Saturday December 8, 2012

Unleashing chemical weapons: Syrian risks include deliberate attack, loss of
control to rebels

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Growing fear that civil war in Syria could unleash the world’s first use of chemical weapons in nearly three decades is based on two grim scenarios -- neither considered likely but both carrying risks of civilian massacre and a major escalation of violence.

The first is that President Bashar Assad, in a last-ditch effort to save his regime, would order chemical attacks -- either as a limited demonstration to the rebels of his willingness to use the internationally banned weapons, or in a large-scale offensive designed to turn the tide of a conflict that already has killed an estimated 40,000.

The second is that some portion of Assad’s arsenal could be moved to Iran or Lebanon or fall into the hands of foreign fighters with ties to terrorist groups who are helping Syrian rebels.

What kinds of chemicals are in question? What weapons?

News confirmed by The Associated Press this week that an unknown number of weapons in Syria were recently loaded with the nerve agent sarin brought the West’s fears into sharp relief.

Egypt postpones expatriate voting
on disputed draft constitution

CAIRO (AP) -- Egypt postponed the start of early voting on a disputed draft constitution Friday, signaling an attempt by President Mohammed Morsi’s government to back down and give room for negotiations with the opposition as it faces mass protests calling for the referendum to be canceled.

The announcement made by the head of Egypt’s election committee Ismail Hamdi came a day after Morsi appealed for dialogue even as he accused tens of thousands of protesters marching on his palace of being infiltrated by thugs. He has so far made no concrete concessions to defuse the crisis that has plunged the country into new turmoil and the two sides appeared at a deadlock.

Egypt political crisis has been building up since Morsi issued a decree on Nov. 22 that gave him absolute powers and immunity from judicial oversight.

The crisis intensified when Morsi called for a Dec. 15 national referendum on the draft constitution produced by Islamists-led constituent assembly after rushing it in a marathon session. Liberals had quit the assembly, which was already facing legal appeals to disband it. The draft came with loopholes and was infused with articles that liberals fear would pave the way for Islamizing Egypt.

The opposition has rejected talks, saying Morsi must first cancel the referendum and meet other demands.

Egypt draft constitution allows widespread use
of Islamic law

CAIRO (AP) -- One of Egypt’s most prominent ultraconservative Muslim clerics had high praise for the country’s draft constitution. Speaking to fellow clerics, he said this was the charter they had long wanted, ensuring that laws and rights would be strictly subordinated to Islamic law.

"This constitution has more complete restraints on rights than ever existed before in any Egyptian constitution," Sheik Yasser Borhami assured the clerics. "This will not be a democracy that can allow what God forbids or forbid what God allows."

The draft constitution that is now at the center of worsening political turmoil would empower Islamists to carry out the most widespread and strictest implementation of Islamic law that modern Egypt has seen. That authority rests on the three articles that explicitly mention Shariah, as well as obscure legal language buried in a number of other articles that few noticed during the charter’s drafting but that Islamists insisted on including.

According to both supporters and opponents of the draft, the charter not only makes Muslim clerics the arbiters for many civil rights, it also could give a constitutional basis for citizens to set up Saudi-style "religious police" to monitor morals and enforce segregation of the sexes, imposition of Islamic dress codes and even harsh punishments for adultery and theft -- regardless of what laws on the books say.

The spiraling crisis is threatening to turn into an outright fight for the identity of post-revolutionary Egypt, splitting the nation between those who want an Islamic state and those who oppose it, two years after the fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Fiscal cliff ads pick up where election campaign stopped, and with the same partisan players

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Debate over the "fiscal cliff" has money pouring into television, print, radio and online ads, picking up where the wall-to-wall election campaign left off.

As Republicans and the White House joust over a way around big year-end tax increases and spending cuts, outside groups on both sides are weighing in with major ad campaigns aimed at politicians and voters alike.

The latest is Crossroads GPS, the Karl Rove-backed conservative group last seen dropping more than $80 million on ads assailing President Barack Obama in his re-election campaign.

