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Archive for January 2nd, 2007

16,273 deaths reported in Iraq in 2006


BAGHDAD, Iraq – As enraged crowds protested the hanging of Saddam Hussein across Iraq’s Sunni heartland Monday, government officials reported that 16,273 Iraqi civilians, soldiers and police died violent deaths in 2006, a figure larger than an independent Associated Press count for the year by more than 2,500.

The tabulation by the Iraqi ministries of Health, Defense and Interior, showed that 14,298 civilians, 1,348 police and 627 soldiers were killed in the violence that raged in the country last year.

The Associated Press accounting, gleaned from daily news reports from Baghdad, arrived at a total of 13,738 deaths.

The United Nations has said as many as 100 Iraqis die violently each day, which translates into 36,500 deaths annually.

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Bush ‘to reveal Iraq troop boost’


US President George W Bush intends to reveal a new Iraq strategy within days, the BBC has learnt.

The speech will reveal a plan to send more US troops to Iraq to focus on ways of bringing greater security, rather than training Iraqi forces.

The move comes with figures from Iraqi ministries suggesting that deaths among civilians are at record highs.

The US president arrived back in Washington on Monday after a week-long holiday at his ranch in Texas.

The BBC was told by a senior administration source that the speech setting out changes in Mr Bush’s Iraq policy is likely to come in the middle of next week.

Its central theme will be sacrifice.

The speech, the BBC has been told, involves increasing troop numbers.

The exact mission of the extra troops in Iraq is still under discussion, according to officials, but it is likely to focus on providing security rather than training Iraqi forces.

The proposal, if it comes, will be highly controversial.

Already one senior Republican senator has called it Alice in Wonderland.

The need to find some way of pacifying Iraq has been underlined by statistics revealed by various ministries in the Iraqi government, suggesting that well over 1,000 civilians a month are dying.

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Dems eager to put stamp on new Congress

WASHINGTON – Democrats savoring a return from political wilderness are ready to move quickly this week to take the levers of power in a Congress that has been run by Republicans the last 12 years.

On Thursday, Nancy Pelosi will take the gavel as the first woman speaker in the history of the House, and immediately launch a 100 legislative-hour march to quickly put the Democratic stamp on the new Congress.

Before President Bush arrives on Capitol Hill on Jan. 23 for his State of the Union address, House Democrats intend to update ethics rules, raise the minimum wage, implement 9/11 Commission recommendations, cut subsidies to the oil industry, promote stem cell research and make college educations and prescription drugs more affordable.

“Democrats are prepared to govern and ready to lead,” said Pelosi, a Californian.

On the first day back, Democrats plan to change House rules on what members can accept from lobbyists. On the second day they’ll vote on other rules changes requiring that new spending or tax cuts be paid for and that pet projects tucked into larger bills be publicly disclosed.

The new Democratic Senate, under Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, will take a parallel if somewhat more leisurely track.

The first week or week-and-a-half of business will be devoted to ethics and lobbying reform that stalled in the last Congress, including a proposal to ban lawmakers from accepting gifts and travel from lobbyists and one making it more difficult for former members who become lobbyists to solicit their former colleagues.

All of this is reminiscent of January 1995, when Republicans kept the House in past midnight on their first day in power after 40 years of Democratic rule. “This will be the busiest day on opening day in congressional history,” new Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., boasted at the time.

Like the 100 hours of the Democratic agenda, Gingrich gave the House 100 days to vote on the far-broader Contract with America. In the end, Republicans did achieve some of the goals of that political treatise, such as cutting taxes, reforming welfare and fighting crime. Others, such as product liability bills and constitutional amendments to limit the terms of lawmakers and balance the budget ultimately failed.

Democrats may have more success because they have taken a less ambitious approach, said Sarah Binder, a political scientist at George Washington University and analyst for the liberal-oriented Brookings Institution think tank. They realize that their newfound majority is not so much a demand for liberal policy as a referendum on the Bush administration, she said. “I’m really struck by how pragmatic the new Democratic majority appears to be with such a limited agenda,” Binder said.

Linda Fowler, professor of government at Dartmouth College, said that while some of the Democratic proposals could face a tough sell in the Senate, “what the Democrats have done is quite reasonably recognize that they need some centrist positions that have fairly broad appeal.”

