US House passes huge defense spending bill

WASHINGTON: US lawmakers passed a sweeping $606 billion defense bill that exceeds a budget cap and faces a veto threat from the White House for failing to sufficiently rein in spending.

The bill would provide $518 billion for the Pentagon and an additional $88.5 billion for overseas contingency operations, specifically the war in Afghanistan and counterterrorism efforts, for the fiscal year that begins October 1.

The 2013 Defense Department spending bill had originally come in at $519 billion, an increase of $1 billion over 2012 spending, but in a surprise move just before the final vote lawmakers approved an amendment bringing the spending into line with current figures.

It's still roughly $2 billion more than President Barack Obama requested, and about $8 billion above the cap set by last year's Budget Control Act.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed Thursday's bill by a vote of 326-90.

Democrats and Republicans are promising a major budget tussle this election year as the two sides square off over whether to raise taxes for wealthy Americans as well as slash federal spending in a bid to pare down the skyrocketing debt.

US lawmakers failed to reach a deal last year over how to reduce the long-term deficit by $1.2 trillion, and default spending cuts are scheduled to kick in next January that could see the defense budget slashed by an additional $50 billion in 2013.

House Appropriations Committee chairman Hal Rogers praised the bill, saying it "supports and takes care of our troops at the highest level possible, keeps America at the forefront of defense technologies, and boosts key training and readiness programs to prepare our troops for combat and peacetime missions."

"But in this environment of fiscal austerity, we must also recognize that even the Pentagon should not have carte blanche when it comes to discretionary spending," the Republican Rogers said, insisting that the bill makes "common-sense decisions" on spending cuts.

Some Democrats were keen on making even deeper cuts, but three of their proposals to slash some $23 billion from the bill were rejected.

"The bloated Pentagon budget must be addressed if we are serious about solving our nation's deficit," said congresswoman Barbara Lee, who authored several cost-saving amendments which were turned down.

But while Republicans have stood firm in their desire to see defense spending levels maintained, Lee had a partner in Republican Mick Mulvaney, who authored the measure which successfully cut the bill by $1 billion.

"Austerity to me means spending less," the Tea Party conservative said. "Total government spending will be up this year. We're still facing a $1 trillion deficit. We need to do better to get our spending under control."

The bill saw lawmakers express their disgust with Russia's stance on Syria, as they voted overwhelmingly for an amendment that ends the Pentagon's arms contract with a major Russian defense firm which provides weapons to the regime in Damascus.

House Democrat Jim Moran, who introduced the measure, lambasted the Pentagon for its contract with Rosoboronexport, which he said sells mortars, sniper rifles and attack helicopters to Syria.

The Pentagon has procured some 33 Mi-17 attack helicopters from the Russian firm and which are to be used by the Afghan military after US operations wind down in Afghanistan.

"I should think it's troubling to all of us that we are purchasing helicopters from a Russian firm that is directly complicit in the deaths of thousands of innocent Syrian men, women and children," Moran said.

The Senate will now craft its version of the defense bill, but its fate is unknown. The House has passed several spending measures but the Senate largely balks at them because they overshoot the spending agreement reached last year. (AFP)

US names Afghanistan major non-NATO ally

The move, which will allow Afghanistan special military and financial privileges, formally came in a memorandum from US President Barack Obama to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) signed between Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai in May allows the United States to keep a limited military presence in Afghanistan to train its troops and conduct anti-terror missions.

The designation as a major non-NATO ally will usher Afghanistan into an exclusive club of nations that enjoy privileged ties with the United States.

Such status allows members priority delivery of defense articles and the right to stockpile US military hardware.

Major non-NATO allies also benefit from US government loan guarantee programs which can back up loans issued by private banks to finance arms exports.

But major non-NATO allies do not benefit from security guarantees that are enjoyed by full members of the western alliance.

Obama vowed at the NATO summit in Chicago in May that Afghanistan would not be abandoned by the international community at the end of the foreign combat mission there in 2014.

NATO leaders have already endorsed plans to hand Afghan forces the lead for security across their country by mid-2013 while foreign troops will gradually switch their focus from combat to support mode.

NATO has a total of 130,000 soldiers helping the Karzai government fight an insurgency by hardline Taliban militants, and they are due to withdraw by the end of 2014 when the transition process is complete.

The Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) does not commit the United States to any specific military troop levels or funding and states that Washington does not seek permanent military bases in Afghanistan.

It also includes commitments on promoting democracy, good governance, advancing long-term security with the provision of foreign funds for the Afghan forces and states Washington will not use Afghan territory as a launching point for attacks on other countries.

Other major non-NATO allies of the United States include Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand.

Obama, Putin call for halt to Syria onslaught

The call by the rival powers was made as Russia reportedly prepared to send two warships with marines to its naval base in Syria where UN monitors have suspended their patrols because of escalating violence.

