Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Obamas begin Christmas Eve with workout, Marines

Obamas begin Christmas Eve with workout, Marines

By PHILIP ELLIOTT – 1 hour ago

HONOLULU (AP) — President-elect Barack Obama offered appreciation to the U.S. military on Christmas Eve in a recorded message and then asked children of uniformed troops if they had their wish lists ready.

Obama and wife, Michelle, made their early morning trek to Marine Corps Base Hawaii just northeast of Honolulu as they had done during the last three days. After about an hour at the base on Wednesday where he went inside a gym for a workout, he walked over to greet more than 60 people who waited for him. The president-elect shook hands while onlookers took pictures with their cell phones and digital cameras.

"You guys got your Christmas list?" Obama asked one person standing in the makeshift ropeline. He asked another: "Hey man, what's going on?"

Earlier in the day, his aides released a recorded message of appreciation to the military "serving their second, third or even fourth tour of duty."

"This holiday season, their families celebrate with a joy that is muted knowing that a loved one is absent, and sometimes in danger," Obama said in the message, set to air Saturday morning. "In towns and cities across America, there is an empty seat at the dinner table; in distant bases and on ships at sea, our servicemen and women can only wonder at the look on their child's face as they open a gift back home."

Obama asked the country to look to George Washington's improbable crossing on the Delaware River on Christmas Day as inspiration to get through current tough times. The president-elect said in a holiday message that Washington and his army "faced impossible odds" as they fought against the British on Dec. 25, 1776, the day they surprised Hessian forces and won victories that gave new momentum and hope to American independence. In his own radio address set to air Saturday but released Tuesday, President George W. Bush also highlighted Washington's crossing of the Delaware.

Obama used that story to say that "hope endures and that a new birth of peace is always possible" — even as many Americans are serving overseas and others have lost their jobs while the economy sinks deeper into the doldrums.

Obama's message noted the struggling economy, the issue that is set to dominate his agenda when he takes office on Jan. 20. The Labor Department said earlier this month that employers cut a net total of 533,000 jobs in November, sending the unemployment rate to 6.7 percent, the highest in 15 years.

"These are also tough times for many Americans struggling in our sluggish economy," Obama said. "As we count the higher blessings of faith and family, we know that millions of Americans don't have a job. Many more are struggling to pay the bills or stay in their homes. From students to seniors, the future seems uncertain."

Obama, his family and his close friends are spending 12 days on the island of Oahu, staying at a rented $9 million beachfront estate. Aides say the Obamas would have no public events during the trip, although he has received his intelligence briefings and met with aides.

Later Wednesday, Obama played golf with close friend and neighbor Eric Whitaker. Aide Eugene Kang also joined them at the private Mid-Pacific Country Club.

After his first nine holes, Obama briefly greeted onlookers as he moved to the 10th tee. "I'm terrible," Obama told one person. To another visitor: "Got any tips?"

On Sunday, Obama and Kang played at Olomana Golf Links, a public course. There, he also joked about his game.

The Obamas during past years spent the December holidays visiting Obama's maternal grandmother, who died Nov. 2, before Obama's historic Nov. 4 victory. The Obamas on Tuesday had a private memorial service for Madelyn Payne Dunham, known to friends as "Toot," who helped raise him.
On the Net:

* Transition Web site _:

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Investigators probe Denver jet accident

Investigators probe Denver jet accident

WASHINGTON (AFP) — Flight data recorders arrived in Washington to help investigators pinpoint the cause of the weekend runway skid of a Continental Airlines jet in Denver that sparked passenger panic and dozens of injuries.

The data recorders were recovered from the damaged Boeing 737-500 on Sunday, an official with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) told reporters in Denver.

"There is good data on those recorders," the spokesman said. "The crew conversations are audible ... I understand we should have some overall characterization of what was said in that cockpit."

The spokesman indicated that investigators had interviewed off-duty Continental staff aboard the plane, and Monday spoke with airport rescue and firefighting personnel.

Although the aircraft's captain has not yet been interviewed, "we will do it as soon as we possibly can ... but we want to make sure that he or she is mentally ready and physically ready to be interviewed," the spokesman said.

The Houston-bound plane was carrying 115 passengers and crew when it veered off the runway and caught fire Saturday evening, injuring at least 38 people. The searing heat from the blaze was so hot it melted overhead cabins.

Five passengers on Tuesday remained hospitalized, one of them in serious condition, The Denver Post newspaper reported, without indicating the nature of their injuries.

NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said the airplane's nose gear collapsed and the right side of the aircraft had sustained "extensive fire damage."

He also said the interior was "quite burned" with the left engine "separated from the aircraft."

Investigators said it was too early to speculate as to the cause of the accident, but that weather and the possibility of engine or brake failure would all be studied.

The people aboard Flight 1404 on Saturday were evacuated via emergency chutes, as crews on scene quickly put out the fire. The plane lay flat on the ground, its landing gear shaved off after diving into a 40-foot (12-meter) ravine.

"We felt the plane veer to the left and my husband was holding my son (age one) and we felt some bumpiness and I thought it was just turbulence," passenger Maria Trejos told CNN.

"And I looked to the side and all of a sudden there was this giant fireball behind my husband's head," added Trejos, who said she is four months pregnant.

"That's when I knew something was wrong and we felt a bump and then I felt like we were airborne for a couple of seconds and then we hit a really big, I -- guess it was when we hit the ravine and then it just stopped."

Passenger Jeb Tilly recalled the skid, which occurred about a third of the way down the runway, as "incredibly violent."

