Thursday, December 20, 2012

Iraq finance minister says staff members kidnapped


Iraq finance minister says staff members kidnapped
BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq's finance minister on Thursday accused a "militia force" of kidnapping members of his staff and said he holds the prime minister personally responsible for their safety.
Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi leveled the charges just hours after Iraq's ailing president was flown to Germany for medical treatment following a stroke. The 79-year-old president, Jalal Talabani, is widely seen as a unifying figure who is able to rise above Iraq's often bitter politics and mediate among the country's ethnic and sectarian groups.
Al-Issawi made the accusations in a late night press conference, where he called on parliament to hold a vote of no confidence against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government.
The move is certain to inflame Iraq's simmering political tensions, which have been heightened since an arrest warrant was issued against one of al-Issawi's political allies a year ago. Political rhetoric is heating up ahead of provincial elections scheduled for April.
Al-Issawi is a member of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, al-Maliki's main political rival. He was flanked during the televised address by senior members of the bloc, including the parliament speaker, Osama al-Nujaifi, and Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, who last year branded al-Maliki a dictator in a TV interview.
Al-Issawi blasted al-Maliki's government as one "that does not respect its institutions and sovereignty and that cannot live without crisis."
While he emphasized that he believes the detentions were carried out by militia members rather than state security forces, he suggested that the prime minister had knowledge of the move against his staff.
"Does al-Maliki want me to believe he had no idea about this? This was a deliberate and pre-mediated act," he charged.
A senior government security official said interior ministry forces carried out arrests of al-Issawi's bodyguards Thursday as part of a counterterrorism investigation, and that some of them have already been released. The official agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release details of the operation to reporters.
Repeated attempts to reach al-Maliki's spokesman for comment were unsuccessful.
A year ago, bodyguards assigned to another senior member of Iraqiya, Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, were arrested. Shortly afterwards, an arrest warrant was issued against al-Hashemi himself accusing him of orchestrating death squads — a charge he dismisses as politically motivated.
Al-Hashemi initially stayed at a guest house belonging to Talabani, but later fled the country and is now living in neighboring Turkey. Iraqi courts have since found him guilty in absentia and handed down multiple death sentences against him.
Earlier Thursday, Iraq's stricken president was flown to Germany for further medical treatment following a stroke.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told The Associated Press that doctors have determined the president had a "very serious stroke," but that he is showing signs of improvement.
"He is starting to regain his senses. He is able to feel pain, and this is a sign of progress," Zebari said.
Talabani's spokesman, Nasser al-Ani, said the president is able to move some of his limbs and communicate with simple signals, but is unable to speak.
The decision to move Talabani to Germany was made after his condition was stabilized and he began to show signs of improvement, according to Iraqi officials.
Vice President Khudier al-Khuzaie, an Arab Shiite, will temporarily assume Talabani's duties during his absence, Zebari said.
Iraq's parliament has the authority to choose a new president should Talabani's office become vacant. The Kurds would likely insist on retaining the presidency to maintain the government's power-sharing balance.
Berlin's Charite hospital, the German capital's largest, confirmed Thursday that Talabani had been admitted to its Virchow Clinic but wouldn't give any details on his condition nor what he was being treated for, citing patient confidentiality.
In a statement on its official website, Talabani's office said the treatment he underwent in Baghdad "provided the right conditions for the transfer of (Talabani) out of the country for follow-up treatment in Germany." It gave no further details on his condition.
The presidency of Iraq is largely a ceremonial role. Al-Maliki is the head of government.
Talabani is overweight and has undergone several medical procedures in recent years, including heart surgery in 2008 and knee replacement surgery this year. He has previously received treatment in Germany.
Before he fell ill, Talabani was actively involved in trying to mediate in a crisis between Baghdad and the Kurds, who have their own fighters and considerable autonomy in their enclave in northern Iraq. The two sides last month moved additional troops into disputed areas along the Kurds' self-rule region, prompting fears that fighting could break out.
Last week, Talabani brokered a deal that calls on both sides to eventually withdraw troops from the contested areas, though there was no timetable for how soon the drawdown might take place.
___
Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin, Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad, and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.
Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at http://twitter.com/adamschreck

