Saturday, February 11, 2012


Gunmen assassinate Syrian army general in Damascus

BEIRUT (AP) -- Gunmen assassinated an army general in Damascus Saturday in the first killing of a high ranking military officer in the Syrian capital since the uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime began in March, the country's state-run news agency said.

The attack could be a sign that armed members of the opposition, who have carried out attacks on the military elsewhere in the country, are trying to step up action in the tightly controlled capital, which has been relatively quiet compared to other cities.

SANA news agency reported that three gunmen opened fire at Brig. Gen. Issa al-Khouli Saturday morning as he left his home in the Damascus neighborhood of Rukn-Eddine. Al-Khouli was a doctor and the chief of a military hospital in the capital.

Capt. Ammar al-Wawi of the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group that wants to bring down the regime by force, denied involvement in the assassination, which came a day after two suicide car bombers struck security compounds in Aleppo.

Such assassinations are not uncommon outside Damascus and army officers have been killed in the past, mostly in the restive provinces of Homs and Idlib.


Greek prime minister defends bailout deal, painful cuts on eve of crucial parliamentary vote

ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- Warning of a "catastrophe" that would leave Greeks subsisting on food stamps and the country wallowing in bankruptcy, Greek leaders urged lawmakers Saturday to pass more painful spending cuts on the eve of a crucial vote to qualify for a massive bailout.

In a televised address Saturday, Prime Minister Lucas Papademos defended the thousands of job cuts, drop in the minimum wage and other austerity measures that would earn the country a €130 billion ($171.6 billion) bailout deal and stave off bankruptcy.

"The deal will ensure our country's future inside the euro. ... A bankruptcy would lead to uncontrollable economic chaos and social explosion," Papademos said. He added that a bankruptcy would lead to Greeks losing their savings; the state being unable to pay salaries and pensions; and shortages in import items such as medicines, fuel and machinery.

He and the leaders of parties backing Greece's coalition government -- socialist George Papandreou and conservative Antonis Samaras -- as well as Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos, a socialist -- used stark images of a country under bankruptcy to convince the public and, more importantly, persuade Parliament members debating the measures to vote for the deal.

"If we do not dare today, we will live a catastrophe," Papandreou said during a parliamentary debate session.


Mitt Romney wins conservatives' straw poll, edging out Santorum, Gingrich

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Mitt Romney has won The Washington Times/CPAC Presidential Straw Poll of conservative activists.

The former Massachusetts governor is favored as the Republican presidential nominee by 38 percent of the 3,408 respondents. Rivals Rick Santorum drew 31 percent, and Newt Gingrich was favored by 15 percent. All three candidates addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington on Friday.

Romney had encouraged students to attend the convention, and 44 percent of them participated in the poll.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul had 12 percent. He won the straw poll in the previous two years. Paul did not attend the conference to campaign in Maine.

GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio said the poll was held online for the first time this year and produced the second highest turnout in the conference's history.


White House failed to foresee backlash on birth control as it became big political nightmare

WASHINGTON (AP) -- It's not like he wasn't warned.

As President Barack Obama considered a decision on birth control that would turn into an unexpected political nightmare, he heard it from inside and outside his White House: He risked a fierce backlash if he required religious employers to provide insurance coverage for contraception in violation of their beliefs.

Over the course of months, Catholic groups and officials spoke with White House aides, sent letters and wrote opinion columns. Vice President Joe Biden and Obama's then-chief of staff, Bill Daley, both Catholics, and other top administration officials spoke of the need to be aware of the consequences, given how Catholic groups would view the decision and how it would affect them.

But the president was hearing from the other side, too. Women's health advocates and their allies inside the White House were adamant about the importance of making free contraception available to all women; to them, it was a matter of health and fairness. Democratic senators and senior advisers joined in.

In the end, that's where Obama came down.


Remains found in Northern Calif. preliminarily ID'd as victim of 'Speed Freak Killers'

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Human remains uncovered in Northern California with the help of a convicted serial killer have been preliminarily identified as one of his victims, and authorities continued to search another site for the remains of as many as 10 people.

Dental records identified the remains found Thursday in Calaveras County as those of Cyndi Vanderheiden, 25, San Joaquin sheriff's spokesman Les Garcia said Saturday.

Authorities were still awaiting the results of a DNA analysis to confirm the identification, Garcia said.