"In order to stop the bloodshed in Syria, we call for an immediate cessation of all violence," the two leaders said in a statement after meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico.

"We are united in the belief that the Syrian people should have the opportunity to independently and democratically choose their own future," the leaders said.

Putin told reporters that he and Obama had found "many common points" on the 15-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

Obama said he and Putin agreed on the need for a "political process" to halt the conflict and had pledged to work with UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan on the crisis.

But there was little sign they had agreed a way to end the conflict which monitors say has now cost more than 14,400 lives.

The United States has voiced frustration at Russia's blocking of UN Security Council moves against Assad. The head of the UN mission in Syria is to brief the Security Council on Tuesday on the deteriorating conflict.

The United States, Britain and France are working on a new UN Council resolution in which they want to threaten sanctions against Assad. But Russia, Syria's main international ally, and China have already blocked two resolutions which just hinted at measures.

A British marine insurer, meanwhile, said it had cancelled cover for a Russian ship, the MV Alaed, following reports it was carrying Mi-25 helicopter gunships destined for Syria.

"We have already informed the ship owner that their insurance cover ceased automatically in view of the nature of the voyage," Standard Club said.

The Daily Telegraph reported that the ship was stopped off the coast of Scotland.

Moscow news reports, meanwhile, said Russia is preparing to send two amphibious assault ships and marines to the Syrian port of Tartus where Russia has a naval base to ensure the safety of its nationals,

United Nations chief cites unacceptable violence in Syria

UNITED NATIONS: Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon blamed the Syrian government Friday for much of the ``unacceptable levels of violence and abuses'' occurring every day in violation of a U.N.-backed peace plan.

In a report to the U.N. Security Council obtained by the Associated Press, Ban cited the government's continuing use of heavy weapons, reports of shelling and ``a stepped-up security crackdown by the authorities that has led to massive violations of human rights by government forces and pro-government militias.''

Ban lamented that there has been only ``small progress'' on implementing the six-point plan brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan, who is scheduled to brief the Security Council on Wednesday. Ban called on the government to keep its pledge to immediately stop the violence, pull heavy weapons and troops out of populated areas, allow humanitarian workers to help needy civilians and end human rights abuses.

Ban also called on all elements of the opposition to stop the violence and respect human rights.

He said ``there have been an alarming number of explosions in population centers, including acts of terrorism,'' making it more imperative that all parties stop violence ``to re-establish law and order,'' thus limiting any space for outside groups to take advantage of the situation.

The secretary-general said 271 of the 300 unarmed U.N. military observers authorized by the Security Council to help end the 15-month conflict are on the ground, and their deployment in key cities ``appears to be having a calming effect.''

Nonetheless, he said, ``the overall level of violence in the country remains quite high'' with daily incidents causing a large number of deaths and injuries, though at a lower scale than immediately before April 12 when a cease-fire was supposed to take effect.

``While the international effort is making some impact on the ground, unacceptable levels of violence and abuses are continuing in violation of ... the six-point plan,'' Ban said.

Although the goal of Annan's plan is to persuade the government and opposition to sit down and negotiate ``no credible political process can take hold if the perception exists in a significant part of the population that its basic human rights are abused,'' he said.

Ban added that the situation ``poses serious challenges'' for the U.N. mission and the observers, who have been threatened and targeted, with their vehicles damaged and their movements restricted by crowds.

``This is a source of grave concern, and underscores the need to carefully consider the United Nations presence and next steps, taking into account the volatile and evolving security environment,'' Ban said.

The observers, he said, have seen ``considerable physical destruction'' in many locations from the conflict, with some opposition areas heavily damaged. They have also observed ``that significant parts of some cities appear to be under the de facto control of opposition elements,'' he said.

Zawahiri is in Pakistan: Clinton

Egyptian cleric al-Zawahri, took over the organisation after Osama bin Laden's killing on May 2 last year by US Navy SEALs in Pakistan's Abbottabad town.

Clinton said: "We want to disable Al Qaeda. We believe Zawahiri is in Pakistan."

Speaking at an interaction, she said, "You have to go over those who are trying to kill you. You have to be focused on that."

Referring to the 2008 Mumbai terror attack in which 166 people, including foreigners, were killed by 10 terrorists from Pakistan, Hillary Clinton said that she had authorised an award for Hafiz Saeed who was responsible for attacks in Mumbai.

Hafiz Saeed, founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group, is accused of masterminding the Mumbai terror attacks. The US last month announced an award of up to $10 million for information leading to arrest and conviction of Saeed and $2 million for Hafiz Adbul Rahman Makki, under the Rewards for Justice programme, for information on the two terrorists.

"It may take longer than we like but we will stand with you and trying to make that happen," she added.