Putin: Russia recognizes need for change in Syria


Putin: Russia recognizes need for change in Syria
MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin distanced himself further than ever before from his longtime ally in Syria on Thursday, saying he understands Syria needs change and that he is not protecting its president.
Putin, however, warned that efforts to unseat Bashar Assad could plunge Syria even deeper into violence. He insisted that Russia has not changed its stance and believes that only a negotiated settlement can end the civil war.
Putin's assessment came a week after Russia's top envoy for Syria was quoted as saying Assad's forces were losing control of the country. Although the Foreign Ministry backpedaled on that statement, analysts have suggested for months that the Kremlin is resigned to Assad's fall.
Russia has blocked international attempts to step up pressure on the Assad regime, leading to accusations that it is supporting Assad.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has long stated that Russia is not propping up Assad, as did Putin in strong words on Thursday.
"We are not preoccupied that much with the fate of the Assad regime; we realize what's going on there and that the family has been in power for 40 years," Putin said during his annual hours-long news conference. "Undoubtedly, there is a call for changes."
"We are worried about another thing: what happens next," he said. "We don't want to see the opposition come to power and start fighting the government that becomes the opposition, so that it goes on forever."
Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of the Russia in Global Affairs journal, said Moscow's stance has been consistent and Putin's statements do not signal a change.
"Russia has always said it did not support Assad personally, that it wanted a political dialogue" between Assad's government and the opposition, Lukyanov said.
Putin said Russia's position "is not to keep Assad and his regime in power at any cost, but to allow the people to come to an agreement on how they will live further and how they will ensure their safety and their participation in governing the country and then start changing the current order based on those agreements."
Only a negotiated settlement, he said, would "prevent a breakup of the country and an endless civil war."
"Agreements based on a military victory cannot be effective," Putin said.
Mansur Mirovalev contributed reporting.

Iraq finance minister says staff members kidnapped


Iraq finance minister says staff members kidnapped
BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq's finance minister on Thursday accused a "militia force" of kidnapping members of his staff and said he holds the prime minister personally responsible for their safety.
Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi leveled the charges just hours after Iraq's ailing president was flown to Germany for medical treatment following a stroke. The 79-year-old president, Jalal Talabani, is widely seen as a unifying figure who is able to rise above Iraq's often bitter politics and mediate among the country's ethnic and sectarian groups.
Al-Issawi made the accusations in a late night press conference, where he called on parliament to hold a vote of no confidence against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government.
The move is certain to inflame Iraq's simmering political tensions, which have been heightened since an arrest warrant was issued against one of al-Issawi's political allies a year ago. Political rhetoric is heating up ahead of provincial elections scheduled for April.
Al-Issawi is a member of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, al-Maliki's main political rival. He was flanked during the televised address by senior members of the bloc, including the parliament speaker, Osama al-Nujaifi, and Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, who last year branded al-Maliki a dictator in a TV interview.
Al-Issawi blasted al-Maliki's government as one "that does not respect its institutions and sovereignty and that cannot live without crisis."
While he emphasized that he believes the detentions were carried out by militia members rather than state security forces, he suggested that the prime minister had knowledge of the move against his staff.
"Does al-Maliki want me to believe he had no idea about this? This was a deliberate and pre-mediated act," he charged.
A senior government security official said interior ministry forces carried out arrests of al-Issawi's bodyguards Thursday as part of a counterterrorism investigation, and that some of them have already been released. The official agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release details of the operation to reporters.
Repeated attempts to reach al-Maliki's spokesman for comment were unsuccessful.
A year ago, bodyguards assigned to another senior member of Iraqiya, Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, were arrested. Shortly afterwards, an arrest warrant was issued against al-Hashemi himself accusing him of orchestrating death squads — a charge he dismisses as politically motivated.
Al-Hashemi initially stayed at a guest house belonging to Talabani, but later fled the country and is now living in neighboring Turkey. Iraqi courts have since found him guilty in absentia and handed down multiple death sentences against him.
Earlier Thursday, Iraq's stricken president was flown to Germany for further medical treatment following a stroke.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told The Associated Press that doctors have determined the president had a "very serious stroke," but that he is showing signs of improvement.
"He is starting to regain his senses. He is able to feel pain, and this is a sign of progress," Zebari said.
Talabani's spokesman, Nasser al-Ani, said the president is able to move some of his limbs and communicate with simple signals, but is unable to speak.
The decision to move Talabani to Germany was made after his condition was stabilized and he began to show signs of improvement, according to Iraqi officials.
Vice President Khudier al-Khuzaie, an Arab Shiite, will temporarily assume Talabani's duties during his absence, Zebari said.
Iraq's parliament has the authority to choose a new president should Talabani's office become vacant. The Kurds would likely insist on retaining the presidency to maintain the government's power-sharing balance.
Berlin's Charite hospital, the German capital's largest, confirmed Thursday that Talabani had been admitted to its Virchow Clinic but wouldn't give any details on his condition nor what he was being treated for, citing patient confidentiality.
In a statement on its official website, Talabani's office said the treatment he underwent in Baghdad "provided the right conditions for the transfer of (Talabani) out of the country for follow-up treatment in Germany." It gave no further details on his condition.
The presidency of Iraq is largely a ceremonial role. Al-Maliki is the head of government.
Talabani is overweight and has undergone several medical procedures in recent years, including heart surgery in 2008 and knee replacement surgery this year. He has previously received treatment in Germany.
Before he fell ill, Talabani was actively involved in trying to mediate in a crisis between Baghdad and the Kurds, who have their own fighters and considerable autonomy in their enclave in northern Iraq. The two sides last month moved additional troops into disputed areas along the Kurds' self-rule region, prompting fears that fighting could break out.
Last week, Talabani brokered a deal that calls on both sides to eventually withdraw troops from the contested areas, though there was no timetable for how soon the drawdown might take place.
___
Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin, Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad, and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.
Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at http://twitter.com/adamschreck

