding his hostile remarks about the state of Israel: “Twelve days ago, you said that the state of Israel ‘cannot continue its life’.  This echoed a number of inflammatory statements you have delivered in the last two years, including in October 2005 when you said that Israel should be ‘wiped off the map’ … Do you plan on wiping us off the map, too?” Hearing this, the crowd burst into applause.

He also asked Mr Ahmadinejad why he supports terrorist groups who undermine peace and democracy in the Middle East, why Iran is fighting a proxy war in Iraq by arming Shia militias and why he has exposed the Iranian people to economic sanctions while threatening to “engulf the world with nuclear annihilation”. This elicited more applause.

As Mr Ahmadinejad took his place at the podium, he complained that Mr Bollinger’s introduction had been “unfriendly” and had contained “many insults and claims that were incorrect”. He added that this was an “insult to the knowledge of the audience here”.

Side-stepping Mr Bollinger’s series of challenges, Mr Ahmadinejad read his prepared speech in which he made thinly-veiled accusations that the US government had created “nonexistent enemies” to justify its civil rights abuses at home and its “warmongering” abroad. He also claimed the Holocaust required “more research” and said the Palestinian people should not be forced to “pay the price” for historical events that took place in Europe.

After his speech, he was further questioned by forum moderator John Coatsworth, the Acting Dean of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.

During question time, Mr Ahmadinejad denied calling for the destruction of the state of Israel. “We love all nations,” he said. “We are friends with the Jewish people. There are many Jews living in Iran with security … We say allow the Palestinian nation to decide its own future, to have the right to self-determination for itself. This is what we are saying as the Iranian nation.” At this point, the audience applauded.

There was more applause, along with some laughter, as Mr Ahmadinejad and Mr Coatsworth sparred over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

Mr Coatsworth: Mr. President, I think many members of our audience would be — would like to hear a clearer answer to that question, that is — (interrupted by cheers, applause) … The question is: Do you or your government seek the destruction of the state of Israel as a Jewish state? And I think you could answer that question with a single word, either yes or no. (Cheers, applause)

Mr Ahmadinejad: And then you want the answer the way you want to hear it. Well, this isn’t really a free flow of information. I’m just telling you where I — what my position is. (Applause.) I’m asking you, is the Palestinian issue not an international issue of prominence or not? Please tell me, yes or no. (Laughter, applause) There’s a plight of a people.

Mr Coatsworth: The answer to your question is yes. (Laughter)

Mr Ahmadinejad: Well, thank you for your cooperation.

In response to the vaguely-worded question of why “Iranian women are now being denied human rights”, Mr Ahmadinejad noted that women have the right to vote and are represented at the highest levels in parliament, the public sector and universities.

When questioned about the practice of executing homosexuals in Iran, Mr Ahmadinejad’s claim that “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country” drew roars of laughter and an audible wave of booing from the audience.

Mr Ahmadinejad also denied that Iran sponsors terror groups in the Middle East and said, “We were the first nation that objected to terrorism and the first to uphold the need to fight terrorism.”

When the nuclear issue came up during question time, Mr Ahmadinejad clarified the specifications of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program which he insisted was for peaceful purposes. “The technology we have is for enrichment below the level of 5 percent [uranium purity], and any level below 5 percent is solely for providing fuel to power plants,” he said. “If you have created the fifth generation of atomic bombs and are testing them already, what position are you in to question the peaceful purposes of other people who want nuclear power?”

He then seized the opportunity to take a swipe at the nuclear-armed nations who now oppose Iran’s nuclear enrichment program due to fears that the country is trying to develop an atomic weapon. “I think the politicians who are after atomic bombs, testing them, making them — politically they are backward, retarded.” This comment was met with applause.

Despite the controversy surrounding his visit, many students supported the university’s decision to invite the Iranian President to speak – including Jewish students. “You at least have to let the guy speak,” postgraduate student David Freedenberg, 28, told The Telegraph. “Why should just one world leader be denied that chance? There will be questions. If I had been alive in the 1930s I would have wanted to hear what Hitler was saying. There’s no point just covering your ears.”