Clinton is in India on a three-day trip that began Sunday.

Syrian armed forces kill 30 civilians: NGO

BEIRUT: Syrian armed forces killed nearly 30 civilians on Saturday, all but three of them in an assault on the town of Latamna in central Hama province, a monitoring group said.

"Twenty-seven people were killed in the bombardment and shooting during an attempt by the military to storm the town of Latamna," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Farther to the south at Qusayr in central Homs province, violence killed three other civilians including a woman and a child, as well as a defector from the police, said the Observatory.

The latest fighting comes despite strong condemnation by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who slammed the government of President Bashar al-Assad for stepping up attacks on cities despite agreeing on a truce.

At least 77 people were killed across Syria on Thursday and 35 on Friday, most of them civilians, according to figures from the Britain-based Observatory.

According to UN estimates, more than 9,000 people have died in the regime's crackdown on an uprising that began in March last year, inspired by Arab Spring protests that toppled long-time dictators in Tunisia and Egypt.

At least eight killed in Syria violence

The Britain-based group said one woman was killed by a stray bullet in the Damascus suburb of Douma and two other women died in Maaret al-Numan, in the northwest province of Idlib.

One civilian was killed by sniper fire in Deblan, a neighbourhood of the flashpoint central city of Homs which has been under attack for weeks by regime forces trying to root out rebels.

Four soldiers also died in the clashes with rebel troops in Maaret al-Numan, the Observatory said.

Activists reported violence in several other towns in the province of Homs or Hama.

The Observatory said more than 70 percent of the population of Saraqeb in northwest Idlib province has fled in recent days in the face of a government assault that began on Saturday.

It said at least 18 civilians have been killed there and more than 63 homes torched.

The uprising in Syria began as a popular revolt in March of last year but has transformed into an insurgency that many fear will lead to a full-blown civil war.

Monitors say more than 9,100 people have died in the revolt against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. (AFP)

Students clash over public transportation in Bogota

BOGOTA: Student protesters demanding better public transportation in the Colombian capital of Bogota destroyed the city's TransMilenio rapid bus transit station on Friday (March 9).

The protesters blocked downtown streets, adding to already jammed traffic, and riot police used tear gas to disperse the demonstors.

The students called for lower student fare bus tickets on the city's TransMilenio rapid bus transit system.

Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro denounced the disturbances.

"With these violent acts, they're not going to detain the mayor's office from publically negotiating the conditions of the city's new model of transportation," he said.

While riders say the service is poor, the city has said the protests are politically charged.

City officials have called on high school and universities to "calm" their students who are blamed for leading the demonstrations.

Tornadoes kill at least 27 in US Midwest, South

INDIANAPOLIS: Powerful tornadoes raked across a wide swath of the US Midwest and South on Friday, killing at least 27 people in three states and bringing the death toll to at least 40 from a week of deadly late-winter storms.

The twisters splintered homes, damaged a prison and tossed around vehicles across the region, leaving at least 13 people dead in southern Indiana, another 12 in neighboring Kentucky and two more in Ohio, officials said. In all, the latest line of storms battered a band of states from Ohio and Indiana on southward to Alabama.

"We are no match for Mother Nature at her worst," Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels said in a statement, adding that he would visit the stricken southeast corner of the state on Saturday.

Another possible storm-related death occurred in Henryville, Indiana, where television images showed homes blown apart.

Televised video taken from the air showed rescue workers in Indiana picking through one splintered house, residents sifting through the ruins of a home, and a school bus thrown into a building. Several warehouse-like structures had their roofs ripped off. (AFP)

Obama phones Karzai, inquires about peace moves

WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama talked with Hamid Karzai on Monday about Afghan-led reconciliation moves following the Afghan president's talks with the leaders of Pakistan and Iran, the White House said.

The telephone conversation also followed Karzai's assertion in a newspaper interview last week that his government was involved in talks with the Taliban, both with and without the United States.

"They discussed regional support for Afghan-led reconciliation, the Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran trilateral meetings last week in Islamabad, and other strategic issues of mutual concern," the White House said in a statement.

"They agreed to speak again soon to remain closely aligned as both countries continue our efforts to achieve common goals, and work to forge a long-term partnership," it said.

Karzai went to Islamabad on Friday and met with Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as part of an effort to get regional support for a negotiated solution to the 10-year-old war in Afghanistan.

Relations between Kabul and Islamabad are traditionally mired in distrust, but both sides have made overtures towards reconciliation to facilitate talks with the Taliban, over which Pakistan is considered to have influence.

Ahmadinejad, for his part, used his presence in Islamabad to blame all of the region's problems on foreign interference but said he was there to solidify cooperation with Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Karzai, meanwhile, told the Wall Street Journal in an interview that his government was involved in secret three-way contacts with the US and the Taliban -- a claim the insurgent militia denied but the White House confirmed.