For the New York Stock Exchange, a sell order

For the New York Stock Exchange, a sell order
NEW YORK (AP) — The Big Board just isn't so big anymore.
In a deal that highlights the dwindling stature of what was once a centerpiece of capitalism, the New York Stock Exchange is being sold to a little-known rival for $8 billion — $3 billion less than it would have fetched in a proposed takeover just last year.
The buyer is IntercontinentalExchange, a 12-year-old exchange headquartered in Atlanta that deals in investing contracts known as futures.
Intercontinental Exchange, known as ICE, said Thursday that little would change for the trading floor at the corner of Wall and Broad streets, in Manhattan's financial district.
But the clout of the two-centuries-old NYSE has gradually been eroded over decades by the relentless advance of technology and regulatory changes. Its importance today is mostly symbolic.
The NYSE dates to 1792, when 24 brokers and merchants traded stocks under a buttonwood tree on Wall Street. But today most trading doesn't require face-to-face meeting at all. It's done on computers that match thousands of orders a second.
Three decades ago, the floor of the New York exchange was full of bustling traders. Today, one of its largest booths belongs to the cable news channel CNBC, which broadcasts there for most of the business day.
The introduction of negotiated, rather than fixed, commissions for securities transactions, in May 1975, marked the start of a gradual decline in brokerage fees for traditional stock trading.
It also gave rise to so-called discount brokerages, like Charles Schwab, that offered to trade for customers at lower rates.
"The cash equities business in America has effectively been obliterated," said Thomas Caldwell, chairman of Caldwell Securities in Toronto and a shareholder in the New York exchange's parent company, NYSE Euronext.
He said that the jewel of the deal is not the New York exchange but Liffe, a futures exchange founded in London, further underlining the growing importance of the futures markets.
While brokerage fees have declined, futures exchanges have retained profit margins, said James Angel, an associate professor in finance and an expert on stock exchanges at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business.
Futures contracts are written by exchanges and must be bought and sold in the same place — as opposed to stocks, which can be bought and sold on any exchange, Angel said. That gives futures exchanges more pricing power.
Stock trading is a "dog-eat-dog business where the profit margin per share is measured not in pennies, not in tenths of pennies, but in hundredths of pennies," said Angel, who also sits on the board of Direct Edge, a smaller stock exchange.
NYSE Euronext was formed in a 2007 merger when NYSE Group, parent company of the exchange, got together with Euronext, which owned stock exchanges in Europe.
It has been looking for a partner. Last year, ICE and Nasdaq OMX Group Inc., which competes with the NYSE for stock listings, made an $11 billion bid to buy NYSE Euronext. But that deal fell apart after regulators raised antitrust concerns.
Deutsche Boerse AG, a German company, made a bid for NYSE Euronext, but that was scuttled by European regulators.
ICE was established in May 2000. Its founding shareholders represented some of the world's largest energy companies and financial institutions, according to the company's most recent annual report.
Its stated mission was to transform the energy futures market by providing more transparency. The company has expanded through acquisitions during the last decade and went public — on the NYSE — in November 2005.
Analysts forecast that ICE's revenue will reach $1.4 billion this year, more than double the $574 million it reported in 2007.
"We believe the combined company will be better positioned to compete and serve customers across a broad range of asset classes by uniting our global brands, expertise and infrastructure," said ICE Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Sprecher.
Sprecher will keep his positions. Four members of the NYSE board will be added to ICE's board, expanding it to 15 members.
For each share of NYSE Euronext stock that they own, shareholders can choose either $33.12 in cash, roughly a quarter-share of ICE, or a combination of $11.27 in cash and roughly one-sixth of a share of ICE.
NYSE's stock jumped $8.20, or 34 percent, to $32.25 in heavy trading shortly after the market opened. ICE's stock closed up $1.79, or 1.4 percent, at $130.1 after falling at the open of trading.
ICE plans to pay for the cash part of the acquisition with a combination of cash and existing debt. It added that the deal will help it cut costs and should increase its earnings more than 15 percent in the first year after the deal closes.
The deal has been approved by the boards of both companies, but still needs the approvals by regulators and shareholders of both companies. It's expected to close in the second half of next year.
Caldwell, of Caldwell Securities, said that this combination of companies and the pressure of ever-declining fees will likely lead to further mergers in the exchange business.
"The whole theme in the exchange space is consolidation into bigger entities," he said. "They have to get their costs down because they are getting squeezed to nothing."
Peter Costa, President of Empire Executions Inc., a boutique trading firm on the floor of the NYSE, and a governor with the New York Stock Exchange, said that both companies knew the value of the NYSE brand and would try to preserve it.
"The trading floor, while iconic, may seem to be an anachronism in this high-speed world of electronic this and electronic that, but it still survives because the customers that use the trading floor still see the added value of having some human intervention," Costa said in an email.
Costa, also an NYSE stockholder, said while that the premium that ICE was paying was not as high as he would have liked, it was "still fairly generous."