Others saw the event as a triumph of free speech. “I’m glad he had the chance to talk,” said student Cyrus McGoldrick, 19, in the Los Angeles Times. “And I’m glad the crowd stayed quiet for him.”

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Contoversy: New York and Columbia University

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will head into a storm of controversy when he arrives in the US on Sunday evening, with fiery protests expected to dog his every move in New York from the United Nations to Columbia University.

New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has meanwhile denied Mr Ahmadinejad’s request to lay a wreath at the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks owing to “logistical and security concerns”.

Despite the planned protests, the Iranian leader will on Monday give a lecture at Columbia University and address the UN General Assembly’s annual session, for the third consecutive year.

Mr Ahmadinejad’s forthcoming appearance at the UN has been condemned by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who have organized a mass rally for 12 noon on Monday at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza directly across from the United Nations.

In a video statement on the organization’s web site, Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein says that Mr Ahmadinejad’s presence will “defile” the UN because Iran has violated the UN’s charter by threatening to destroy Israel, sponsored the terrorist organizations Hamas and Hezbollah, committed human rights atrocities against its own citizens and violated UN sanctions against its nuclear program.

Mr Ahmadinejad has also repeatedly denied the murder of six million Jews under the Nazi regime during the Holocaust, calling it a “myth”. In December 2006, he hosted a conference in Tehran which drew Holocaust deniers from around the world, including former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke of Louisiana.

The following month, Mr Ahmadinejad claimed that “the demise of the US and the Zionist regime is imminent,” according to Iran’s official FARS News Agency.

Last week, Mr Ahmadinejad reconfirmed in a televised interview with the UK’s Channel 4 News that Iran “does not accept or recognize Israel” whom he called “illegitimate occupiers” of Palestinian land. When asked about his previous statements that Israel should be wiped off the map, he responded, “It will happen.”

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney wrote a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urging the UN to “revoke any invitation to President Ahmadinejad to address the General Assembly” because of his repeated calls for thedestruction of Israel, as well as Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism in the Middle East, its pursuit of nuclear weapons and its support of Shia militias who continue to kill US troops and undermine political stability in Iraq. He also said Mr Ahmadinejad should be indicted under the Genocide Convention.

Although Mr Ban has in the past expressed “shock and dismay” at Iran’s hostile attitude towards Israel, a fellow UN member state, he has not responded to calls to ban the Iranian president from addressing the UN.

Calls for Mr Ahmadinejad to be banned from Ground Zero have been rather more successful.

New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly warned the Iranian president to avoid Ground Zero because such a visit could incite an aggressive response from crowds who would inevitably gather to protest.

“Obviously, Ground Zero has tremendous emotion attached to it and that might affect the reaction of crowds,” said Mr Kelly.

US President George Bush told a White House press conference last week, “I can understand why they would not want somebody who is running a country who is a state sponsor of terror down there at the site.”

In May last year, the Iranian leader wrote to Mr Bush suggesting that the 9/11 attacks looked like an inside job, according to the UK’s Guardian. “Could it be planned and executed without coordination with intelligence and security services – or their extensive infiltration?” asked Mr Ahmadinejad. “Of course this is just an educated guess. Why have the various aspects of the attacks been kept secret?”

American Jewish leaders also vehemently opposed his proposed visit to Ground Zero on the basis of Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism. “To have the leader of the greatest state sponsor of terrorism in the world visit the site of the most heinous terrorist attack on America would be an affront to the victims and families of 9/11 and to all who lived through that day,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

The Anti-Defamation League also tried to persuade Columbia University to withdraw its invitation for Mr Ahmadinejad to give a lecture at the World Leaders Forum at the School of International and Public Affairs on Monday, without success.

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, who has written three highly acclaimed texts on the First Amendment, said in a statement that the lecture would be an important opportunity to demonstrate the value of free speech in an open society. As a condition of giving his lecture, Mr Ahmadinejad has agreed to divide his time evenly between delivering his comments and responding to audience questions.

