HARI SREENIVASAN: An Ethiopian Airlines plane crashed early this morning just off Beirut, Lebanon. Ninety people were on board, but there was no sign of survivors. The Boeing 737 caught fire and plunged into the Mediterranean Sea minutes after taking off.
Plane debris washed up on shore, and search-and-rescue crews recovered at least 21 bodies. Investigators said stormy weather could have been a factor in the crash. Lebanese President Michel Suleiman said there was no sign that terrorism was involved.
In Iraq, Baghdad was hit by a series of bombings on the same day that a notorious henchman of Saddam Hussein was executed.
We have a report narrated by Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News.
LINDSEY HILSUM: Three suicide car bombs in Baghdad today, all targeted at hotels where foreigners stay. The bombers didn’t get right inside, but still managed to kill more than 30 people and injure 70 others.
Neighboring houses were blown apart, firefighters helping survivors to safety. As Iraq heads towards elections in early March, such attacks are expected to continue or increase. The Americans say the perpetrators are probably al-Qaida in Iraq, a largely Sunni group supported by some members of Saddam Hussein’s now banned Baath Party.
Today, one of the most notorious Baathists, Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known as Chemical Ali, was hanged. A judge read the sentence a week ago.
“Thanks be to God,” he responded.
It was his fourth death sentence for genocide and crimes against humanity. Iraqi army video was used as evidence in court. Here, he is seen presiding over the abuse of Shiite prisoners captured during the uprising in 1991 which followed the invasion of Kuwait.
He gained his nickname after commanding the chemical gas attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988 during the Iran-Iraq War. Unsurprisingly, in Halabja today, the news of his hanging, nearly seven years after his capture, was greeted with approval.
MAN: We, the families of martyrs in Halabja, are very pleased to hear that Ali Hassan al-Majid was executed.
LINDSEY HILSUM: But, in Tikrit, the hometown of al-Majid and Saddam Hussein, tribal loyalty still trumps evidence of atrocities.
MAN: I give my condolences to the Iraqi people on the martyrdom of comrade Ali Hassan al-Majid, who was assassinated by traitors.
LINDSEY HILSUM: Today’s explosions show that Iraq is still volatile, maybe more so since the predominantly Shiite government barred many Sunni candidates from standing in the coming elections. The contrasting reactions to today’s execution shows how divided Iraq remains, as it struggles to overcome the legacy of dictatorship, invasion and war.
HARI SREENIVASAN: There was new talk today of reconciling Afghanistan’s government with Taliban fighters. President Hamid Karzai said he wants to let militants lay down their weapons and go home, so long as they are not affiliated with al-Qaida. Karzai spoke in Istanbul, Turkey, three days before an international conference on Afghanistan in London. He said gathering international support was key.
HAMID KARZAI: In the past, this effort by the Afghan government didn’t have the backing or the support of our international partners. This current effort, this renewed effort, if I should say, has the backing of our partners, in particular, the United States and Europe.
HARI SREENIVASAN: At the same time, the NATO commander in Afghanistan said he hopes an influx of troops will force Taliban leaders to accept peace. General Stanley McChrystal suggested former Taliban could even join the government. He said — quote — “I think any Afghans can play a role, if they focus on the future and not on the past.”
Also today, NATO officials announced two more soldiers, one British, one Norwegian, have been killed in bombings in Afghanistan.
The U.S. military will speed up a review of more than 4,300 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. They were discharged with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, between 2002 and 2008. Seven veterans have filed a class-action lawsuit. They claim the military illegally denied benefits to those discharged with PTSD.
Vice President Biden’s son will not run for his father’s old U.S. Senate seat in Delaware. In an e-mail, Beau Biden told supporters he plans to seek reelection as state attorney general instead. That leaves Republican Congressman Mike Castle, a former two-term governor, without a Democratic opponent.
General Motors made Ed Whitacre its permanent CEO today. He had filled the job on an interim basis since December, when the automaker’s board ousted Fritz Henderson. Whitacre is also GM’s chairman, but he said today he had not expected to take on the job of permanent CEO.
ED WHITACRE JR.: I certainly didn’t come into this with that intention. But, as so often happens, you get in the middle of something, and you — you start to like the people. You make some leadership changes. You feel comfortable with them. You feel very optimistic about the future. You sort of get pulled in, if you would.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Whitacre also said today GM Will repay the more than $8 billion the company owes the U.S. and Canadian governments in June.