Former Marine guards California school


Former Marine guards California school
HUGHSON, Calif. (AP) — A former Marine applauded for voluntarily guarding a central California elementary school apparently misrepresented his service history, U.S. Marine Corps officials said Thursday.
Craig Pusley showed up for a second day of guard duty Thursday at Hughson Elementary School, this time in civilian clothes after wearing military fatigues the day before. He was gone by midmorning, after Unified School District Superintendent Brian Beck discovered discrepancies about Pusley's military service and asked him to leave.
A day earlier, Pusley, 25, told The Modesto Bee he was a sergeant in the Marine Reserve and had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Pusley said he was unemployed and using his reservist pay to support his wife and 3-year-old child.
Capt. Gregory A. Wolf, a Marines spokesman, told The Associated Press on Thursday that Pusley never served overseas and was discharged in 2008 as a private after serving less than a year at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. He also is not a reservist.
Laura Fong, the principal at Hughson Elementary School, wouldn't comment on the controversy Thursday because she said she didn't know all the facts. But she said it was a "very heartwarming thing" when the former Marine showed up Wednesday, and his presence made her and the staff feel safer.
Before the controversy, parents in the small agricultural community 100 miles southeast of San Francisco thanked Pusley for guarding their children and bought him cups of coffee.
"In the beginning, I thought it was a good idea, because as a parent I was concerned about safety with everything going on," Amber Navarro, 26, said while picking up her first-grader at the school. "He seemed like a really nice guy."
Pusley, who did not respond to calls for comment from the AP, told the Bee he had responded to a call on Facebook for veterans to help protect schools in the wake of the mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school. A Facebook group called Veterans on Watch, created this month, is circulating a White House petition that calls for the employment of competent veterans as armed security guards in America's schools, and 2,239 people have signed it so far.
"It would act as a deterrent to have a well-trained first responder on hand to neutralize the situation as soon as possible," said Chad Walker, a former combat medic in the Army and one of the group's founders.
WSMV-TV in Nashville, Tenn., reported that another former Marine, Staff Sgt. Jordan Pritchard, stood guard in front of Gower Elementary in Nashville on Wednesday. Pritchard, who has two children at the school, said he wanted to provide extra security to students and teachers.
Wolf, the Marines spokesman, said the Marine Corps contacted Pritchard, requesting that he stop wearing his uniform outside the school. At no point was the former Marine asked to stop standing in protection of his son's school, Wolf said.
Former Marines are prohibited from wearing their uniform in public, except for military funerals, memorial services, weddings, inaugurals, and parades on national or state holidays.
According to the Official Military Personnel File, Pritchard served from 2003 to 2011 as a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense specialist. He was a staff sergeant and served in Afghanistan.
Marine Corps officials declined to say whether Pusley would face any legal repercussions for lying about his deployment history. However, it's unlikely he will since his fabrication was related to an act of generosity.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a law aimed at people making phony claims of heroism on the grounds that it violated First Amendment free speech rights.
Wozniacka reported from Fresno, Calif.