With US combat forces due to be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the pressure is growing for diplomacy aimed at bringing the parties to the conflict together to work out a negotiated solution.

Washington has said it is open to a dialogue subject to certain conditions, namely that Taliban members who want to take part must lay down their arms, renounce al-Qaida and pledge allegiance to the Afghan constitution.

The Taliban said last month that they planned to set up a political office in Qatar ahead of possible formal talks with the United States, and Afghan and US officials have said that exploratory contacts are already under way. (AFP)

Iran speaker warns Gulf states not to side with US

TEHRAN: Iran's parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani warned Iran will not forgive Gulf Arab nations if they continue backing US "plots" against Tehran, local media reported on Sunday.

"We recommend to some of the countries in the region who were siding with (Iraq dictator) Saddam (Hussein) and now are siding with the US plots against the Iranian nation to give it up," he was quoted as saying.

"Iran will not forgive them again. There will be consequences in the region if new plots against our nation are carried out," Larijani said.

Larijani was referring to the generous financial aid and political support provided by Gulf Arab states, namely Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, to the Iraqi regime during the 1980-1988 war against Iran.

His comments come at a time when the United States and the European Union have imposed new sanctions on Iran's central bank and oil exports in January over its controversial nuclear programme.

Tehran has called on Saudi Arabia to reconsider a vow to make up for any shortfall in Iran's oil exports due to these new sanctions, saying Riyadh's pledge to intervene on the market was unfriendly.

Long-strained ties between Shiite-dominated Iran and Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia deteriorated after Saudi-led troops intervened in Sunni-ruled Bahrain in March help the government there crush Shiite-led pro-democracy protests.

The relations worsened late last year following US allegations that a foiled plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington had been hatched in Tehran.

In addition, the Gulf Cooperation Council comprising of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have called on Iran to "stop interfering in the internal affairs" of their nations.

The worsening ties continued after the six Gulf monarchies ordered their envoys home from Syria and expelled Damascus's ambassadors, joining mounting pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over the killings of civilians.

Tehran has been Damascus main regional ally since the 1979 Islamic revolution and has been supportive of Assad's regime in the 11 month uprising that has seen more than 6,000 people killed, according to human rights groups. (AFP)

Panetta says Israel could strike Iran in spring: report

BRUSSELS: US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta believes there is a "strong likelihood" that Israel will strike Iran's nuclear installations this spring, the Washington Post said Thursday in an editorial.

When asked about the opinion piece by reporters travelling with him to a NATO meeting in Brussels, Panetta brushed it aside.

"I'm not going to comment on that. David Ignatius can write what he will but with regards with what I think and what I view, I consider that to be an area that belongs to me and nobody else," he said.

"Israel indicated they're considering this (a strike), we've indicated our concerns," he added.

The Post columnist said Panetta "believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June before Iran enters what Israelis described as a 'zone of immunity' to commence building a nuclear bomb."

President Barack Obama and Panetta are "said to have cautioned the Israelis that the United States opposes an attack, believing that it would derail an increasingly successful international economic sanctions program and other non-military efforts to stop Iran from crossing the threshold," he said.

"But the White House hasn't yet decided precisely how the United States would respond if the Israelis do attack."

Panetta said Sunday in an interview with CBS that Iran needed "about a year" to produce enough enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon, and one or two more years to "put it on a deliverable vehicle."

Iran insists its nuclear project is peaceful and has threatened retaliation over the fresh sanctions, including possibly disrupting shipping through the strategic Strait of Hormuz. (AFP)

China, Saudi Arabia sign energy deals during Wen visit

RIYADH: China signed energy deals with its top oil provider Saudi Arabia on Sunday as its Premier Wen Jiabao visited the kingdom with tension over Iran's nuclear programme sparking fears of major oil supply disruptions.

The Chinese leader met King Abdullah on Sunday, Saudi state news agency SPA said, adding that the two leaders "discussed regional and international developments, as well as cooperation between the two countries."

Saudi Arabia is the largest supplier of oil to energy-hungry China and bilateral trade between the two countries amounted to $58.5 billion in the first 11 months of 2011, according to Xinhua Chinese news agency.

The two countries inked several economic and cultural agreements on Sunday including a Memorandum of Understanding between Saudi petrochemical giant SABIC and China's Sinopec to build a petrochemical plant in Tianjin, SPA said.

They also signed a cooperation agreement for the "peaceful use of nuclear energy," it added without elaborating.

On Saturday, Wen met with Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, who is Saudi's interior minister, SPA reported.

Wen also held talks with the head of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, an OIC statement said.