Its new $500,000 buy, announced Wednesday, has attributes familiar to viewers acquainted with the political attack-ad genre. It features dreary, dread-inducing music, foreboding narration and grainy footage. All that’s changed is its aim. Instead of denying Obama re-election, the intent is to defeat his policy.

"So far, a huge tax increase is his solution," a narrator says, before imploring viewers to personally call the president.

Supreme Court will hear gay rights cases over Calif. marriage ban, right to federal benefits

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court will take up California’s ban on same-sex marriage, a case that could give the justices the chance to rule on whether gay Americans have the same constitutional right to marry as heterosexuals.

The justices said Friday they will review a federal appeals court ruling that struck down the state’s gay marriage ban, though on narrow grounds. The San Francisco-based appeals court said the state could not take away the same-sex marriage right that had been granted by California’s Supreme Court.

The court also will decide whether Congress can deprive legally married gay couples of federal benefits otherwise available to married people. A provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act limits a range of health and pension benefits, as well as favorable tax treatment, to heterosexual couples.

The cases probably will be argued in March, with decisions expected by late June.

Gay marriage is legal, or will be soon, in nine states -- Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Washington -- and the District of Columbia. Federal courts in California have struck down the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, but that ruling has not taken effect while the issue is being appealed.

Arizona Lottery says winners have claimed other half of $588M Powerball jackpot

PHOENIX (AP) -- The other ticket holders in last week’s record $577.5 million Powerball jackpot have claimed their half of the prize but aren’t stepping into the spotlight just yet, the Arizona Lottery said Friday.

The winning family opted to take the cash option of $192 million. They declined to take part in a news conference scheduled for Friday afternoon in Phoenix, the lottery said.

The ticket was sold at a convenience store in Fountain Hills, Ariz., northeast of Phoenix.

Lottery officials won’t release the name or address of the winning family during the news conference but will give information about the family’s decision to play, when they bought the winning ticket and how they responded to discovering that they had won, Lottery Director Jeff Hatch-Miller said.

A statement from the family will also be released, he said.

London hospital says nurse involved in
royal pregnancy
hoax call has died

LONDON (AP) -- The news that Prince William and the former Kate Middleton were expecting their first child -- joyous news for a couple looking forward to starting a family -- immediately turned bittersweet with the simultaneous announcement that the duchess was being hospitalized for acute morning sickness. Then there was an invasion of her privacy by two disc jockeys who impersonated Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles to gain information on her condition.

By Friday, the sadness merely deepened, with the news that the nurse who unwittingly took the hoax call had died.

The royal couple quickly issued a statement expressing their condolences over the death of Jacintha Saldanha, the 46-year-old mother of two duped by the DJs, who had suddenly found herself at the vortex of a global incident. They stressed they had not complained about the hoax call, and indeed offered praise for the staff. The hospital, too, stressed that Saldanha had not been reprimanded.

And yet the week can only be described as tragic, with the happiness so tarnished by the latest developments.

Saldanha was found dead early Friday at apartments affiliated with King Edward VII hospital in central London, where she worked for four years. Police say her death is unexplained.

Exiled Hamas chief tours Gaza for first time; Israel looks other way

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) -- The image of Hamas’ long-exiled chief triumphantly walking around the Gaza Strip, flashing victory signs beside Islamic militant leaders Friday, illustrates how the group’s defiance of Israel is forcing a change in Palestinian politics.

Buoyed by the rise of fellow Islamists in Egypt, Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal and his allies are confronting Israel with the specter of a change in the balance of power between the two rival Palestinian factions -- Hamas and the Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah.

Mashaal, 56, who left the West Bank as a child and now leads the Hamas from the Gulf state of Qatar, broke into tears Friday as he arrived in the Gaza Strip for his first-ever visit.

Once on Gazan soil after crossing the border from Egypt, he prostrated himself in a gesture of thanks, He then recited a traditional Islamic prayer and kissed the ground.

Thousands of supporters lined the streets as Mashaal and Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh drove by, waving and flashing victory signs.