Newtown first responders carry heavy burdens

Newtown first responders carry heavy burdens


NEWTOWN, Conn. (AP) — While the people of Newtown do their best to cope with loss and preserve the memories of their loved ones, another class of residents is also finding it difficult to move on: the emergency responders who saw firsthand the terrible aftermath of last week's school shooting.
Firefighter Peter Barresi was driving through Newtown on Friday when police cars with lights flashing and sirens blaring raced toward his oldest son's elementary school. After he was sent to Sandy Hook school himself, he saw things that will stay with him forever.
With anguished parents searching for their children, he prepared to receive the wounded, but a paramedic came back empty-handed, underscoring the totality of the massacre. Barresi, whose own son escaped unharmed, later discovered that among the 26 dead were children who played baseball with his son and had come to his house for birthday parties.
"For some of us, it's fairly difficult," said Barresi, of the Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire and Rescue Co. "Fortunately most of us did not go in."
Newtown and environs weathered a fourth day of funerals Thursday, six days after a 20-year-old gunman killed his mother at home, 20 children and six adults at the school and himself for reasons still unknown. Mourners laid to rest Catherine Hubbard, Benjamin Wheeler, Jesse Lewis and Allison Wyatt, all 6 years old; and Grace McDonnell, 7.
A service was held in Katonah, N.Y., for teacher Anne Marie Murphy, 52, who authorities believe helped shield some of her students from the rain of bullets. Roman Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan compared her to Jesus.
"Like Jesus, Annie laid down her life for her friends," Dolan said. "Like Jesus, Annie's life and death brings light, truth, goodness and love to a world often shrouded in darkness, evil, selfishness and death."
A bell tolled Thursday at Newtown's St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church at the funeral for Catherine, who her family said would be remembered for her passion for animals and her constant smile.
Trinity Episcopal church on Main Street was filled to capacity for the funeral for Benjamin, described as a budding musician and Beatles fan. His service included a rendition of "Here Comes The Sun." About two dozen Boy Scout leaders lined the front pathway to the church in honor of the former Cub Scout.
In downtown Danbury, mourners filed into the ornate white-pillared First Congregational Church for a memorial service for 30-year-old teacher Lauren Rousseau. Friends wept at the altar as they remembered the spirited, hardworking, sunny-natured woman who brightened their lives with silliness and gave them all nicknames.
The gunman's mother, Nancy Lanza, also was laid to rest Thursday, in a private ceremony at an undisclosed location in tiny Kingston, N.H., where she used to live. About 25 family members attended, the town's police chief said.
Gov. Dannel Malloy has asked people across Connecticut to observe a moment of silence at 9:30 a.m. Friday, which will mark a week since the shootings. Places of worship and buildings with bells have been asked to ring them 26 times, for the victims at the school. Officials and clergy in many other states have said they will also participate.
While family, friends and even strangers weep, members of the emergency forces that responded to the shooting, many of them volunteers, are wrestling with frustration, guilt and anguish as they receive counseling from a state intervention team to help them deal with the horrors they saw and heard.
Authorities say the victims were shot with a high-powered, military-style rifle loaded with ammunition designed to inflict maximum damage. All the victims had been shot at least twice, the medical examiner said, and as many as 11 times. Two victims were pronounced dead at a hospital, while all others died in the school.
Initially, only police were allowed to enter the building amid concerns about a second shooter. They are credited with helping to end the rampage by gunman Adam Lanza, who killed himself as officers stormed the building. But some responders struggle with not having been able to do more, questions over what could have been done differently and a feeling that they do not deserve praise.
Firefighter Marc Gold, who rushed to offer help even though his company was not called, said he is haunted by the trauma of the parents and the faces of the police who emerged from the building.
"I saw the faces of the most hardened paramilitary, SWAT team guys come out, breaking down, saying they've just never seen anything like this," said Gold, a member of the Hawleyville Volunteer Fire Department. "What's really scary to me is I'm really struggling, and I didn't see the carnage."
After escorting the last group of children from the school to safety, Gold also was positioned outside the school to help with the injured, but he never had the opportunity.
"Most of my emotions are guilt, guilt because we weren't able to do something, guilt for the accolades I'm getting," said Gold, a 50-year-old father of three. "It doesn't feel good when people say nice things to me. It feels good for a second, and then you feel guilty for feeling good."
Joel Faxon, a member of the Newtown Police Commission, said the trauma experienced by the officers should be treated no differently from physical injuries.
"The first Newtown police officers on the scene at the Sandy Hook Elementary School minutes after the assassin began his rampage witnessed unspeakable carnage," said Faxon, adding that the governor and state lawmakers should change laws if needed to ensure the officers receive due treatment and benefits. "We owe them at least this much for facing down such evil."
One aspect of the tragedy that may help these first responders recover is the outpouring of support from around the world, according to Charles Figley, director of the Traumatology Institute at Tulane University.
"This is an international event. All you have to do is say 'Sandy Hook first responder' and everyone nods their head in understanding," he said. "They don't have to do it in isolation."
The fact that responders were able to be of assistance will help ease their burdens, Figley said, but the involvement of so many young victims sets Newtown apart from other shootings. The Connecticut police union, AFSCME Council 15, said it has been offering counseling assistance to members across the state, and neighboring towns that sent officers have provided mandatory counseling for their Newtown responders.
"It would be ludicrous to say this wouldn't have some kind of permanent effect on anybody who dealt with it," said George Epstein, operations director for the Connecticut Critical Incident Stress Management Team, which deployed immediately after the shooting to aid the first responders and has been holding small group counseling sessions.
Barresi said the counseling has been helpful to him because it is led by other first responders who have been through similar experiences.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was visiting Newtown on Thursday to meet with first responders and law enforcement officials, a Department of Justice official said Thursday. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the trip hadn't been publicly announced.
With Newtown enduring a relentless string of children's funerals and nonstop media attention, Gold said it has been difficult to find the space to process everything, and he appreciated the support he found in the group counseling. He said he will never forget the events of that day, but he hopes the pain dulls with time.
"My heart is broken for these families beyond anything I can explain to you," he said.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers John Christoffersen and David Klepper in Newtown; Jim Fitzgerald in Katonah, N.Y.; and Frederic J. Frommer in Washington.