"It was a big lefthand turn and we started bouncing a lot as if you were in the roller coaster, just getting tossed around in your seat. And then there was a lot of silence all of the sudden," he said.

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City code officer slays Snowzilla

City code officer slays Snowzilla
Giant snowman deemed a public nuisance, safety hazard


Published: December 21st, 2008 10:14 PM
Last Modified: December 21st, 2008 02:15 PM

Anchorage's famous giant snow man, Snowzilla, finally met its match.

It wasn't the weather. It wasn't angry neighbors bearing shovels and pick axes.

It turns out Snowzilla's biggest foe -- the one who felled the controversial but much-loved giant -- was a notice-bearing city code enforcement officer.

That's right, Snowzilla was abated.

It was just a few years ago that 16-foot-tall Snowzilla arose in a residential yard in Airport Heights, launching an annual procession of local gawkers and an international media blitz.

Camera crews came from Russia and Japan.

But Snowzilla attracted a lot of naysayers too.

Not everybody in the neighborhood liked all the cars and visitors.

So, city officials have deemed Snowzilla a public nuisance and safety hazard.

A few weeks ago, city code enforcers left three red signs at Snowzilla's bottom body ball telling its builders to cease and desist.

The city also tacked a public notice on the door of the Powers family home at 1556 Columbine St. The Powers family and some of their neighbors have been building Snowzilla in the Powers' front yard since 2005.

When the notices went up, Snowzilla still didn't have a full torso or head.

"The kids had spent hours and hours of work on it," Billy Powers said on Sunday.

City officials involved in the cease-and-desist order could not be reached for comment on Sunday.

But on Dec. 11, the city notified the Airport Heights community council about its decision to abate Snowzilla, telling council members that the two-story snowman caused increased traffic to the point of endangerment and that the structure itself was unsafe.

The city also asked council members to watch out for continued construction and to consider weighing in on Snowzilla at an upcoming, council members said.

At last Thursday's community council meeting, no one offered a Snowzilla-related motion. "We're not really a policing agency," said Becky Kurtz, the council president.

Now, Snowzilla is just a big pile of snow rubble.

Powers said he doesn't plan to rebuild.

He can't.

Under the city's nuisance abatement order, if he tries, he could get arrested.

Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at or call 257-4317.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

BBC iPlayer now available on Mac

BBC iPlayer now available on Mac

The BBC has created a version of the iPlayer that works with both Mac and Linux computers.

The two systems, which have been able to stream BBC programmes via the iPlayer for a year, will now be able to handle downloads.

The BBC, working with Adobe, has developed the new version, known as BBC iPlayer Desktop.

The Corporation also ran tests of a system to help ISPs cope with increase in traffic generated by the iPlayer.

Lab edition

The iPlayer is the BBC's online media player that lets viewers stream programmes for up to seven days after broadcast or download and watch them for up to 30 days.

When the iPlayer first launched the BBC was criticised for producing versions that only worked with Microsoft's Windows XP and which used Microsoft's digital rights management (DRM) system to enforce viewing restrictions.

The BBC's head of digital media technology, Anthony Rose, who is responsible for delivering the next generation of BBC iPlayer, said the structures put in place by the BBC Trust on how the iPlayer can operate meant DRM was a necessity.

"The BBC Trust said we could make content available for seven or 30 days after broadcast," he said. "The ability to take things away after some time requires DRM."

The new version of the iPlayer has been written with Adobe's AIR technology which aims to make it possible to create applications that can be downloaded to your computer, rather than just embedded in browser web pages as is possible with the widely used Flash software.

Those who want to try the new version can get a trial version from the Labs section of the iPlayer site.

A beta version of the BBC iPlayer Desktop that uses the Adobe AIR technology was made available on 18 December with a finished version likely to be released in February 2009.

The cross-platform nature of Adobe AIR means the iPlayer will work with Open Source and Apple Mac computers "out of the box" on 18 December, said Mr Rose. It fulfilled the Trust's demand that the iPlayer be "platform neutral", he said.

Mr Rose said the iPlayer now supported three separate DRM technologies: Microsoft, Adobe, and the OMA standards for mobiles.

"We may embrace other DRMs as needed," said Mr Rose, adding that putting the iPlayer on phones, game consoles and many more computers was helping to drive the success of the application.

Traffic congestion

At the same time, said Mr Rose, the BBC has carried out tests to help ISPs mitigate the bandwidth demands of iPlayer users.

In early 2008 ISPs complained that the popularity of the iPlayer was putting a strain on their networks and forcing up their costs.

Net provider Plusnet published figures which suggested the cost of carrying streaming traffic increased from £17,233 to £51,700 per month largely because of the iPlayer.

The BBC has worked with British company Velocix to test a system which puts servers in ISPs that store, or cache, the most popular iPlayer programmes.

Mr Rose said smart software in the iPlayer would check these caches to see if the programme a user wants is loaded locally on a caching device near the user. Streaming from within an ISP's network cuts the cost of transporting that traffic for both the BBC and the net supplier.

It was up to ISPs now to get hold of the caching boxes and install them, said Mr Rose.

"The BBC is not building its own content delivery network," he said. "But we can help move the market in this area."

Mr Rose said it would establish commercial relationships with ISPs that use the caching technology in the same way it did with other firms that carry or broadcast BBC content.

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Mozilla Fixes Security Bugs In Firefox Browser

Mozilla Fixes Security Bugs In Firefox Browser

By Stefanie Hoffman, ChannelWeb

7:44 PM EST Wed. Dec. 17, 2008
Mozilla patched numerous security flaws in its Firefox Web browser Tuesday, six of which were considered "critical," which pave the way for hackers to hijack users' sessions while they surf the Web.