The Gulf tour will also take Wen to the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

His trip comes as the West ups the stakes in its standoff with Iran, threatening to impose sanctions on the oil exports of the Islamic republic, which provides 11 percent of China's oil imports.

Iran is the third largest provider of oil to China. Qatar and the UAE, although both major oil-producing states, do not yet figure among the top 10 oil exporters to Beijing.

The visit comes days after Wen met with US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who was in Beijing to drum up support for the new US sanctions that aim to squeeze Iran's crucial oil revenues.

The measures bar any foreign banks that do business with Iran's central bank -- responsible for processing most oil purchases in the Islamic republic -- from US financial markets.

But China opposes the sanctions on Iran, which Washington and other nations accuse of developing nuclear weapons -- a claim denied by Tehran.

Japan's Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba was in the Gulf last week also on a tour aimed to secure oil supplies in case of a shortage resulting from sanctions on Iran's oil exports.

Iran has starkly warned Gulf states not to make up for any shortfall in its oil exports under the new US and EU sanctions.

If Arab neighbours compensate for a looming EU ban on Iranian imports, "we would not consider these actions to be friendly," Iran's representative to OPEC, Mohammad Ali Khatibi, was quoted as saying by the Sharq newspaper on Sunday. (AFP)

US will respond if Iran blocks Strait of Hormuz: Panetta

WASHINGTON: The United States will respond if Iran tries to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Gulf, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Sunday, saying such a move would cross a "red line.""We made very clear that the United States will not tolerate the blocking of the Straits of Hormuz," Panetta told CBS television. "That's another red line for us and that we will respond to them." (AFP)

Iran tests missiles in navy war games near oil strait

TEHRAN: Iran on Monday test-fired two missiles on the last day of navy war games near the Strait of Hormuz, official media quoted a navy spokesman as saying.

A Qader ground-to-ship cruise missile and a short-range Nasr anti-ship missile were launched in the tests, which came after the test-firing on Sunday of a medium-range ground-to-air missile in the area, according to Commodore Mahmoud Mousavi.

Another missile, named Nour, was to be fired later Monday, he said, correcting a report by the IRIB state broadcaster that said that missile had already been tested.

The Qader cruise missile "built by Iranian experts successfully hit its target and destroyed it," Mousavi was quoted as saying by the IRNA news agency.

He said it was "the first time" a Qader missile had been tested.

A shorter-range Nasr missile able to hit targets up to 35 kilometres (22 miles) also successfully hit its target, he told state television.

The Qader missile, also known as Ghader, is said to have a range of 200 kilometres, which is generally considered medium-range or even short-range for a cruise missile, even though IRNA described it as "long-range."

The Nour, which is based on a Chinese missile, the C-802, has a similar range. The short-range Nasr missile is also based on a Chinese design.

Death toll in Philippine floods tops 1,000: official

MANILA: The number of people killed in flash floods triggered by a tropical storm in the southern Philippines has risen above 1,000, the civil defence chief told on Wednesday.

"I expect that (the death toll) will go up because there are still many missing," said Benito Ramos of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, as he announced that rescuers had recovered 1,002 bodies.

Ramos said the death toll had surged in recent days as more bodies were recovered from the sea.

The storm struck the main southern island of Mindanao over the weekend, bringing heavy rains, flash floods and overflowing rivers that swept whole coastal villages away.

The hardest-hit areas were the southern port cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan where crowded shantytowns built on sandbars near the mouths of major rivers were swept away in the dead of night.

Navy and coast guard boats and three air force helicopters were still scouring the seas and recovering bodies, Ramos said.

"There are many more still unaccounted for. They are washing up on the beaches," he added.

Some cadavers were even being found on beaches almost a hundred kilometres (60 miles) away from the two coastal cities, he added.

Gingrich defends lead at Republican debate

DES MOINES: White House hopeful Newt Gingrich took his gloves off Saturday as he defended his frontrunner status in a feisty debate among the narrowing field of Republican presidential contenders.

Faced with a barrage of attacks on his conservative credentials, history of adultery and controversial remarks calling Palestinians an "invented" people, the former House speaker played tough and kept his cool as he stood his ground.

Slammed by his rivals for "stirring up trouble" Gingrich insisted that "the Palestinian claim to a right of return is based on a historically false story," adding "these people are terrorists. They teach terrorism in their schools."

"I think sometimes it is helpful to have a president of the United States with the courage to tell the truth," Gingrich said. "Just as it was when (Ronald) Reagan went around his entire national security apparatus to call the Soviet Union an evil empire."

Gingrich was also not afraid to launch a biting personal attack after main rival Mitt Romney called him a "career politician" and Washington insider who does not know what it takes to fix the sputtering US economy.

"I spent my life in the private sector. I understand how the economy works," Romney said before ridiculing Gingrich for supporting mining missions on the moon and changing child labor laws so kids can work as janitors at school.