Mr Bollinger also stressed that “I will myself introduce the event with a series of sharp challenges to the President on issues including:

  • the Iranian President’s denial of the Holocaust;
  • his public call for the destruction of the state of Israel;
  • his reported support for international terrorism that targets innocent civilians and American troops;
  • Iran’s pursuit of nuclear ambitions in opposition to international sanction;
  • his government’s widely documented suppression of civil society and particularly of women’s rights; and
  • his government’s imprisoning of journalists and scholars, including one of Columbia own alumni, Dr Kian Tajbakhsh.”

Mr Bollinger further insisted that an academic community dedicated to learning and scholarship must be prepared to confront ideas that “many, most, or even all of us will find offensive and even odious”.

In any event, it seems that Mr Ahmadinejad’s feet will hit the fire as soon as he arrives on campus. Columbia University students have planned a mass protest to greet him on the steps of Low Memorial Library, where they have already hung posters depicting a range of human rights abuses in Iran, including the public executions of homosexuals.

Student Sharona Getz, 22, told the New York Daily News: “Any student who cares about freedom of sexuality and freedom of religion should stand up and protest against this murderous dictator.”

The paper also reported that, “While many plan to protest his terrorist-loving views, it was hard to find a student who thought he should be barred from campus.”

Such is the opinion of Iranian law student Matin Hughes, 27, who said, “If we believe in freedom of speech, I think we should let him come.”

Columbia has barred non-students from the campus on Monday for security reasons.

Mr Ahmadinejad is expected to leave the US on Wednesday morning for Venezuela, where he will meet with President Hugo Chavez.

Jena Louisiana Protest: Sharpton, Jackson, King Lead Justice March

Twenty thousand protesters from across the United States converged on the small town of Jena, Louisiana on Thursday to march against what they call flagrant double standards for blacks and whites in the justice system, epitomized in the case of the ‘Jena Six’.

Despite the massive number of protesters, the emotionally charged issues and the threat of white supremacist counter-demonstrations, the event concluded peacefully. “There were no incidents and no arrests during the rally and march,” said Lieutenant Lawrence McLeary of State Police headquarters in Baton Rouge. “It was uneventful.”

Before dawn on Thursday, about 500 buses began bringing protesters into Jena, a town with a population of 3,000 – 85 percent of whom are white.

Communications technology played a major role in the ability of organizers to coordinate the national event, which had been promoted on black and civil rights web sites, blogs and radio programs. At the same time, student protesters had shared information through social-networking web sites such as Facebook and MySpace.

News releases from the Southern Poverty Law Center on Wednesday also warned that white supremacist web sites had indicated that some counter-demonstrations might be staged to confront the protesters – information it had passed onto State Police.

“I think the crowd is a peaceful crowd, in spite of the number,” Dr Doris Small of Natchitoches told the Town Talk of Alexandria. “I feel a spirit of unity.”

The demonstration was addressed by prominent black civil rights leaders including Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton.

Rev. Sharpton, leader of the New York-based National Action Network, told the crowd at the local courthouse that the protest was not a rebuke against the town or its inhabitants. “This is a march for justice,” he said. “This is not a march against whites or against Jena.” He also emphasized the need for a peaceful protest. “No violence,” he stressed. “Not even an angry word. They will try to provoke you. You have to stand strong.”

Martin Luther King III, son of the slain civil rights leader, also attended the rally. He said that while some punishment might be in order for the Jena Six, “the justice system isn’t applied the same to all crimes and all people”.

Wayne Curry, a former executive of Prince George’s County in Maryland, was more emphatic in his criticism. “This is a shocking abuse of justice in the 21st century and harkens to our sort of Neanderthal era of politics in America fashioned around legalized racism,” he told the Washington Post. “For this to be happening now is such a jolt. The absence of dialogue on the subject from many of our elected officials is astounding … Exultations of attempted murder for a fistfight in a school. What’s going on?”

Although most of the protesters in Jena were black, there was also a sizeable contingent of young white people.