The latest version of Firefox, 3.0.5, repaired a multitude of glitches that could enable remote hackers to execute malicious code that would shut down a vulnerable system or infiltrate a victim's computer and steal information.

One of the most serious vulnerabilities repaired by the update enabled attackers to inject malicious URLs into the session restore feature of the browser. The flaw could be used to violate the same origin policy and launch a cross-site scripting attack, which is often used by hackers to steal financial, identifying and other sensitive information while victims are running SessionStore.

Another critical error fixed by the Mozilla patch was found to be related to the XBL binding -- an issue that could also be used by attackers to violate the same origin policy and execute arbitrary JavaScript when the XBL binding is attached to an unloaded Web page.

In addition, Mozilla's update provided an umbrella fix for several critical memory corruption glitches in the Firefox engine, as well as other Mozilla-based products, which allowed attackers to crash vulnerable systems or execute malicious code if exploited.

The only bug that Mozilla rated "important" repaired an error that allowed attackers to redirect users to a malicious site in order to launch a cross-domain attack for data-theft purposes. Specifically, the issue allows attackers to steal information by creating a specially-crafted Web site that could access a limited amount of data from a different domain by loading a same-domain JavaScript URL that redirects users to an off-domain site.

However, exactly how much data would be at risk would "depend on the format of the data and how the JavaScript parser attempts to interpret it," according to Mozilla's advisory. In most of the files, the amount of data susceptible to theft would be relegated to the "first word or two," while some data files might allow more severe or comprehensive theft or repeated attacks, the advisory warned.

Meanwhile, the latest Mozilla security bulletin also repaired a total of 10 errors in Firefox 2, eight shared with version 3.0.5, updating the older version to

Mozilla said that the security update was the final one before it officially retires version 2.0. Samuel Sidler, a Mozilla engineer, said on the forum that the company was not planning to release any further security updates for Firefox 2, while mentioning that the Phishing Protection service, which protects users from fraud and other malicious attacks, will no longer be available for the older version of the browser. Sidler said that the company recommended that users upgrade to Firefox 3 "as soon as possible."

"It's free, and your settings and bookmarks will be preserved," he said.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Kennedy mystique flummoxes NY rivals for Senate

Kennedy mystique flummoxes NY rivals for Senate

NEW YORK (AP) — Caroline Kennedy has avoided politics most of her life. She has yet to utter a word publicly about her interest in running for Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate seat.

But in a sign of the enduring power of the Kennedy mystique, even her secondhand statements of interest have spooked the rest of the crowded field.

Before she edged into the picture, Democratic Gov. David Paterson had been considering about a dozen other potential contenders, most prominent among them Kennedy's former relative by marriage, Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo, the son of Democratic Party icon and former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, is the state's attorney general. Others who were said to be interested include Nassau County executive Tom Suozzi and Reps. Kirsten Gillibrand, Carolyn Maloney and Brian Higgins.

Then came Kennedy. Suddenly, the others seemed to shrink in stature.

"What are we, chopped liver?" asked Rep. Jose Serrano, a Bronx congressman who is not vying for the seat but is sympathetic to his fellow lawmakers who are being eclipsed by Kennedy.

"They think, 'My god, a Kennedy, how do I look like I'm not happy about a Kennedy?'" he said. "It's not logical, there's a lot of emotion in this, emotion about the good ol' days and the Kennedys and Camelot."

Still, ever since her cousin, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., confirmed her interest some 10 days ago, she quickly became the top contender even as some criticized her as an amateur and compared her to the Jennifer Lopez of politics.

Last week, Queens congressman Gary Ackerman, a former Clinton supporter, said in a radio interview that he didn't know what Kennedy's qualifications were "except that she has name recognition, but so does J-Lo."

Kennedy, a writer and lawyer, has never held an elected office. She has been involved with numerous charities, has served as president of John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, and was a director of the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Yet, in the end, Paterson may be hard pressed to turn down the only surviving child of former President John F. Kennedy. Among other considerations, there's the question of money.

Should Clinton be confirmed as secretary of state next year, Paterson will appoint someone to fill the Senate seat. Under the state constitution, the appointee must stand in the next general election, which is in 2010. Whoever wins must run again in 2012 when Clinton's term ends. Each race is likely to cost tens of millions of dollars, and few names attract campaign cash like Kennedy.

"Obviously she will come out as the front-runner simply because of her ability to raise money, her name and her star power," said Rep. Michael Arcuri, a Utica Democrat who wants the next senator to be from upstate New York, or at the very least focused on the issues there.

Kennedy got a boost Tuesday from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who told the local Las Vegas television program "Face to Face" that he had already called Paterson and told him he liked her for the seat.

"I think it would be a tremendous thing," Reid said. "I think Caroline Kennedy would be perfect."

Her ex-in-law Cuomo has played coy about whether he even wants the job. Until Kennedy's name emerged, he had been the leading contender.

If he becomes serious about his interest, it could revive memories of the bitter family feud between the Kennedys and Cuomos that erupted during his messy divorce from Kerry Kennedy, the daughter of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

As well-known as Kennedy is, her success in dominating the political scene this month points to the overall disorganization among New York Democrats. None of the House members trying to get the seat have been willing or able to take her on directly.

Officially, Paterson says he is absorbed with the state's fiscal crisis and won't announce his decision until Clinton is confirmed, likely in January or February.

The governor's most extensive comments to date came about a week ago, as Kennedy was being blasted on some blogs as too inexperienced for the job.

He said his choice "would be a person who offers more hope, necessarily, than history and a greater imagination than experience to try to achieve those goals."