Gingrich shot back at the former Massachusetts governor: "Let's be candid. The only reason you didn't become a career politician is you lost to (former senator) Teddy Kennedy in 1994."

Romney suffered a self-inflicted blow later in the debate when he challenged Texas Governor Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet over what Romney wrote about health care.

President Barack Obama's Democrats were quick to fire a salvo at the multi-millionaire, noting that $10,000 is more than four months pay for most Americans and enough to cover more than a year's worth of mortgage payments on a typical home.

The debate comes just three weeks before Iowa holds the party's first nominating event on January 3 to pick who will challenge Democratic President Barack Obama in November 2012.

The largely rural midwestern state barely figures in the general election, but has become key in the nominating races.

Given up as politically dead months ago, Gingrich surged to the front of the pack in recent weeks as early contenders Rick Perry and Herman Cain saw their support collapse amidst big blunders and sex scandals.

Polls this week show Gingrich with a significant lead over Romney, who had been seen as the party's best chance of beating Obama in 2012 despite the fact that he was unable to win over the party's conservative base.

Gingrich is under fire from members of the party's religious base over his admitted extramarital affairs, with one third-party ad calling him "the walking, talking definition of untrustworthy."

Romney and Texas Governor Rick Perry both ran ads this week emphasizing their family values credentials and the debate moderators asked the candidates whether voters should consider marital fidelity in picking a president.

Perry, who is wooing the party's conservative base in hopes of reviving his flagging campaign, fired the sharpest rebuke of Gingrich.

"I've always been of the opinion if you cheat on your wife, you'll cheat on your business partner. So I think that issue of fidelity is important," Perry said.

Gingrich said he thinks infidelity is "a real issue" and admitted that he's "made mistakes at times."

"I think people have to measure who I am now and whether I'm a person they can trust. All I can tell you is I am delighted at the way people have been willing to look at who I am, to look at what my record has been," he said.

Gingrich currently has the support of 27 to 33 percent of likely Republican voters both nationally and in Iowa, while Romney's support ranged from 16 to 23 percent.

Gingrich has also narrowed Romney's robust edge in New Hampshire, which votes on January 10, and is ahead of him in South Carolina and Florida, which vote on January 21 and January 31, respectively.

While Romney and the other candidates dealt some tough blows Gingrich held his own, said Rachel Paine Caufield, a political science professor at Drake University, which hosted the debate.

Viewers saw Gingrich and Romney go head-to-head "but at the end of the day it was a draw," Caufield told AFP.

"Neither one of them clearly and decisively knocked out their opponent." (AFP)

Clashes outside Greek parliament ahead of budget vote

ATHENS: Protesters clashed with police outside Greece's parliament Tuesday as lawmakers were to approve a tough 2012 budget to seal unpopular austerity measures demanded by EU partners in return for fresh aid.

The violence broke out as thousands of pupils, students and leftist supporters staged separate demonstrations in memory of a schoolboy whose fatal shooting by police had sparked nationwide riots three years ago.

Protesters wearing gas masks and goggles threw firebombs and marble shards broken off from nearby buildings at police, who responded with tear gas and stun grenades to push them back, AFP reporters said.

Nearly 20 people including over a dozen officers were injured during an earlier bout of midday clashes and police said they had made 11 arrests.

Police held another 10 people in Thessaloniki after smaller-scale incidents.

Gatherings were also held in Volos and other Greek cities.

The government had warned during the budget debate that the stakes could not be higher for the country amid a debt crisis which has upended the economy and threatened the eurozone despite the best efforts of the EU, IMF and Athens to stabilise its finances.

"A real earthquake is occurring in Europe at this moment," said conservative leader Antonis Samaras, one of the political partners backing the interim government set up last month to secure approval of a eurozone debt deal.

"We don't know where it will lead (so) we are in a hurry for Greece to capitalise as much as it can today," said Samaras, whose party holds a solid lead in the polls ahead of snap elections expected early next year.

Culture Minister Pavlos Geroulanos added: "Unemployment in our country has climbed to nearly 20 percent and seven in ten Greeks fear they will lose their jobs ... fear and insecurity over tomorrow have pinned down our society."

A leading labour expert on Tuesday warned that a decade of hardship lay ahead.

"The Greek population will undergo ten years of enormous sacrifice," Savvas Robolis, director of the labour institute of main Greek union GSEE, told AFP.

"This austerity policy has led to an absolute impasse," he said, warning that with no growth next year, Greece will have totalled five years of recession.

The vote should be won easily but it could not come at a more sensitive time for the eurozone after Standard & Poor's warned it could cut its credit ratings on the bloc, throwing another twist into the debt crisis.