Mallory Flippo, a white university student from Shreveport, told the Associated Press, “I think what happened here was disgusting and repulsive to the whole state. I think it reflected badly on our state and how it makes it seem we view black people. I don’t feel that way, so I thought I should be here.”

As the protesters made their way from the courthouse to Jena High School and back they shouted, “No Justice! No Peace!” and carried banners which read “Enough is Enough” and “Get to the Root of the Problem”. They also chanted, “Hey hey ho ho! DA Reed has got to go!”

In anticipation of the march, and due to fears of violence, the town’s schools and most businesses were closed for the day. Most residents also remained indoors, but many who watched the march felt that the entire town had been accused of racism.

While most of the protesters confined their criticism to the justice system, as requested by the organizers, local resident Pam Sharp heard one woman shout “Shame on Jena!” A furious Ms Sharp told the Los Angeles Times she wasted no time responding to this outburst. “I shouted back, ‘No, shame on you!’ How can they include the whole town? That’s the shame.”

Ms Sharp also noted that the Jena Six case centered on a white student who had been beaten unconscious. “Protesters don’t want to talk about him,” she said.

One black family who sat in lawn chairs at the front of their property sold jambalaya and barbecue to the protesters as they marched past. The Town Talk reported that family member Hazel Epps, who now lives in Shreveport, also felt the need to defend her home town as she talked to some of the protesters.

When one woman from California asked why a local barber doesn’t cut the hair of African Americans, Ms Epps replied, “because they don’t know how”. Ms Epps also corrected the protester’s impression that Jena restaurants don’t serve black people, and said that everyone is welcome in the town’s restaurants.

In one local Jena restaurant, WBRZ television news of Baton Rouge interviewed two men who decided to mark the day with a quiet lunch together. Joe Clement (who is black) and George Ristick (who is white) appeared to be in their 60s and seemed oblivious to the excitement outside.

Mr Clement said he was not surprised by the controversy, while Mr Ristick hoped that the protest would help the country to better deal with the issue of racial equality. “Well, I’m sure other parts of the country have these problems,” he said. “I think it’s a real good eye opener. I really do – that it is being put under the spotlight for everybody.”

Elizabeth Redding, a 63 year-old resident of Willingboro, New Jersey said she was marching on behalf of her great-grandchildren and recalled how she had participated in the civil rights movement when she was in her twenties. “This is worse, because we didn’t get the job done,” she told the Baton Rouge Advocate. “I never believed that this would be going on in 2007.”

As the procession marched on, some remnants of the Old South were still visible: two white Jena residents watching the march from their pickup truck were flying the confederate flag from their vehicle’s antenna. “It means Southern pride – tradition,” the passenger of the truck (who did not wish to be named) explained to the Town Talk. “The marchers are carrying their flags, so I’m going to have mine.”

Meanwhile, 17 year-old April Jones, who had travelled from Atlanta with her parents, Diana and Derrick, said she could not understand why the hanging of a noose had not been punished severely. “I just feel like every time the white people did something, they dropped it, and every time the black people did something, they blew it out of proportion,” she told the New York Times.

Latese Brown, 40, of Alexandria, also challenged the perceived disparity in the justice system. “If you can figure out how to make a school yard fight into an attempted murder charge,” she said, “I’m sure you can figure out how to make stringing nooses into a hate crime.”

Jena Six Timeline – The Events

Aug 31, 2006:  During a Jena High School assembly, a black male freshman student asked permission to sit in the shade of the “white tree” (where traditionally only white students sat). The principal responded that the students could “sit wherever they wanted”. That afternoon, he and his friends sat under the tree.

Sep 1, 2006:  That morning, three nooses were found hanging from the tree – a clear reference to the historical lynching of blacks once widely practiced by white racists, especially in the southern states of the US.

When the principal learned that three white students were responsible, he recommended expulsion from the school which was overruled by the local Board of Education. They were instead punished with a three day in-school suspension.

School Superintendent Roy Breithaupt agreed with the Board and said, “Adolescents play pranks. I don’t think it was a threat against anybody.”

Local black residents said this further inflamed racial tensions in the town.