Pelosi, like her GOP colleagues a dozen years ago, is also promising a more benevolent majority, saying the new House rules will state plainly that the minority will get a chance to offer amendments, read legislation before it gets voted on and participate in House-Senate negotiations. She is working with new minority leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, on the idea of setting up an independent panel to investigate ethics issues.

In the Senate, where Democrats hold a fragile 51-49 majority, Reid and Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky have agreed to open the session with a joint caucus, a gesture aimed at establishing “a new tone” and an attempt to “produce real results next year,” said Reid.

It’s not clear how long this bipartisan spirit will last. Boehner has already complained that Democrats, in hustling through their 100-hour agenda, are backtracking on their promise of a more open Congress.

And while Bush has given qualified support to the Democratic push for an increase in the minimum wage and applauded their efforts to curtail pet projects or earmarks, a vote to boost federal support of stem cell research could provoke an early showdown with the White House. Similar legislation passed by the GOP-led Congress led to the only veto of the Bush presidency.

Democrats are also certain to hit hard on a new Iraq policy, expected to be announced by Bush in January, that may increase U.S. forces in Iraq.

The House and Senate Armed Services committees, under Rep. Ike Skelton (news, bio, voting record), D-Mo., and Sen. Carl Levin (news, bio, voting record), D-Mich., respectively, are gearing up for hearings at which new Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others will likely face tough questions on the conduct of the war, contracting practices and a soon-to-be-announced request for $100 billion in new money to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Journalists May Testify in CIA Leak Case

Some journalists who made careers out of questioning government officials and bearing witness to history may soon find themselves answering questions from prosecutors as key witnesses in the CIA leak case.

Ten or more reporters from some of the most prominent news organizations could be called to testify in the perjury and obstruction case of former White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. It’s rare enough for reporters to become witnesses. But the Libby case is even more unusual because journalists will be dueling witnesses _ some called by the defense team, some by prosecutors.

“It will be unprecedented and, as far as I’m concerned, horrifying,” Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said of the case, for which jury selection begins in two weeks.

Prosecutors want to show that Libby lied to investigators about his conversations with journalists regarding outed CIA officer Valerie Plame, and they are expected to rely on former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper and NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert to make their case.

Libby, the former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, has said he had no reason to lie and simply didn’t remember those conversations. His attorneys have said they will call as many as seven unidentified journalists to testify about their conversations with Libby to bolster his case.

The Libby case has rankled news agencies for nearly three years, since Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald began subpoenaing journalists to testify before a grand jury. Fitzgerald said it was the only way he could thoroughly investigate whether any laws were broken.

After a lengthy court fight that included an 85-day jail term for Miller, Fitzgerald won cooperation from journalists. When Libby was indicted, it was clear reporters would be key witnesses.

That puts them in the awkward position of aiding a criminal investigation, something journalism groups say erodes the wall between the government and an independent press.

Plame’s identity was first revealed by syndicated columnist Robert Novak. She believes she was outed as retribution for her husband’s criticism of the Bush administration’s prewar intelligence on Iraq.

Jurors likely won’t hear much about the leak itself because the original source, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, has already confirmed his role and Libby is not charged with the leak. But the trial is certain to renew questions about whether the administration used reporters to drum up support for the war.

Roy Peter Clark, a scholar at the Poynter Institute, a school and resource center for working journalists, said he worries about the fallout from the trial. If it’s perceived that reporters grant anonymity to officials engaged in political gamesmanship, prosecutors might be more likely to subpoena them in cases where anonymity was granted in serious issues of public importance.

“This case, it’s magnified by the fact that it’s in Washington and the status of the players,” Clark said. “It’s a bizarre and I’d say dangerous case.”

Justice Department policies require prosecutors to exhaust other remedies before sending subpoenas to reporters, and each decision is reviewed by the attorney general, although U.S. investigators and prosecutors occasionally have violated these rules. In the past 15 years, only 13 media subpoenas have been granted involving confidential sources, Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty told Congress in September.

“This record reflects restraint,” he said. “We have recognized the media’s right and obligation to report broadly on issues of public controversy and, absent extraordinary circumstances, have committed to shielding the media from all forms of compulsory process.”

Libby’s attorneys have not publicly named the reporters they expect to be defense witnesses. Two reporters have said they will fight subpoenas, but defense attorney William Jeffress said he expects that will be resolved before trial. Because Libby is calling them to testify about his own conversations with reporters, Jeffress said there should be no confidentiality concerns.