Lacking a strong challenger to box her out, the 51-year-old Kennedy is already crafting the sort of political friendships that will make it hard for the governor to say no.

She spent the day making calls to various elected officials and union leaders, trying to shore up support and at the same time learn more about the issues important to New York state.

One of the people Kennedy called Monday was Kelli Conlin, president of the abortion rights group New York NARAL.

"I really do see her as someone who could take up the mantle that Hillary has sort of started in terms of commitment to reproductive health care," Conlin said.

Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 vice presidential candidate and a staunch Clinton supporter, said she had urged Paterson to appoint one of the state's Democratic congresswomen to the seat but was open to Kennedy taking the job.

"She's a terrific young woman who's done a lot working with the city," Ferraro said. "I'm still inclined to think a member of Congress would be best because they could really hit the ground running. But if Caroline Kennedy gets the appointment I'm perfectly happy with that."

Associated Press reporters in Albany and Washington contributed to this story.


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Obama to announce energy, environment cabinet picks

Obama to announce energy, environment cabinet picks

CHICAGO (AFP) — President-elect Barack Obama is expected to announce on Monday cabinet picks to head the US agencies tasked with making America more energy efficient and ecologically friendly.

Obama's transition team said he would hold a press conference "to discuss the nation's energy and environmental future."

News reports said the president-elect Obama was likely to announce that Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu has been chosen to take the helm of the Department of Energy.

Lisa Jackson, 46, chief of staff for the governor of the northeastern state of New Jersey and the state's former top environmental official, is expected to be named to head the US Environmental Protection Agency, news reports said.

Obama was also expected to announce that Carol Browner, who served as EPA administrator under president Bill Clinton and who leads the Obama transition team's working group on energy and environmental issues, will become the White House "climate czar," a post could include some of the responsibilities previously under EPA.

Chu, 60, a scientist and Washington outsider, won his Nobel in 1997. Since 2004 he has been running the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, which has a budget of 645 million dollars and a staff of 4,000.

As energy secretary, Chu is expected to lead Obama's ambitious agenda to generate 2.5 million new jobs through "green" and new technology aimed at making America more energy efficient and more energy independent.

He shared his Nobel Prize with fellow researchers William Phillips of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland and Claude Cohen-Tannoudji of the College de France and Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris.

Jackson, who trained as a chemical engineer, is expected to restore the teeth to EPA oversight, which during the Bush administration saw its funding slashed, scientific findings censored, and enforcement efforts downplayed.

The agency also allegedly ignored findings and recommendations by its own scientists. In one particularly notorious example, the EPA backed off a finding that said climate change was a risk to public welfare. The findings would have led to the nation's first mandatory global-warming regulations.

In a statement released last week, as reports swirled about her impending nomination, officials from her home state praised Jackson, who began her career in the EPA's Superfund office in Washington, overseeing toxic site cleanups.

"From fighting global warming and promoting a clean energy future to improving the quality of our air and water, she understands we need real leadership to rebound from the neglect of the last eight years," New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg said in a statement Friday.

Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club's New Jersey chapter, hailed her work on addressing global warming, coastal concerns and other key environmental issues.

"New Jersey is a sort of a laboratory for environmental policy," Tittel said. "It gives you a broad background to run the EPA."

Browner, who turns 53 on Tuesday, headed the EPA during the Clinton Administration.

She has called for a sharp break from the policies of the Bush administration, which the Bush record, which, according to media reports, she has called "The worst environmental administration ever."

Browner sits on the boards of various environmentally-friendly groups, including the Audubon Society, the League of Conservation Voters and the Alliance for Climate Protection, which advocates control of greenhouse gases.

In another Obama appointment, Nancy Sutley is expected to be named chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

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Bush arrives in Afghanistan on surprise visit

Bush arrives in Afghanistan on surprise visit

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan (AFP) — US President George W. Bush landed in Afghanistan early Monday on a surprise visit to meet President Hamid Karzai and dispel any fears of flagging support when he leaves office.

"I want to be in Afghanistan to say 'thank you' to President Karzai, to let the people of Afghanistan know that the United States has stood with them and will stand with them," Bush said en route here.

Fresh from a secret trip to Baghdad, Bush arrived in the pre-dawn darkness, virtually all lights on his Air Force One airplane turned off as part of the thick shroud of secrecy that also enveloped his stop in Iraq.

"These nations need to know that the United States has been with them, is with them, and will be with them," said Bush, who hands the keys to the White House to successor Barack Obama on January 20.

The US president was speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One after his stop in Baghdad, where he warned that "the war is not over" and laughed off an incident in which he was nearly pelted with an angry Iraqi's pair of shoes.

A journalist hurled two shoes at the US leader during a press conference, highlighting lingering hostility toward the man who ordered the 2003 invasion of the country.

Bush ducked and the first shoe hit the American and Iraqi flags behind him and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The second was off target.

Soles of shoes are considered the ultimate insult in Arab culture. "It is the farewell kiss, you dog" the journalist shouted before he was wrestled to the ground.

Bush was met at Bagram by General David McKiernan, the US commander who is overseeing a ramp-up in troop levels which the president warned would lead to increased levels of violence.

"You'll see violence tick up," Bush said in his airborne conference room, drawing a comparison with the "surge" that helped bring violence down in Iraq and paved the way for some progress toward political reconciliation.

But "the degree of difficulty in Afghanistan is high," he added.

"This is a significantly larger country than Iraq and significantly poorer. The infrastructure is difficult. Nevertheless, the mission is essential."

Bush said Washington was working with Pakistan to halt cross-border strikes in Afghanistan, and praised Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of slain former premier Benazir Bhutto, as "determined" to help.