Hot rhetoric, tiny numbers separate Obama, Boehner

Hot rhetoric, tiny numbers separate Obama, Boehner



WASHINGTON (AP) — Despite all the hot fiscal cliff rhetoric, the differences between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner seem relatively narrow. So why haven't they shaken hands already? One answer: Both sides need to keep — or get — their own troops behind them.
In their cliff standoff, Obama wants to raise taxes by about $20 billion a year more than Boehner. The two men differ over spending cuts by roughly the same amount.
That's real money by most measures. Yet such numbers are barely noticeable compared to the $2.6 trillion the government is projected to collect next year, and to the $3.6 trillion it's expected to spend.
As the "cliff" approaches — economy-shaking tax increases and spending cuts that start hitting in early January unless lawmakers act first — each side says the other isn't being serious enough about trimming federal deficits. But their inability so far to strike a compromise underscores that their problem is more than arithmetic — it's also about the difficult politics that Democrat Obama and Republican Boehner face when it comes to lining up votes.
Chastened by Obama's re-election, Boehner has violated a quarter-century of Republican dogma by offering to raise taxes, including boosting income tax rates on earnings exceeding $1 million annually. Eager for a budget deal that would let him move on to other issues, Obama in turn would cut the growth of Social Security benefits, usually off-limits to Democrats. He also would impose tax increases on a broader swath of people than millionaires — those with incomes over $400,000. But that figure, too, is a retreat from what he campaigned on: the $200,000 income ceiling on individuals and $250,000 on couples.
That means both men have angered lawmakers and staunch supporters of their respective parties, just when the need to retain that support is crucial. Neither wants to risk his political capital by embracing a deal his own party rejects.
"When you walk into a room and represent a group and you have to give ground to get a deal, you have to stay in that room as long as you can and you have to walk out with blood on your brow," said Joseph Minarik, research director for the Committee for Economic Development and a veteran of grueling budget talks as a former Clinton White House and House Democratic aide. "Otherwise, the people outside the room don't believe you've fought hard for them."
With no quick resolution in sight, Boehner worked Thursday to push a backup bill through the House that would raise taxes on people earning at least $1 million but not on those making less. A separate bill would replace across-the-board cuts in defense and domestic programs with cuts in Obama's health care overhaul and other specified programs.
Economists say the tens of billions of dollars separating the president and speaker are relatively minuscule, especially when compared to the size of the U.S. economy, which exceeds $15 trillion a year.
"It's not vanishingly small, but it is minor," said Alan D. Viard, a tax scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "It certainly would be a disappointment if that minor of a gap would end up blocking an agreement."
Even though Obama's and Boehner's dollar differences are small, one hindrance to a deal could be the symbolic political consequence of retreating on their numbers, even just by a little.
For Boehner to add, say, another $100 billion to the tax increase over 10 years could well mean that people with incomes well below $1 million a year would get a tax increase, something he wants to limit.
On the other hand, adding $100 billion more in spending cuts could mean a deeper hit than Obama wants to Medicare. The president prefers to limit Medicare cuts to the reimbursements that doctors and other health care providers receive, but ever deeper cuts could mean more doctors would be likely to stop treating Medicare patients — an outcome Democrats don't want.
None of this means there aren't real budget differences between Democrats and Republicans.
Obama has proposed raising taxes by $1.2 trillion over the coming decade by boosting the current top 35 percent rate to 39.6 percent for income over $400,000, plus other increases on the highest earning Americans. He's also says he's offered about $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years, including slowing the growth of benefits from Social Security and other programs.
In addition, the president would pluck $400 billion in savings from Medicare and Medicaid, the health care programs for the elderly and poor whose defense Democrats consider precious priorities.
Boehner has offered about $1 trillion in tax increases and roughly the same amount in spending savings. An earlier Boehner offer included $600 billion in Medicare and Medicaid savings — well more than Obama — but it's unclear whether the speaker is still seeking that figure.
Because of a dispute over how some savings are classified, Boehner says Obama's offer is really $1.3 trillion in higher taxes and only about $850 billion in spending cuts.
The House speaker says Obama's offer is not balanced because its new taxes and spending cuts are unequal. And he complains it does too little to control fast-growing benefit programs like Medicare, a chief driver of the federal government's mushrooming deficits.
"The real issue here, as we all know, is spending," Boehner said Thursday. "You go through all these discussions, I don't think the White House has gotten serious about the big spending problem the country faces."
The two men's differences work out to $200 billion over 10 years in taxes, and about the same in spending, depending on whose numbers are used. Either way, their gap is less than 1 percent of the money the government will spend and tax anyway.
"They're a couple hundred billion apart. This is absolutely senseless," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., insisting Boehner should compromise. "These are gyrations I've never seen before."
There are other differences, too.
Obama wants several billion dollars in infrastructure spending to goose the economy and to extend expiring unemployment benefits. He also wants the government's authority to borrow money extended for two more years — until after the 2014 congressional elections — with Congress having little more than symbolic opportunities to block it, a year longer than Boehner has offered.
Even so, the numbers being proposed by Obama and Boehner are so close, and the political risks both men have taken on taxes and Social Security benefits are so stark, that many consider it almost unthinkable that they would not eventually complete a deal.
"Having come out of their trenches, they either have to shake hands or get shot, maybe by their own troops," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the nonpartisan Concord Coalition, an anti-deficit group.
Associated Press writer Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Snow may have slowed NKorea launch