Germany and France are leading the charge for major change in the way the bloc is run to ensure much tighter fiscal oversight from Brussels and reacted sharply to S&P on Tuesday, saying they would push ahead with the needed reforms.

An EU summit on Thursday and Friday is intended to agree deep institutional changes to stop the debt crisis which has pushed Greece, then Ireland and Portugal into EU-IMF debt bailouts and now threatens Italy and Spain.

Greek Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos told the assembly on Monday that the budget, required by the EU and IMF in return for fresh rescue funds, would put government finances on a much sounder basis.

"This parliament has the chance to go down in the country's fiscal history as the first that reduced public debt," he said.

Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, a former European Central Bank deputy chief considered to be a safe pair of hands, leads a coalition government with more than 250 out of the 300 seats in parliament.

Assuming power last month after Socialist predecessor George Papandreou faced a parliamentary revolt over new austerity measures, Papademos was chosen to deliver the Greek side of the country's debt rescue bargain.

The key issue will be implementation after Greece missed deficit and debt targets laid down in a first EU and IMF rescue in May 2010 and was then forced to seek more help as the economy slumped.

A second accord agreed in late October requires Greece to adopt even tougher austerity measures in return for new funding of 100 billion euros and a controversial debt write-down deal with creditor banks worth 100 billion euros.

The accord also makes available 30 billion euros to help local banks cover the losses on their holdings of Greek government bonds caused by the 50-percent bond write-down.

The budget puts the public deficit at 5.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2012, down from 9.0 percent this year, compared with the EU ceiling of 3.0 percent and the previous forecast for next year of 6.8 percent.

It is based on the economy shrinking 2.8 percent in a third year of recession, worse than the previous 2012 estimate of 2.5 percent but still much better than the expected 5.5 percent contraction for 2011. (AFP)

Egyptians flock to polls in first post-Mubarak vote

CAIRO: Egyptians flocked to the polls on Monday for a first post-revolution election, making a mostly orderly and joyous start to their transition to democracy after a week of violence and political crisis.

Ten months since the end of 30 years of autocratic rule by Hosni Mubarak, ousted by popular protests in one of the seminal events of the Arab Spring, up to 40 million voters are being asked to choose a new parliament.

"It was no use to vote before. Our voices were completely irrelevant," Mona Abdel Moneim, one of several women who said they were voting for the first time, told AFP in the Shubra district of Cairo.

Voting for the lower house of parliament is taking place in three stages beginning in the main cities of Cairo, Alexandria and other areas, with the moderate Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood expected to triumph.

The highly complex procedure to elect a full assembly will end in March.

The backdrop was ominous after a week of protests calling for the resignation of the interim military rulers who stepped in after Mubarak's fall, with 42 people killed and more than 3,000 injured.

Voting passed off peacefully and the polling booths closed at the extended time of 9:00 pm (1900 GMT) to enable the thousands who waited for hours in long queues to cast their ballots.

"We were surprised that people turned out to vote in large numbers, thank God," Abdel Moez Ibrahim, who heads the High Judicial Elections Commission (HJEC), told reporters, adding that there had been no security problems.

The poll was endangered last week as unrest gripped the country, but military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi stuck defiantly to the schedule and called for a large turnout.

Much remains unclear about how the new parliament will function and whether it will be able to resolve a standoff with the armed forces over how much power they will retain under a new constitution to be written next year.

The formerly banned Muslim Brotherhood, a moderate Islamist group, is widely expected to emerge as the largest power, but without an outright majority, when results for the lower parliament are published on January 13.

Hardline Islamists, secular parties and groups representing the interests of the former Mubarak regime are all expected to win seats, raising the prospect of a highly fragmented and ideologically split legislature.

"I'm voting for the future of Egypt," declared Yussuf, a 25-year-old software engineer in the Al-Raml district of Alexandria, Egypt's second biggest city and a major Mediterranean port.

"This is the first free election in our country. I hope it will be the first fair election," he told AFP.

Independent US observers said there had been a high turnout, with no violence or irregularities, State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said.

"What they've been able to see so far has been quite positive," Toner told reporters in Washington.

The stakes could not be higher for Egypt, the cultural leader of the Arab world -- and the conduct and results of the election will also have repercussions for the entire Middle East at a time of wrenching change.

Egypt, with a fast-growing population of more than 80 million, is a former British protectorate ruled by military leaders for most of its history since independence in 1922.

The fresh protests last week stemmed from fears that Tantawi and his fellow generals, initially welcomed as a source of stability in the days after Mubarak's fall, were looking to consolidate their power.

Critics also say they have been too quick to resort to the repressive techniques of the Mubarak regime, jailing dissidents and unleashing deadly violence on dissent.

The leading new civilian powers -- a pro-democracy movement in iconic Tahrir Square, the Muslim Brotherhood and future presidential hopefuls Mohamed ElBaradei and Amr Mussa -- have been caught in the uncertainty.