President Bush did not include Libby on his list of pre-Christmas pardons, and the Justice Department said he does not have a pending pardon application on file.

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Housing slump seen weighing on economy

WASHINGTON – The slowdown that hit the U.S. economy will persist into 2007 as the once red-hot housing market continues to suffer through a serious correction, analysts say.

As the new year begins, many private analysts are forecasting the economy will perform at the slowest pace in five years, a full percentage-point lower than growth in 2006.

One such analyst is Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at Global Insight, a forecasting firm. “The recession in the housing market does not seem to have had much of an impact on the consumer,” he said. “The bad news on housing has been offset by good news on wages, jobs and the stock market.”

While the slowdown will cause the unemployment rate to rise, economists remain hopeful that the economy will remain on track to achieve the
Federal Reserve’s hoped-for “soft landing.” That is described as a scenario in which growth slows enough to dampen inflation but not trigger a recession.

But there are plenty of risks that could make the landing more bumpy — everything from another surge in oil prices to a more severe collapse in housing, which could rattle consumer confidence. At the moment, though, economists like Behravesh and David Wyss of Standard & Poor’s of New York feel there is only a one-in-four chance that the current slowdown will turn into an actual recession.

The reason for the optimism is that American consumers, while buffeted in 2006 by record-high gasoline prices and a slumping housing market, have kept spending, helped by a solid jobs market.

Consumers were also helped by a retreat in gasoline prices from record highs above $3 per gallon last summer.

The relief in energy prices has given consumers money to spend on other items, and this has meant that consumer spending, while slowing in 2006, did not collapse.

The overall economy, as measured by the gross domestic product, expanded in 2006 by 3.3 percent, many economists believe, just slightly above the 3.2 percent growth of 2005.

That increase reflected a surge at the start of the year as the economy rebounded from the impact of the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes and much slower growth starting in the spring, as consumers were hit by rising interest rates, soaring energy prices and the slumping housing market.

For 2007, Global Insight is forecasting a GDP growth rate of just 2.3 percent, a full percentage point lower than in 2006. That would be the slowest pace since the economy grew by just 1.6 percent in 2002, a year when the country was struggling to recover from the 2001 recession.

The slower growth means that unemployment will be rising, with many analysts expecting the jobless rate to hit 5 percent in 2007, up from a five-year low of 4.4 percent in October. That would still be a relatively low overall civilian jobless rate in historical terms.

For certain sectors of the economy, job losses will have a much bigger impact, however.

Economists at Goldman Sachs estimate that housing-related industries — construction, furniture manufacturing and sales, real estate agents, mortgage brokers — will see more than 1 million jobs evaporate over the next two years because of the housing slowdown after five boom years for sales.

The auto industry also is expected to suffer as U.S. car companies complete announced plans to trim their work forces in the face of stiff foreign competition.

Troubles in auto-related industries have already contributed to recession-like conditions in many parts of the industrial Midwest while many southern states are confronting job losses as a result of a surge of Chinese imports of textiles, clothing, paper and furniture.

For most of the country, however, the economic slowdown won’t have much of an impact as long as there are no unexpected shocks that could send growth lower than forecast.

“Betting that nothing goes wrong could turn out to be a bad bet,” said Wyss, Standard & Poor’s chief economist. “It wouldn’t take much of a disruption in the Middle East to send oil prices back up again.”

Economists believe that the nationwide impact of higher layoffs will be held in check by the Federal Reserve, which will move starting in the middle of the new year to counter rising unemployment by cutting interest rates to boost economic activity.

By that time, economists expect inflation will have retreated back into the 1 percent to 2 percent Fed comfort zone for prices excluding food and energy. The latest reading had these prices rising by 2.2 percent, year over year, in November, down from a 2.4 percent increase in October.

If the Fed succeeds in its soft-landing goal, many economists believe the stage will be set for a solid rebound to a 3 percent-plus GDP growth rate in 2008 and beyond. That would resemble the pattern of the mid-1990s, the last time the Fed succeeded in bringing about a soft landing for the economy.

“I think 2008 will turn out to be a very good year for the economy,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Economy.com. “The Fed will feel more comfortable with stronger growth because inflation will be under control.”

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