"He's said so publicly and he's said so to me privately. He looked me in the eye and said 'you don't need to talk to me about extremist violence, after all my wife got killed by extremists,'" said Bush.

Bush declined to comment on reported US missile strikes along the Afghan-Pakistan border, saying: "When it comes to certain matters, the US government doesn't discuss operations."

Asked whether Karzai was the right person to lead Afghanistan, Bush replied: "That will be determined by the Afghan people."

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Shoe attack on Bush mars farewell Iraq visit

Shoe attack on Bush mars farewell Iraq visit

BAGHDAD (AFP) — A journalist hurled two shoes at President George W. Bush on his farewell visit to Iraq on Sunday, highlighting hostility still felt toward the outgoing US leader who acknowledged that the war is still not won.

Muntazer al-Zaidi jumped up as Bush held a press conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, shouted "It is the farewell kiss, you dog" and threw his footwear.

The president lowered his head and the first shoe hit the American and Iraqi flags behind the two leaders. The second was off target.

Zaidi, a reporter with the Al-Baghdadia channel which broadcasts from Cairo, was immediately wrestled to the ground by security guards and frogmarched from the room.

Soles of shoes are considered the ultimate insult in Arab culture. After Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled in Baghdad in April 2003, many onlookers beat the statue's face with their soles.

Bush laughed off the incident, saying: "It doesn't bother me. If you want the facts, it was a size 10 shoe that he threw".

He later played down the incident. "I don't know what the guy's cause is... I didn't feel the least bit threatened by it."

Bush, on his fourth and final official trip to Iraq since he ordered the March 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam, admitted: "There is still more work to be done."

As he and Maliki signed a security pact setting out new guidelines for US troops in Iraq, the president said: "The war is not over, but with the conclusion of these agreements... it is decisively on its way to being won."

Earlier, Bush ventured out in a motorcade through Baghdad streets, the first time he has gone somewhere other than a military base or the heavily protected Green Zone.

Pool reports said the unmarked motorcade passed through darkened streets that appeared heavily guarded, before arriving at Maliki's residence.

Bush hands over the delicate task of overseeing the US withdrawal from Iraq in five weeks to Barack Obama, who has pledged to turn the page on the deeply unpopular war.

"I'm so grateful that I've had a chance to come back to Iraq before my presidency ends," he said at a meeting with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

In the evening, the president flew by helicopter from the Green Zone to Camp Victory near Bahgdad airport, where he greeted hundreds of US troops under a huge US flag and a gigantic crystal chandelier in the Al Faw palace, formerly used by Saddam.

Bush has staunchly defended the invasion that triggered years of deadly insurgency and sectarian violence that has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis and more than 4,200 American troops.

On Saturday, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Iraq and said that the US mission was in its "endgame."

The signing ceremony by Bush and Maliki marks the adoption of the Status of Forces Agreement approved by Iraq's parliament in November after months of political wrangling.

The pact will govern the presence of 146,000 US troops at more than 400 bases when their UN mandate expires at the end of the year, giving the Iraqi government veto power over virtually all of their operations.

Gates, who Obama has picked to stay on at the Pentagon in the new administration, told US troops on Saturday: "We are in the process of the drawdown."

"We are, I believe, in terms of the American commitment, in the endgame here in Iraq."

The pact envisages US combat troops leaving Iraq by the end of 2011 and departing from all urban areas by June 30 next year.

But the top US commander in Iraq, General Raymond Odierno, who met with Gates, said that troops will stay in Iraqi cities in a support and training role after June.

The Shiite radical movement of Moqtada Sadr, which strongly opposed the security deal, said Odierno's remarks showed that Washington had no intention of sticking by the deadlines.

"As we predicted, the comments fly in the face of the security agreement," the head of the movement's political bureau, Liwaa Sumeissim, told AFP just before Bush's arrival.

Sadr's movement said it plans a protest on Monday in the holy city of Najaf.

Obama has said he favours "a responsible withdrawal from Iraq" within 16 months of taking office.

While security in Baghdad and other parts of the country has significantly improved, there are still almost daily bomb attacks.

Problems also dog the massive economic reconstruction programme undertaken since the invasion.

The New York Times reported on Sunday that an unpublished US government report concluded that US-led efforts to rebuild Iraq were crippled by bureaucratic turf wars, violence and ignorance of the basic elements of Iraqi society, resulting in a 100-billion-dollar failure.

By mid-2008, the document said, 117 billion dollars had been spent on the reconstruction of Iraq, including about 50 billion in US taxpayer money, the newspaper reported

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White House: No immediate deal on auto loans

White House: No immediate deal on auto loans

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Bush administration tossed out no lifeline for the teetering auto industry Sunday and a Republican who blocked $14 billion in loans said it appeared the White House hadn't decided what to do.

With President George W. Bush on an unannounced trip to Iraq, White House officials said they did not expected to make an announcement either Sunday or Monday.

The administration is considering ways to provide emergency aid to General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC, which have said they could run out of cash within weeks without federal aid.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said he spoke with the White House early Sunday. "I don't think they yet know what they're going to do," he said. Ron Gettelfinger, the president of the United Auto Workers, said the union had not held discussions with the White House.

The aid is expected to benefit General Motors and Chrysler and discussions involve the amount of funding and any potential conditions. Ford Motor Co. has said it has enough cash to survive 2009 but asked Congress for a line of credit in case the financial markets deteriorate.