The Tahrir movement, named after the square where protests began against Mubarak, is divided over whether to take part in the elections and lend legitimacy to the military rulers.

By contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood has supported a poll from which it expects to capitalise.

After two days of voting in the first stage of the elections for the lower parliament, other cities and regions will follow on December 14 and January 3.

After these, another round of voting will take place from January 29 for the upper house of parliament, and presidential elections are to be held by no later than the end of June.

Mubarak, who is on trial for murder and corruption along with his two sons, is expected to be following events from a Cairo military hospital where he is reportedly being treated for cancer. (AFP)

Moderate Islamists claim Moroccan election win

RABAT: Morocco's Justice and Development Party (PJD) claimed victory on Saturday in a parliamentary election that should produce a stronger government after King Mohammed ceded some powers to prevent any spillover from Arab Spring uprisings.

The PJD, which finds its support largely among Morocco's poor, would be the second moderate Islamist party to lead a North African government since the start of the region's Arab Spring uprisings, following Tunisia.

But the party, which hopes to push Islamic finance but vows to steer clear of imposing a strict moral code on society, will have to join forces with others to form a government.

"Based on reports filed by our representatives at polling stations throughout the country, we are the winners. We won Rabat, Casablanca, Tangier, Kenitra, Sale, Beni Mellal and Sidi Ifni to cite just a few," Lahcen Daodi, second in command of the moderate Islamist party, told Reuters.

"Our party has won the highest number of seats," he said.

Government officials could not immediately confirm the party's assertion.

The king revived a reform process this year hoping to sap the momentum out of a protest movement and avoid the violence-ridden revolts in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Syria.

He has handed over more powers to the government, although he retains the final say on the economy, security and religion. (Reuters)

Egypt violence rages into third day

CAIRO: Clashes between police and protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square erupted for a third straight day on Monday after a night of deadly violence that left at least 13 people dead.

Police used tear gas sporadically through the night and into Monday morning against hundreds of protesters -- scattered in groups in and around Tahrir - who responded with stones and rocks, according to live footage on state TV.

On Sunday, police and military forces used batons, tear gas and birdshot to clear the central square of thousands of protesters demanding the ruling military cede power to a civilian authority.

Morgue officials said 13 people died on Sunday and two people on Saturday, sparking fears of disruptions to the November 28 legislative elections, the first since a popular uprising toppled Hosni Mubarak in February.

Protesters fear the army is intent on maintaining some degree of power through a set of supra constitutional principles it plans to impose on the next parliament, who will be tasked with drafting the country's charter.

Protests in Tahrir Square have been ongoing since a massive anti-military rally on Friday, which called on the army to cede power to civilian rule and return to barracks.

Demonstrators have been particularly vocal against Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak's longtime defence minister who now heads the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. (AFP)

Blast in northern China kills at least seven

BEIJING: An explosion ripped through a fast-food restaurant in China Monday, killing at least seven people, injuring dozens and shattering windows up to three kilometres away, officials and state media said.

Among the victims were children who were passing by the building on their way to school at the time of the explosion, the official Xinhua news agency said.

Photographs taken outside the high-rise building in the northern city of Xian where the blast occurred showed shattered glass and piles of debris on the road outside the building, where bodies covered with blue sheets lay on stretchers.

Xinhua quoted local officials and witnesses as saying it appeared to be a gas explosion at a restaurant serving traditional style hamburgers on the first floor of the building.

"Thirteen people were sent to our hospital, and three died -- two male adults and a three-year-old girl. One is in a critical condition," a doctor surnamed Han at the Shaanxi Renmin Hospital told AFP.

Another 19 people injured in the blast were sent to the Xian Gaoxin Hospital and four of those had died, a nurse surnamed Wu told AFP. The condition of the other 15 people was not clear. (AFP)

India's top court 'shocked' by Pakistanis in jail

NEW DELHI: India's Supreme Court expressed shock on Friday that more than 250 Pakistanis were being held in Indian jails without ever having faced trial, with at least one behind bars since 1965.

The court, hearing a public interest case filed by a member of the public, ordered the central government to file a comprehensive report explaining the detentions.

"It's shocking that over 254 Pakistani nationals are languishing in jails without a trial," said Supreme Court judge R.N. Lodha.

The inmates are being held in the north-western state of Jammu and Kashmir, with many thought to be people arrested after unwittingly crossing the disputed border in the area, the court heard. Four are women.

It is thought that there may be inmates held without trial in other states too.

The prime ministers of India and Pakistan said Thursday they expected to open a "new chapter" in their fractious relationship after talks at a regional summit in the Maldives.

The countries have fought three wars since independence in 1947. (AFP)

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