Saturday December 15, 2012

Syrian rebels close in, but Pres. Assad still has loyal troops and unchallenged air power

BEIRUT (AP) -- With rebels trying to penetrate Syria’s capital, Damascus, President Bashar Assad may appear to be heading for a last stand as his weakened regime crumbles around him.

But the Syrian leader is not necessarily on his way out just yet.

He still has thousands of loyal troops and a monopoly on air power. A moribund diplomatic process has given him room to maneuver despite withering international condemnation. And the power of Islamic extremists among the rebels is dashing hopes that the West will help turn the tide of the civil war by sending heavy weapons to the opposition.

"The West, for all its rhetorical bombast, has restricted the flow of important weapons," said University of Oklahoma professor Joshua Landis, who runs an influential blog called Syria Comment. "They have not brought down this regime because they are frightened of the alternative."

There is no appetite for intervening actively against Assad -- as NATO did against Moammar Gadhafi in Libya -- and run the risk of having him replaced by an Islamist regime hostile to the West. Those concerns have deepened after the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and political turmoil in Egypt where a bid to promote an Islamist agenda threatens to tear the nation apart.


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Violence, tension mar last-minute campaigning before Egypt votes on disputed draft charter

CAIRO (AP) -- Waving swords and clubs, Islamist supporters of Egypt’s draft constitution clashed with opponents in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria on Friday as tempers flared on the eve of the referendum on the disputed charter -- the country’s worst political crisis since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak.

Both sides stepped up their campaigns after weeks of violence and harsh divisions that have turned Saturday’s vote into a fight over Egypt’s post-revolutionary identity. Highlighting the tension that may lie ahead, nearly 120,000 army soldiers will deploy to protect polling stations. A radical Islamist group also said it will send its own members to defend the stations alongside the army and police.

The referendum pits Egypt’s newly empowered Islamists against liberals, many apolitical Christians and secular-leaning Muslims. President Mohammed Morsi’s supporters say the constitution will help end the political instability that has gripped Egypt since February 2011, when the autocratic Mubarak was overthrown in a popular uprising. Clerics, using mosque pulpits, defend the constitution as championing Islam.

Morsi’s opponents say minority concerns have been ignored and the charter is full of obscurely worded clauses that could allow Islamists to restrict civil liberties, ignore women’s rights and undermine labor unions. They charge the constitution will enslave Egyptians.

Critics have raised concern over the legitimacy of the document after most judges said they would not supervise the vote. Rights groups warned of opportunities for widespread fraud, and the opposition said a decision to stretch the vote two rounds to make up for the shortage of judges left the door open for initial results to sway voter opinions.

Emotional Obama says the nation must unite, take meaningful action after school shooting

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A tearful President Barack Obama said Friday he grieved first as a father about the massacre at a Connecticut elementary school, declaring, "Our hearts are broken today." He called for "meaningful action" to prevent such shootings but did not say what it should be.

"The majority of those who died were children -- beautiful, little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old," Obama said.

At that point he had to pause for several seconds to keep his composure, and he wiped his eyes.

The scene in the White House briefing room was one of the most emotional moments of Obama’s presidency. Near him, two senior aides cried and held hands as they listened to the president.

Twenty-seven people, including 20 children, were killed when a gunman opened fire inside the school. The shooter blasted his way through the building as young students cowered helplessly. The dead included the shooter.

Holiday dilemma: With sales slowing, stores may be forced to slash prices to lure shoppers

NEW YORK (AP) -- If shoppers don’t show up in stores soon, more "70 percent off" sale signs will.

After a promising start to the holiday shopping season over the four-day Thanksgiving weekend, sales have slowed, according to an analysis of data done for The Associated Press by sales tracker ShopperTrak. Worries about weak U.S. job growth and other concerns are likely to blame for Americans spending less.

That puts pressure on J.C. Penney, Macy’s and other stores, which had been offering fewer discounts this season than they did last year, to step up promotions to lure shoppers like Ron Antonette from Long Beach, Calif.

Antonette so far has spent about half of what he planned to spend during this holiday season on gifts such as Legos, a Wii U game console and Apple’s iPad Mini tablet computer for his two young children. Antonette stopped shopping after spending $1,000 over fears that Congress and the White House won’t reach a budget deal by January. A stalemate would trigger tax increases and spending cuts known as the "fiscal cliff."

"I basically stopped moving forward in buying," said Antonette, 44, who runs a small public relations business and worries that he might not be able to take mortgage deductions on his house next year. "I feel like we’re in financial limbo."

Russian Foreign Ministry retracts its Syria point man’s talk of Assad’s eventual defeat

MOSCOW (AP) -- Russia’s attempt to backpedal after a top diplomat said Syrian President Bashar Assad is losing control of his country reflects the dilemma Moscow faces as opposition fighters gain ground.

Throughout the Syrian crisis, Russia has tried to walk a fine line -- eschewing statements of outright support for Assad while blocking international attempts either to pressure him to stop the fighting or to leave power altogether.

Instead, Russia has insisted that negotiations are the only way to resolve the crisis and has portrayed itself as a principled opponent of foreign intervention.

The strategy, however, has led some to view Moscow’s stance as a disingenuous attempt to prop up a dictator in a country where activists say more than 40,000 people have been killed since March 2011.

As the fighting in Syria intensified over recent months, Russian officials have held back from public assessments of whether Assad’s regime would survive. But on Thursday, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov was quoted by major Russian news agencies as saying "there is a trend for the government to progressively lose control over an increasing part of the territory" and "an opposition victory can’t be excluded."

Uncle: Father recalls crash that killed
boys as blur

HOUSTON (AP) -- The uncle of two young brothers killed by a suspected drunken driver who was then shot and killed at the crash scene says the boys’ father was injured in the accident and remembers it only as a "blur."

Gabriel Barajas said Friday his brother, David Barajas Sr., remembers trying to get to his sons after the crash near their Houston-area home and then recalls waking up in a hospital.

Killed in the accident were 12-year-old David Barajas Jr. and his 11-year-old brother, Caleb.

Jose Banda, the 20-year-old driver who plowed into the brothers, was found shot after the Dec. 7 accident.

Investigators say they are still looking for the person who shot Banda as well as the weapon used in the slaying.