"I'm optimistic they're going to do something significant. I don't think the White House wants bankruptcy at one of the Big Three automakers as part their legacy," said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

Last week, Congress failed to approve $14 billion in loans to help the automakers. The plan would have provided short-term financing to the industry and create a "car czar" who would ensure that the money would transform the Detroit automakers into competitive companies.

The administration, following the legislative defeat, said they were considering several options, including using money from the $700 billion financial bailout fund to provide loans to the carmakers.

Corker and other Republicans sought a compromise that would have insisted the carmakers to restructure their debt and bring wages and benefits in line with those paid by Toyota, Honda and Nissan in the United States. The legislation died when Republicans demanded upfront pay and benefit concessions from the United Auto Workers that union leaders rejected.

Corker urged the White House to seek similar concessions from the auto companies and their unions in return for the money. "Of course, the benefit they have — they don't have to negotiate. They can say this money is available but it's only available under these conditions," he said in a broadcast interview.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., countered that Republican leaders in the Senate did not want an agreement and the loans were needed to buy time for the companies to restructure.

"Manufacturing is on the edge in this country. This is not the time for a political agenda," Stabenow said.

The UAW's Gettelfinger said the failure of the legislation showed that Congress should stay "away from the bargaining table."

The administration has several options. It could tap the $700 billion financial rescue bailout fund to provide loans to the carmakers or use part of that fund as a kind of collateral for emergency loans the automakers could get from the Federal Reserve.

The administration also could do nothing, leaving open the possibility that one or more of the automakers could go bankrupt. But the White House has warned a collapse of the auto industry would severely hurt the economy.

The White House is keeping President-elect Barack Obama and his advisers informed of the discussions. If administration officials choose not to provide the money now, the Obama team could wait for the new Congress, which will have stronger Democratic majorities.

Providing aid to the companies could represent a change for the White House, which has previously insisted that the Wall Street rescue plan should be used solely to help financial institutions.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm, D-Mich., said other countries were providing aid to their automakers and the loans were essential to help make the U.S. less dependent on foreign oil.

If the companies don't get help, "we'll be replacing our reliance on foreign oil with a reliance on foreign batteries because it's going to be the battery that's driving the electric vehicle in the future," Granholm said.

Corker was on CBS' "Face the Nation," as was Brown, and "Fox News Sunday," where he appeared with Stabenow. Gettelfinger was on "Late Edition" on CNN. Granholm was on "Meet the Press" on NBC.


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Franken says he'll drop 633 challenges in recount

Franken says he'll drop 633 challenges in recount

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Democrat Al Franken withdrew 633 challenges to ballots Wednesday in Minnesota's U.S. Senate race in what could be a first step toward a quicker conclusion to the recount.

Franken's attorney, Marc Elias, said many more withdrawals are likely. An attorney for Republican Norm Coleman said he may follow suit soon.

Any reduction in the pile of challenged ballots — more than 6,000 so far — will alleviate work for the canvassing board that meets Dec. 16 to begin examining those ballots.

Coleman defeated Franken in the election by 215 votes, a margin so small that it triggered an automatic recount.

By Wednesday night, Coleman led by 316 votes, according to recount totals posted by Minnesota's secretary of state. But that apparent lead was far overshadowed by the thousands of ballots challenged by the two campaigns.

Each candidate has challenged about the same number of votes.

The Franken campaign mailed a letter to Secretary of State Mark Ritchie on Wednesday with a list of specific challenges to discard. "If there are challenges that are without merit, it doesn't do either side any good to have them considered," Elias said.

Coleman's attorney, Fritz Knaak, said the Republican's campaign has also been considering a withdrawal of some challenges but wouldn't do so until after Friday, the deadline for the recount to end.

"We don't want to send the wrong message to our volunteers still working at the recount sites," Knaak said.

Challenges range from ballots with votes for more than one candidate to many that simply had a pen scribble somewhere on the ballot. The number of challenges far exceeds the margin between the two men, making it difficult to pin down which candidate the recount is favoring.

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Bombs found in Mumbai train station a week later

Bombs found in Mumbai train station a week later

MUMBAI, India (AP) — Police found two bombs at Mumbai's main train station nearly a week after they were left there by gunmen behind the attacks_ in a stunning new example of the botched security that has become a major issue in India since the deadly three-day siege.

The discovery Wednesday came as Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee said India is "determined to act decisively" following the attacks, saying the evidence was clear the gunmen came from Pakistan and their handlers are still there.

His words, the strongest yet from the government, came as thousands of Indians — many calling for war with Pakistan — held a vigil in Mumbai to mark one week since the start of the rampage that killed 171 people.

While searching through a mound of about 150 bags, which police believed were left by the dozens of victims in the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus station, an officer found a suspicious-looking bag and called the bomb squad, said Assistant Commissioner of Police Bapu Domre. Inside were two 8.8-pound (4-kilogram) bombs, which were taken away and safely detonated, he said.

After the attacks, police found unexploded bombs at several of the sites, including two luxury hotels and a Jewish center.

It was not immediately clear why the bags at the station were not examined earlier. The station, which serves hundreds of thousands of commuters, was declared safe and reopened hours after the attack.

The discovery has added to increasing accusations that India's security forces missed warnings and bungled its response to the Nov. 26-29 attacks.

Indian navy chief Sureesh Mehta has called the response to the attacks "a systemic failurem." The country's top law enforcement official has resigned amid criticism that the 10 gunmen appeared better coordinated and better armed than police in Mumbai.

Mukherjee on Wednesday adopted a more strident tone against longtime rival Pakistan.

"There is no doubt the terrorist attacks in Mumbai were perpetrated by individuals who came from Pakistan and whose controllers are in Pakistan," Mukherjee said after a meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"The government of India is determined to act decisively to protect Indian territorial integrity and the right of our citizens to a peaceful life, with all the means at our disposal," he said, a turnaround from earlier statements that ruled out military action.