Snow may have slowed NKorea launch
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — New satellite images indicate that snow may have slowed North Korea's rocket launch preparations, but that Pyongyang could still be ready for liftoff starting Monday.
South Korean media reports this week quoted unnamed officials in Seoul as saying North Korea had mounted all three stages of the Unha rocket on the launch pad by Wednesday. But snow may have prevented Pyongyang from finishing its work by then, according to GeoEye satellite images from Tuesday that were scrutinized by analysts for the websites 38 North and North Korea Tech and shared Friday with The Associated Press.
The analysis and images provide an unusually detailed public look at North Korea's cloaked preparations for a launch that the United Nations, Washington, Seoul and others say is a cover for a test of technology for a missile that could be used to target the United States.
The launch preparations have been magnified as an issue because of their timing: Both Japan and South Korea hold elections this month, and President Barack Obama will be inaugurated for his second term in office in January.
North Korea, for its part, says it has a right to pursue a peaceful space program and will launch a satellite into orbit sometime between Monday and Dec. 22. That launch window comes as North Korea marks the Dec. 17 death of leader Kim Jong Un's father, Kim Jong Il. North Korea is also celebrating the centennial of the birth of Kim Jong Un's grandfather, national founder Kim Il Sung.
Images from Dec. 1 showed no rocket at the launch pad, but by Tuesday North Koreans were seen working under a dark canvas, according to the analysis by 38 North, the website for the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and the North Korea Tech website, which collaborated with 38 North on the report.
The analysis contradicts South Korean media reports that the rocket stages were set up by Wednesday. Since the launch pad was empty Dec. 1, and it had taken North Korea four days to erect a similar rocket before a failed launch attempt in April, it should have taken longer for North Korea to prepare the rocket, the websites said.
Snowfall on Monday also may have temporarily stopped work at the site, according to the analysis written by Nick Hansen, a retired expert in imagery technology with more than 40 years of national intelligence experience.
North Korea has a long history of developing ballistic missiles, but in four attempts since 1998 it has not successfully completed the launch of a three-stage rocket. It has also conducted two nuclear tests, intensifying worry over how its rocket technology could be used in the future, particularly if it masters attaching a nuclear warhead to a missile.
A senior South Korean government official told foreign reporters in Seoul on Friday that North Korea has been making technical preparations for a nuclear test and could theoretically conduct one in a short period of time, but that it isn't clear when or if they will test. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing government rules.
Friday's analysis of the satellite images said North Korea can still be ready for liftoff Monday.
Based on its preparations for the April launch, which broke apart shortly after the rocket was fired, Pyongyang has to finish stacking its rocket stages only two to three days ahead of time — meaning workers could finish by Saturday and still be ready for a launch on Monday, the analysis said.
North Korea may have chosen a 12-day launch period, which is more than twice as long as the April period, because it was worried about possible weather complications, the analysis said.
"Pyongyang's rocket scientists can't be happy about the increased technical risks of a wintertime test, but certainly appear to have taken every precaution necessary in order to launch the rocket on time," said Joel Wit, a former U.S. State Department official and editor of 38 North.
A rocket can be launched during snowfall, but lightning, strong wind and freezing temperatures could stall a liftoff, said Lee Chang-jin, an aerospace professor at Seoul's Konkuk University.
North Korea's launch plan is meant to show the world its capability to build missiles, U.S. Pacific forces commander Adm. Samuel Locklear said Thursday. The United States has moved extra ships with ballistic missile defense capabilities toward the region, officials said.
Two South Korean destroyers will be deployed in the Yellow Sea in the coming days to track the North Korean rocket, defense officials in Seoul said Friday. They spoke on condition of anonymity because ministry rules bar them from releasing information about defense movements over the phone.
The U.S., Japan and South Korea say they'll seek U.N. Security Council action if the launch goes ahead in defiance of existing resolutions. The council condemned April's launch and ordered seizure of assets of three North Korean state companies linked to financing, exporting and procuring weapons and missile technology.
On Friday, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda visited a Tokyo military facility to inspect Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missile interceptors being readied to intercept a North Korean rocket if it falls on Japanese territory.
The commander of American troops in Japan, Lt. Gen. Salvatore Angelella, said this week that his troops are closely monitoring activity in North Korea as it prepares for the launch.
Associated Press writers Matthew Pennington in Washington and Sam Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.