Sep 6, 2006:  The principal called a student assembly, in which students sat in segregated black and white sections. LaSalle Parish District Attorney J. Reed Walters addressed the assembly and is alleged to have threatened the protesters that if they didn’t stop complaining about an “innocent prank”, he could “take [their] lives away with the stroke of a pen”.

Sep 7, 2006:  Police began patrolling the halls of Jena High School.

Sep 8, 2006:  The school was declared to be in “total lockdown”.

Sep 10, 2006:  Dozens of black students attempted to address the school board but were refused because the board believed “the noose issue” had been resolved.

Racially charged confrontations between white and black students continued throughout the fall.

Nov 30, 2006:  The main building of Jena High School was set on fire and later needed to be gutted and demolished. Black and white students blamed each other for the arson.

Dec 1, 2006: At a mostly-white party held at the Fair Barn, five black students attempted to enter the party but were told they were not allowed in without an invitation. They persisted and said they had friends who were already at the party. A white man confronted the students and a fight ensued, which caused him to also be banned from the party.

Outside, the black students became involved in another fight with a group of white men (not students). Sixteen year-old Robert Bailey (later one of the Jena Six) alleged that a beer bottle had been broken over his head, although there are no medical records to indicate treatment was provided.

Dec 2, 2006: A white student who had attended the previous night’s party encountered Mr Bailey and his friends at a convenience store. An argument ensued and the white student is alleged to have run back to his pickup truck and produced a 12-gauge shotgun. Mr Bailey said he wrested the gun from the white student and took it home with him. Because the white and black students’ versions of events contradicted each other, police formed a report based on the testimony of an independent witness.

Mr Bailey was charged with theft of a firearm, second-degree robbery and disturbing the peace. The white student was not charged.

Dec 4, 2006: Jena High School student Justin Barker, 17, was allegedly beaten unconscious by black students including Mr Bailey. It was reported that Mr Barker had boasted earlier in the day that Mr Bailey had been beaten by a white man at the party on Dec 1, which Mr Barker denied. Mr Barker was treated at the local hospital and released after two hours. He attended a school function that evening.

Meanwhile, the six black students accused of the attack were arrested. Robert Bailey, Mychal Bell, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis and Theo Shaw were initially charged with assault. The sixth suspect, Jesse Ray Beard, was charged as a juvenile because he was 14 years old.

District Attorney Walters upgraded the assault charges to attempted murder.

June 26, 2007:  On the first day of Mychal Bell’s trial, in which he was tried as an adult, Mr Walters agreed to reduce the charges for Mr Bell to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit the same crime, arguing that the “deadly weapon” used was Mr Bell’s tennis shoes, to which the jury agreed. There were conflicting witness accounts on whether Mr Bell had been involved in the attack.

Mr Bell was found guilty and faced a sentence of up to 22 years in prison. He was remanded in custody to be sentenced on September 20, 2007. There was public outcry because Mr Bell’s public defender did not call any witnesses in his attempt to defend his client.

Later, Mr Bell received new defense attorneys who requested a new trial on the grounds that Mr Bell, who was 16 years old at the time of the incident, should not have been tried as an adult. They also argued that the new trial should be held in another parish.

Aug 24, 2007: A request to lower Mr Bell’s $90,000 bond was denied due to his juvenile record, which showed that he had been previously convicted of four violent crimes.

Sep 4, 2007: A judge dismissed the conspiracy charge but upheld the battery conviction, although he agreed that Mr Bell should have been tried as a juvenile.

On this day, charges against Carwin Jones and Theo Shaw were reduced to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy.

Sep 10, 2007: Charges against Robert Bailey were reduced to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy.

Sep 14, 2007: Mr Bell’s conviction for battery was overturned by Louisiana’s Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Lake Charles on the grounds that he should not have been tried as an adult. District Attorney Reed appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Sep 20, 2007: On the day Mr Bell was initially due to be sentenced, the Third Circuit Court of Appeal in Lake Charles ordered a district judge to hold a hearing on why Mr Bell is still being held in jail.

 

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