Rice urged Pakistan to act "transparently, urgently and fully," saying Islamabad has a "special responsibility" to cooperate with the investigation. She noted that with six Americans killed in the attacks, the U.S. was cooperating closely with India.

Rice's visited was part of U.S. effort to defuse tensions in the region and pressure Pakistan to share more intelligence and root out suspected terrorists believed hiding in the country.

Meanwhile, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was meeting civilian and military officials of both India and Pakistan during the trip, a senior defense official said Wednesday on condition of anonymity.

Many Indians wanted more than just harsh words.

At the candlelight gathering in Mumbai, many called for war.

"India should attack Pakistan right away," said Sandeep Ambili, 27, who works for a shipping company.

"Something has to be done. Pakistan has been attacking my country for a long time," said another protester, Rajat Sehgal. "If it means me going to war, I don't mind."

Others chanted anti-Pakistan slogans and held banners reading: "Enough is enough, go for war."

Similar rallies were held in cities across India.

Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony summoned the army, navy and air force chiefs to warn them to be prepared for terrorist attacks from the air and the sea in the wake of growing criticism about slack security.

Antony told the military chiefs they needed to improve intelligence coordination so that security forces can act on all credible threats, according to a statement.

Defense Ministry spokesman Sitanshu Kar said the moves were a precaution and not based on concrete intelligence.

Early Thursday, media reports said airports were put on high alert following intelligence warnings that terrorists were planning attacks on an airport in coming days.

The Press Trust of India news agency, quoting unidentified sources, said "specific" information regarding planned attacks had been received. Further details were not immediately available.

After a 2001 militant attack on India's parliament, also blamed on elements in Pakistan, the two neighbors posted nearly 1 million soldiers along their border in a yearlong standoff. The two nations have fought three wars since independence from Britain in 1947, but neither government wants a fourth. Both now have nuclear weapons.

India has called on Pakistan to turn over 20 people who are "fugitives of Indian law" and wanted for questioning, but Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said the suspects would be tried in Pakistan if there is evidence of wrongdoing.

Much of the evidence that Pakistanis were behind the attack comes from the interrogation of the surviving gunman, who told police that he and the other nine attackers had trained for months in camps in Pakistan operated by the banned militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Ajmal Amir Kasab, 21, told investigators his recruiters promised to pay his family from an impoverished village Pakistan's Punjab region $1,250 when he became a martyr.

Kasab said he and the other gunmen were "hand-picked" for the mission and trained for more than a year by Lashkar-e-Taiba, based in Kashmir, according to two senior officials involved in the investigation. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to media about the investigation.

Associated Press writers Erika Kinetz and Ravi Nessman in Mumbai and Ashok Sharma, Jeremiah Marquez and Anne Gearan in New Delhi contributed to this report.

Lil Wayne leads Grammy noms with 8, Coldplay 7

Lil Wayne leads Grammy noms with 8, Coldplay 7

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Lil Wayne — the most prolific, ubiquitous and successful performer on today's music scene — was the most rewarded by the Recording Academy on Wednesday, receiving eight Grammy nominations including album of the year for "Tha Carter III."

Following close behind with seven was Coldplay, whose "Viva La Vida" is one of the year's best-selling CDs. It was in album of the year contention, along with Radiohead's groundbreaking "In Rainbows"; singer-songwriter Ne-Yo's "Year of the Gentleman"; and Robert Plant's collaboration with Alison Krauss, "Raising Sand."

Nominations were announced in a brand-new format this year, with an hourlong live prime-time CBS concert special that featured a brisk procession of performers and LL Cool J and Taylor Swift as hosts.

Coldplay and Plant & Krauss were also nominated in the coveted record of the year category for the respective songs "Viva La Vida" and "Please Read the Letter." Other record of the year nominees were British songstress Leona Lewis for "Bleeding Love"; another British newcomer, Adele, for chasing pavement; and M.I.A. for her breakthrough hit, "Paper Planes."

Some surprising omissions: Katy Perry, who had one of the year's biggest hits with "I Kissed a Girl," was shut out of the top categories, including record of the year and best new artist. Metallica got three nominations, but their huge comeback record "Death Magnetic" didn't get a nod for album of the year despite being one of the year's top sellers.

Shut out was Swift, last year's best new artist nominee. She has had a sensational year thanks to the continued success of her 2006 self-titled debut album and her latest top-selling CD, "Fearless." While neither were eligible for consideration, her recent singles were.

While Lil Wayne's "Tha Carter III" was not regarded by critics as his greatest CD, it was the album that made the highly regarded veteran a pop superstar, thanks to massive hits like "Lollipop" and "A Milli." The CD was the only record this year to sell 1 million copies in its first week.

Coldplay's "Viva La Vida" was its first album in three years, and was also a huge hit.

Radiohead's "In Rainbows" didn't break sales records, but it was as revolutionary as it was critically acclaimed. First released last fall in a pay-as-you wish format on the band's Web site, "In Rainbows" was an instant viral sensation, and shook up an industry struggling with its traditional business model (although Radiohead later released the album traditionally via a record label).

Plant linked up with Grammy darling and bluegrass artist Krauss for a CD that pushed both in different musical directions, while Ne-Yo, who has produced several smashes for other artists, had success with "Year of the Gentleman."

"When I was putting it together, I was trying to do something that everybody could get into, as opposed to just my pop and R&B core group," Ne-Yo, who got six nominations, said after the ceremony. "I was trying to do something that the world could enjoy and I think that the Grammy people paid attention to that."