Cyndi Vanderheiden's father, John Vanderheiden, said he is waiting the DNA results but he is almost sure the remains are those of his daughter.

"There will be closure after that," he said.


A gallery of faces offers a closeup of Russian humanity on parade at anti-Putin rally

MOSCOW (AP) -- The faces of the Russian protesters who braved brutal cold to express their discontent were as varied as the vast country itself: youthful and aged, unshaven and elegantly made up, self-confident and shy.

Wearing the white ribbons that have become a symbol of the peaceful pro-democracy protest movement, tens of thousands of people turned out in Moscow on Feb. 4 for the third big demonstration against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

As the protesters marched to Bolotnaya Square, just across a frozen river from the Kremlin, thousands of police kept order but did not intervene.

The Kremlin hoped that temperatures of minus 20 C (minus 4 F) would keep many people at home, but they came in furs and sheepskins, or ready for Alpine ski slopes. Their rosy faces were framed by bulky hoods, elegant fur hats or hats with goofy ear flaps.

For all their variety, the protesters had one thing in common: excitement over the new political energy that has taken Russia by surprise.


Obama budget: Focus on jobs, public works spending while relying on recycled tax increases

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The White House is focusing on re-election themes such as jobs and public works projects in President Barack Obama's new budget blueprint while relying on familiar but never enacted tax increases on the wealthy and corporations to reduce future deficits after four years of trillion dollar-plus shortfalls.

Obama's 2013 budget, set for release Monday, is the official start to an election-year budget battle with Republicans. It's unlikely to result in a genuine effort to address the $15 trillion national debt or the entrenched deficits that keep piling on to it. But it will serve as the Democrats' party-defining template on this year's election stakes.

The president's plan is laden with stimulus-style initiatives: sharp increases for highway construction and school modernization, and a new tax credit for businesses that add jobs. But it avoids sacrifice with only minimal curbs on the unsustainable growth of Medicare even as it proposes a 10-year, $61 billion "financial crisis responsibility fee" on big banks to recoup the 2008 Wall Street bailout.

This budget plan, administration officials say, borrows heavily from Obama's recommendations in September to a congressional deficit "supercommittee" that was assigned to come up with at least $1.2 trillion in deficit savings as part of last summer's default-avoiding budget and debt pact. The panel deadlocked and left Washington to struggle with bruising across-the-board spending cuts that kick in next January.

Even before the budget comes out, House-Senate negotiators were working over the weekend on proposals to pay for renewing jobless benefits and Obama's 2 percentage point cut in the Social Security payroll tax due to expire Feb. 29.


Family, teachers, community in Tacoma, Wash., remember Powell boys killed in fire set by dad

TACOMA, Wash. (AP) -- More than a thousand people mourned the deaths of Charlie and Braden Powell at a public funeral Saturday, nearly a week after the young boys' father killed them and himself in a gas-fueled blaze.

"We want to celebrate their innocence today," said the Rev. Dean Curry, lead pastor of Life Center Church in Tacoma. "We want to be grateful for the moments we had with these children."

The boys' grandfather Chuck Cox thanked police, social workers, teachers and everyone who cared for Charlie, 7, and Braden, 5, as well as people who had prayed for the boys after they died.

It "helps us to know that there are good people in the world -- good people who fight against evil," Cox said.

At the front of the church's sanctuary, the boys were in a single casket topped with a large flower arrangement that included daisies, roses and sunflowers.


First lady Michelle Obama shows off another dance move at Disney World -- the platypus walk

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) -- Add another dance move to Michelle Obama's repertoire. This one has to do with a certain celebrity platypus.

The first lady gave "the platypus walk" a try on Saturday during a visit to Disney World's ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.

The dance was inspired by Disney's "Phineas and Ferb" show, whose characters include Perry the Platypus.

It required some flapping of flippers, or arms if you're human, shuffling left and right and yanking limbs up and down, all to a pulsing rock beat.

Mrs. Obama did the dance at an event marking the second anniversary of her "Let's Move" campaign against childhood obesity.


In an incredible week, Knicks PG Jeremy Lin proves he's a good player, as well as a good story

NEW YORK (AP) -- Jeremy Lin came with an intriguing story even before he escaped the New York Knicks' bench.

First American-born NBA player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent.

Harvard graduate.

Nomad who crashed on a teammate's couch when his brother's place wasn't available.

In just one week, Lin's proven he's so much more.