Syrian forces battle
on twin fronts as rebels pose challenges
BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian forces threatened Sunday to mount a "decisive battle" for Aleppo even as rebels clawed toward the city’s ancient center under intense bombardment and strafing from warplanes. In the capital Damascus, militiamen appeared to step up guerrilla-like forays in central districts that were once firmly in the regime’s hands.
The twin fronts reflected the rising stakes for both sides and a possible significant evolution in rebel strategies. Opposition forces appear to be shifting toward more hit-and-run strikes in Damascus and elsewhere to tie up Bashar Assad’s forces and blur the lines between rebel and government-held territory.
The biggest prize of the ambush brigades so far -- 48 abducted Iranians branded as spies by rebels -- was put on display in a video that carried a warning that all Iranians in Syria would be "captured or killed" because of Tehran’s strong backing for Assad. Iran said those captured when their bus was commandeered on Saturday were pilgrims visiting an important Shiite shrine on the outskirts of Damascus.
The abductions threaten to suck Iran deeper into Syria’s civil war and the wider political brinksmanship around the region. Iran claims it has no fighting forces aiding Assad, but it has sharply amplified its criticism of countries supporting the rebels such as neighboring Turkey
In further signs of the growing proxy nature of Syria’s conflict, Iran was forced to reach out to Turkey and Qatar with appeals to help return the captives.
Wildfire evacuation orders lifted in Okla.
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Many Oklahomans forced to leave their homes because of raging wildfires are being allowed to return.
An Oklahoma Forestry Services spokeswoman said a "monster" fire continued to burn in Creek County as light rain and cooler temperatures gave firefighters a brief respite Sunday.
Michelle Finch-Walker said the fire had burned almost 91 square miles -- but firefighters viewed Sunday’s rain and slightly cooler temperatures as a "window" to attack the blaze.
Finch-Walker said residents of Mannford -- which was threatened by the fire -- were allowed to return home Sunday and that no serious injuries had been reported.
The National Weather Service in Tulsa said about .15 inches of rain had fallen in the area early Sunday, but more rain was not expected before Wednesday.
Victim in Tucson shooting pleased by possible plea by Jared Lee Loughner
PHOENIX (AP) -- Mavy Stoddard, who lost her husband in the massacre in Arizona last year that severely wounded then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, plans to be in a federal courtroom this week to see if her prayers will be answered by a guilty plea from the man accused of the crime.
Stoddard, who has recovered from three gunshot wounds in a leg, said Sunday she’s "just thrilled" by news reports of a possible plea agreement that could send Jared Lee Loughner to prison for the rest of his life.
"I don’t really want the death penalty. I would love to see him either put in a mental institution or life in prison with no parole. Either one of them. If he can get some help, that’s what he needs. And maybe he will find the Lord," Stoddard said in a telephone interview from her home in Tucson, Ariz.
A hearing in the federal case against Loughner is scheduled for Tuesday in Tucson, and a court-appointed psychiatrist is to testify that Loughner is competent to enter a plea, according to a person familiar with the case who was not authorized to discuss the case publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Loughner is expected to enter a guilty plea if the judge allows that to happen at the hearing, according to the person who spoke Saturday about upcoming court proceedings in the case.
Iran TV airs confessions in
murder of scientists
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- Iranian state television has broadcast purported confessions by more than a dozen suspects in connection with the killing of five nuclear scientists since 2010.
The broadcast showed some of the suspects re-enacting the assassinations in different districts of Tehran.
The TV showed a military garrison it said was a training camp outside Tel Aviv in Israel. It said the suspects took courses there, including how to place magnetic bombs on cars -- the method used in the killing of the scientists.
Iran’s intelligence chief, Heidar Moslehi, promised recently to provide detailed TV pictures about the case.
Iran has blamed Israel’s Mossad as well as the CIA and Britain’s MI6 for the assassinations, with support from some of Iran’s neighbors. The U.S. and Britain and denied involvement. Israel has not commented.
Israel upgrades Arrow missile defense system
JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israel has upgraded its top-tier Arrow II missile defense, a Defense Ministry official confirmed Sunday, as the country girds for possible attacks from Iran and Syria.
Sensors, command and control equipment and radar have been enhanced to improve reach and accuracy, the official confirmed without elaborating. He would not say how many Arrow II batteries are deployed around the country and spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the military’s preparations.
Israel has developed a network of air defense systems to parry various threats it sees from its enemies, including the Arrow, a joint project with the Boeing Co. in the U.S. that is designed to shoot down incoming missiles launched as far away as Iran.
Separately, the Haaretz newspaper reported on Sunday that the Arrow has been configured to take down not only long-range missiles but projectiles fired from closer range, such as neighboring Syria or Lebanon. On Saturday, Iran claimed it successfully test-fired an upgraded version of a ballistic missile with such a range that it said could strike with pin-point precision.
Israel regards Iran as its main enemy and suspects Tehran is building nuclear weapons despite its denials. Last week, in a public appearance in Jerusalem with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that time was quickly running out to stop Iran from achieving nuclear capability.
Israel is also rattled by Iran’s arsenal of missiles capable of striking the Jewish state, its frequent talk of Israel’s annihilation, and its alliances with anti-Israel militants in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, who control tens of thousands of rockets.
A former director of the Arrow program, Uzi Rubin, told Army Radio on Sunday that the system could handle any missile coming from Iran.
"I can’t say that every incoming missile will be knocked down. There isn’t 100 percent protection and not everything is a success. But for every single missile coming from Iran there is a single Arrow missile capable of intercepting it one for one."
On Saturday, Iran claimed it successfully test-fired an upgraded version of a short-range ballistic missile with a range of 300 kilometers (185 miles). Announcing the missile test, Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi said, "the Zionist regime knows that attacking Iran is a desire out of its reach unless it wants to commit suicide."
Compounding Israel’s concerns are the mounting bloodshed in Syria and growing instability of the regime of President Bashar Assad. Israel fears Syria’s arsenals of chemical weapons could fall into the hands of militants should the central government in Damascus collapse, and has threatened to strike those arsenals to keep this from happening. Syria, meanwhile, has threatened to unleash its chemical weapons in the event of a foreign attack.
In addition to the Arrow, Israel’s has developed the "Iron Dome" system to intercept shorter-range rockets that might be launched against Israel by Palestinian and Hezbollah militants. The U.S. has appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars for that project, and three Iron Dome batteries are currently deployed.
A more sophisticated rocket interceptor, David’s Sling, is in development. Israel is also working on a third-generation Arrow system designed to intercept missiles in space.