Also nominated were The Jonas Brothers for the best new artist category. While they have already released two CDs, their latest, "A Little Bit Longer," was their biggest yet in their breakthrough year. The teen sensations join Duffy and Adele, both singers with a soul bent; singer-songwriter Jazmine Sullivan; and breakout country act Lady Antebellum.

Sullivan, who has drawn comparisons to Lauryn Hill with her hit "I Need You Bad," had a breakthrough night, with five nominations. Other multiple nominees included Jay-Z, Ne-Yo and Kanye West, who had six each; Krauss, who has numerous Grammy wins, got five nominations.

Another Grammy favorite, John Mayer, netted five as well.

The Recording Academy typically has announced nominations like most top awards shows, during a morning news conference. But in an era where awards shows are as commonplace as reality shows, even the top-tier events are finding it hard to stand out.

So they put on the prime-time event, which kicked off with past Grammy winner Mariah Carey singing a song from her classic Christmas album, decked out in a short red minidress to give some holiday cheer. Christina Aguilera sang "I Loves You Porgy," while the Foo Fighters rocked up Carly Simon's classic "You're So Vain."

Held at the Nokia Theatre, the show also celebrated the Saturday opening of the new Grammy Museum next door.

The Grammy Awards are scheduled for live broadcast on CBS on Feb 8. Last year's show drew 17.2 million viewers, making it one of the least-watched Grammys and continuing the trend of shrinking awards-show audiences.

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Thai airports reopening after PM ousted by court

Thai airports reopening after PM ousted by court

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) — Victorious anti-government protesters lifted their siege of Bangkok's two airports Wednesday while leaders of the ousted government named a caretaker prime minister to lead the politically chaotic kingdom.

The country's immediate crisis, which virtually severed Thailand's air links to the outside world for a week, appeared to be over and the People's Alliance for Democracy said it was ending six months of daily anti-government protests. But the alliance warned it would be on the streets again if a new government tried to return to its past policies.

A court decision Tuesday forced the country's prime minister from office and disbanded the three top ruling coalition parties. But they quickly were reconstituted under different guises and leaders met Wednesday and named the deputy prime minister as the country's caretaker leader.

A spokesman for the protest alliance, Parnthep Wonguapan, said protesters at Bangkok's international and domestic airports were ordered to "clean up and pack their belongings" before leaving the two sites.

The first commercial airliner to arrive in a week — a flight by the national airline Thai Airways from the resort island of Phuket — landed at Suvarnabhumi international airport at 2.15 p.m. (0715 GMT).

Thai Airways said its flights will also take off from Suvarnabhumi for Sydney, New Delhi, Tokyo, Frankfurt, Seoul and Copenhagen on Wednesday.

In what was billed as a hand-over ceremony, Vudhibhandhu Vichairatana, the chairman of the Airports of Thailand, hugged and shook hands with alliance leaders in front of a Buddhist shrine as protesters danced to folk music and trucks loaded with their gear rolled out of the airport.

"We want to clean up the airport before we leave. We want PAD (the alliance) to have a good image," said Bow Piyapat, a souvenir maker, as she wielded her mop around rows of check-in counters at Suvarnabhumi.

A stream of cars, trucks and buses transported the protesters out of the airport.

"See you later when the country needs us!" one of them shouted, as protesters waved and honked.

About 700 soldiers inspected the airport for bombs and weapons, and airport security officials set up a perimeter around the airport as they dismantled blockades and checkpoints set up by the alliance.

But the image of the alliance as well as Thailand in general has been battered, especially among some 300,000 travelers still stranded by last week's airport takeovers. The months of protests and political uncertainty is also hammering the economy and vital tourism industry.

At least six people have been killed and scores injured in clashes in recent months.

The protesters — who seek to eliminate the one-person, one-vote system — are also seeking to purge the nation of the influence of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. They accuse Thaksin of massive corruption and seeking to undermine the country's revered constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Thaksin was ousted by a September 2006 military coup, but the alliance alleges that governments voted into office since then have been proxies for the exiled Thaksin.

"The PAD will return if another (Thaksin) proxy government is formed or anyone tries to amend the constitution or the law to whitewash some politicians or to subdue the monarch's royal authority," one of the protest leaders, Sondhi Limthongkul, warned Tuesday night.

Earlier Tuesday, Somchai's People's Power Party, the Machima Thipatai party and the Chart Thai party were found guilty by the Constitutional Court of committing fraud in the December 2007 elections that brought the coalition to power.

The ruling banned Somchai, Thaksin's brother-in-law, and 59 executives of the three parties from politics for five years. Of the 59, 24 are lawmakers who will have to abandon their parliamentary seats.

A meeting Wednesday among the three ousted parties, which vowed to stick together in a coalition, endorsed Deputy Prime Minister Chaowarat Chandeerakul as the caretaker prime minister.

Members of the three parties, who were not banned from politics, are expected to form new parties that will form an alliance with three smaller parties of the outgoing coalition. The coalition will then have to pick a full-time prime minister and get parliament's endorsement within 30 days.

The anti-government alliance claims Thailand's rural majority — who gave landslide election victories to the Thaksin camp — is too poorly educated to responsibly choose their representatives and says they are susceptible to vote buying.

It wants the country to abandon the system of one-person, one-vote, and instead have a mixed system in which most representatives are chosen by profession and social group.

Chaturon Chaisaeng, a former Thaksin Cabinet member, suggested there could be civil war if the protest alliance presses for a non-elected government.

Associated Press reporters Mike Casey and Mick Elmore contributed to this report.


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