Governors, lawmakers, Cabinet officials condemn budget
cuts, spread blame
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The automatic budget cuts set to take hold this week were roundly condemned Sunday as governors, lawmakers and administration officials hoped for a deal to stave off the $85 billion reduction in government services.
But as leaders rushed past each other to decry the potentially devastating cuts, they also criticized their counterparts for their roles in introducing, implementing and obstructing the budget mechanism that could affect everything from commercial flights to classrooms to meat inspections. The GOP’s leading line of criticism hinged on blaming Obama’s aides for introducing the budget trigger in the first place, while the administration’s allies were determined to illustrate the consequences of the cuts as the product of Republican stubbornness.
Former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour, aware the political outcome may be predicated on who is to blame, half-jokingly said Sunday: "Well, if it was a bad idea, it was the president’s idea."
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said there was little hope to dodge the cuts "unless the Republicans are willing to compromise and do a balanced approach."
No so fast, Republicans interjected.
Syrian rebels attempt to storm government complex, police academy near Aleppo
BEIRUT (AP) -- Rebels backed by captured tanks launched a fresh offensive on a government complex housing a police academy near the northern city of Aleppo on Sunday, while the government hit back with airstrikes to try to protect the strategic installation, activists said.
If rebels capture the complex on the outskirts of Aleppo, it would mark another setback for President Bashar Assad. In recent weeks, his regime has lost control of key infrastructure in the northeast including a hydroelectric dam, a major oil field and two army bases along the road linking Aleppo with the airport to its east.
Rebels also have been hitting the heart of Damascus with occasional mortars shells or bombings, posing a stiff challenge to the regime in its seat of power.
On Saturday, opposition fighters in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour overran a military post believed to have once been the site of a partly built nuclear reactor that Israeli warplanes bombed in 2007.
A year after the strike, the U.N. nuclear watchdog determined that the destroyed building’s size and structure fit specifications of a nuclear reactor. Syria never stated the purpose of the site known as Al-Kibar.
U.S. moves to salvage Syrian opposition talks during Kerry’s first trip as secretary of state
LONDON (AP) -- The U.S. is frantically trying to salvage a Syrian opposition conference that John Kerry plans to attend this week during his first official overseas trip as U.S. secretary of state.
A senior Obama administration official said Sunday that Kerry has sent his top Syrian envoy to Cairo in hopes of convincing opposition leaders that their participation in the conference in Rome is critical to addressing questions from potential donors and securing additional aid from the United States and Europe.
Some members of the sharply divided Syrian Opposition Council are threatening to boycott Wednesday’s meeting, which is the centerpiece of Kerry’s nine-nation tour of Europe and the Middle East.
According to the official, U.S. envoy Robert Ford will say that the conference is a chance for foes of Syrian President Bashar Assad to make their case for new and enhanced aid -- and get to know America’s new chief diplomat, who has said he wants to propose new ideas to pressure Assad into leave power.
The official was not authorized to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters publicly and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
Cuba parliament gathers, expected to name President Raul Castro to another term
HAVANA (AP) -- Cuba’s parliament reconvened Sunday with new membership and was expected to name Raul Castro to a new five-year-term as president. All were watching whether younger politicians might be tapped for other top leadership posts, providing hints of a possible future successor.
Castro fueled speculation on Friday when he talked of his possible retirement and suggested he has plans to resign at some point. It was unclear whether the 81-year-old leader was joking, but he promised his speech Sunday would be "interesting."
If a fresh face is named as one of his top deputies, it could indicate that his administration is settling on who might carry the country forward when those who fought in the 1959 revolution can no longer do so.
Raul Castro turns 82 this year and would be 86 when a new term ends. His top two lieutenants are also in their 80s.
"This National Assembly is important because it formally is going to govern the fate of the country for the next five years, which will be decisive for changing personnel -- what I call the intergenerational transition," said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Cuban economist and analyst who lectures at the University of Denver. "The intergenerational transition cannot be put off any longer."
Death of Palestinian in Israeli custody stokes West Bank protests, fears of third uprising
RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) -- The mysterious death of a 30-year-old Palestinian gas station attendant in Israeli custody stoked new West Bank clashes Sunday, along with Israeli fears of a third Palestinian uprising.
A senior Palestinian official alleged that Arafat Jaradat was tortured by Israel’s Shin Bet security service, citing an autopsy he said revealed bruising and two broken ribs.
Israel’s Health Ministry said the autopsy did not conclusively determine the cause of death, but that the bruising and broken ribs were likely the result of attempts to revive the detainee.
Jaradat’s death came at a time of rising West Bank tensions, including several days of Palestinian marches in support of four hunger-striking prisoners in Israeli lockups. In all, Israel holds nearly 4,600 Palestinians, including dozens who have never been formally charged or tried.
Frozen Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the recent re-election of Israeli hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a Palestinian cash crisis and the Palestinians’ sense of being abandoned by the Arab world seem to have created fertile ground for a third Palestinian revolt.
Pope’s last Sunday blessing from window on St. Peter’s Square draws large crowds
VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Pope Benedict XVI bestowed his final Sunday blessing of his pontificate on a cheering crowd in St. Peter’s Square, explaining that his waning years and energy made him better suited to the life of private prayer he soon will spend in a secluded monastery than as leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
On Thursday evening, the 85-year-old German-born theologian will become the first pope to have resigned from the papacy in 600 years.
Sunday’s noon appearance from his studio window overlooking the vast square was his next-to-last appointment with the public of his nearly eight-year papacy. Tens of thousands of faithful and other admirers have already asked the Vatican for a seat in the square for his last general audience Wednesday.
Perhaps emotionally buoyed by the warm welcome, thunderous applause and the many banners reading "Grazie" (Thanks) held up in the crowd estimated by police to number 100,000, Benedict looked relaxed and sounded energized, in sharp contrast to his apparent frailty and weariness of recent months.
In a strong and clear voice, Benedict told the pilgrims, tourists and Romans in the square that God had called him to dedicate himself "even more to prayer and meditation," which he will do in a monastery being renovated for him on the grounds behind Vatican City’s ancient walls.
Brother of Oscar Pistorius faces serious charge in 2008 traffic accident death
JOHANNESBURG (AP) -- The murder case involving Olympic star Oscar Pistorius took another unexpected turn Sunday with the news that his older brother, Carl, is himself facing charges for the death of a woman in a traffic accident.
Carl Pistorius faces a charge of unlawful, negligent killing for a 2008 road death, ‘’in which a woman motorcyclist sadly lost her life," Kenneth Oldwage, the Pistorius family lawyer said on Sunday. The accident happened in Vanderbijlpark, south of Johannesburg. The charge of ‘’culpable homicide" was dropped and then reinstated and will be challenged in court, the lawyer told The Associated Press.
It is the second time someone associated with the Pistorius case has been found to face a serious charge that has been dropped and then reinstated. It was revealed that the chief police investigator in the case is facing charges of seven counts of attempted murder for shooting at a vehicle with seven passengers. Following the revelations, Hilton Botha was removed from the Pistorius investigation and a new chief detective was appointed on Thursday.
To drop and then reinstate charges is "not uncommon in South African criminal law. The law specifically makes provision to allow charges to be dropped and then to be reinstated as a result of further investigations," said Jacob van Garderen, director of Lawyers for Human Rights. "It is a practical procedure, a process that is there to assist both sides."
In another twist this weekend, model Reeva Steenkamp, who was shot to death by Oscar Pistorius on Valentine’s Day was on television again in a new episode of the reality show "Tropika Island of Treasure 5" even though she was buried last Tuesday.