Iran commander claims sanctions are helpful


Iran commander claims sanctions are helpful
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — A senior commander of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard claimed Friday that Western sanctions are helpful because they promote Iranian self-sufficiency and insisted the country's leaders should welcome the measures.
Oil and trade embargos have helped Iran reduce its reliance on the outside world, Gen. Mohammad Reza Naqdi told worshippers at Tehran University in a pre-sermon speech.
The remarks echoed the defiant mantra of Iranian conservatives who say the economy is strengthening and that Iran is developing more modern technologies — including building missiles, drones, satellites and advancing its uranium enrichment program — precisely because of the West's punitive measures.
Iran is under four sets of U.N. sanctions and stepped-up Western oil, banking and trade restrictions over its refusal to halt the enrichment — a program that can be a pathway to nuclear arms.
The U.S. and its allies accuse Iran of seeking to develop atomic weapons. Tehran denies the charge, insisting the country's nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
The sanctions have cut sharply into Iran's oil sales, which account for 80 percent of the country's foreign currency revenue. At the same time, Iran has been barred from the major international banking systems, which has helped push the national currency to record lows and forced merchants to resort to hand-carrying gold and cash from the nearby commercial hubs of Istanbul or Dubai.
In his speech, Naqdi said a man who runs 100 meters in 20 seconds can finish it in 7 seconds if a wolf is chasing him, and that was the case for Iran.
In response to the Western sanctions, the government has embraced what it calls "resistance economy" — promoting domestic products and stemming the outflow of dollars and other foreign currency.
And after the European Union enforced a total ban on oil imports from Iran in July, authorities countered by saying they would build new oil storage facilities so that Iran would be able to store its oil while it negotiates with foreign partners.
Iran has the world's third largest proven oil reserves and was OPEC's second largest exporter, but sanctions have stymied the flow since summer. Tehran slipped to the cartel's third place after the EU oil sanctions were enforced.
"What we could not achieve in about two decades was achieved in one and a half years," Naqdi said, citing gasoline production as an example. Iran had tried to be self-sufficient in gasoline production since 1991, but only said it achieved that level in 2010, two years after the first gasoline bans were imposed.
Iran is doing so well under the sanctions, Naqdi insisted, it should not seek to have them lifted.
"If I were in the place of authorities, I would not demand the lifting of the sanctions," he said. "I would instead tell our enemies to impose sanctions as much as they can, because we will discover our hidden capabilities."

Chavez back in Venezuela after Cuba treatment


Chavez back in Venezuela after Cuba treatment
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez arrived back home in Caracas early Friday after 10 days of medical treatment in Cuba.
State television showed images of Chavez arriving at Caracas' airport and walking down the steps of the presidential jet wearing a track suit. Chavez smiled and laughed heartily as he chatted with members of his Cabinet including Vice President Nicolas Maduro.
Chavez traveled to Cuba on the night of Nov. 27 after announcing plans to undergo hyperbaric oxygen treatment in Havana. The Venezuelan leader has spent much of the past 18 months fighting pelvic cancer; he said several months ago that he was cancer-free.
While in Cuba, he kept a low profile and did not speak on television. Chavez last appeared publicly during a televised meeting on Nov. 15 in Caracas, and his long absence had renewed speculation among some Venezuelans that his health might be taking a turn for the worse.
But Chavez appeared vigorous as he spoke on television upon his arrival before 3 a.m. He didn't refer to his health, and focused instead on his gladness at being back.
"I'm very happy, as you all can see, to be arriving here again," Chavez said. "Very happy."
Chavez noted that Thursday marked two months since his Oct. 7 re-election win. Addressing Maduro and recalling other election victories, Chavez said: "Look at how we've come, Nicolas, from victory to victory."
Chavez hasn't given details recently about the hyperbaric oxygen treatment, during which patients breathe pure oxygen while in a pressurized, sealed chamber. The treatment's value is well-established for treating burns and some other medical conditions, and to aid wound healing and help repair bone and tissue damaged by radiation treatments.
The 58-year-old president first underwent cancer surgery in Cuba in June 2011 and later underwent another surgery in February. He has also undergone chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and has since said that tests show he's recovered.
Throughout his treatments, Chavez has kept many details of his illness secret, including the type of cancer and the precise location of the tumors.
Chavez skipped a meeting in Brasilia on Friday with leaders of the South American trade bloc Mercosur. The Brazilian government said that Venezuelan Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez would instead be representing his government at the meeting.
Chavez said his departure from Cuba had been delayed by a conversation with Fidel Castro, with whom he had been discussing poetry.
The Venezuelan leader also referred to the country's upcoming state gubernatorial elections on Dec. 16, saying: "We're eight days away from the next victory."
Associated Press writers Marco Sibaja in Brasilia and Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas, and AP freelance video journalist Ricardo Nunes contributed to this report.

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