Tuesday January 15, 2013

’Not a deadbeat nation:’ Obama says Congress must raise the U.S. debt ceiling

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama demanded on Monday that lawmakers raise the nation’s $16.4 trillion federal debt limit quickly, warning that "Social Security benefits and veterans’ checks will be delayed" if they don’t and cautioning Republicans not to insist on cuts to government spending in exchange.

"They will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the economy," he said at the 21st and final news conference of his first term. "The full faith and credit of the United States of America is not a bargaining chip. And they better decide quickly because time is running short."

Answering questions for about an hour, Obama also said he will soon ask Congress to enact new gun control legislation in the wake of the shootings that left 20 elementary students dead at a Newtown, Conn., school a little more than a month ago.

Among the proposals under consideration are a ban on assault-style weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines. Obama said he would unveil his proposals next week. He was meeting after his news conference with Vice President Joe Biden, his point man in producing gun control measures to present to Congress.

Facing stiff opposition from the National Rifle Association, he conceded lawmakers may not approve everything he asks for.

Mali Islamists gain ground despite French airstrikes; French evacuate citizens

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) -- Despite a punishing aerial bombardment by French warplanes, al-Qaida-linked insurgents grabbed more territory in Mali on Monday, seizing a strategic military camp that brought them far closer to the government’s seat of power.

Declaring France had "opened the gates of hell" with its assault, the rebels threatened retribution.

"France ... has fallen into a trap much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia," declared Omar Ould Hamaha, a leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the rebel groups controlling the north, speaking on French radio Europe 1.

French fighter jets have been pummeling the insurgents’ desert stronghold in the north since Friday, determined to shatter the Islamist domination of a region many fear could become a launch pad for terrorist attacks on the West and a base for coordination with al-Qaida in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.

The Islamist fighters responded with a counter-offensive Monday, overrunning the garrison town of Diabaly, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Segou, the administrative capital of central Mali, said French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Syria bombs Damascus suburbs to keep rebels out of capital, leaving children among dead

BEIRUT (AP) -- The Syrian government bombed areas around Damascus on Monday as part of its push to keep rebel fighters out of the capital, leaving many children among the dozens killed, anti-regime activists said.

An international aid organization cited such raids, along with rape and widespread destruction, as key factors in the exodus of more than a half-million Syrians to neighboring countries since the conflict began in March 2011.

The International Rescue Committee said it could be "months, if not years" before the refugees can return home and warned that Syria’s civil war could enflame tensions in the Middle East.

After nearly two years of violence, it appears unlikely that the war will end soon. Although rebels seeking to oust President Bashar Assad have made gains in the country’s north and east and outside of Damascus, they have yet to seriously challenge his hold on the capital or other parts of the country.

Earlier this month, Assad dismissed calls from the U.S. and others that he step down and vowed to keep fighting until the country is free of "terrorists" -- his government’s shorthand for rebels.

Mubarak’s new trial could answer question of who ordered deadly crackdown on protesters

CAIRO (AP) -- Hosni Mubarak’s new trial may resolve key questions unanswered in his first one: Who ordered the crackdown that left some 900 protesters dead and who pulled the trigger?

But the answers could complicate the new president’s efforts to stabilize Egypt and deal with its economic woes since they might bring pressure to go after still powerful figures in the security forces.

Mubarak and former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly were sentenced to life in prison in June for failing to prevent the killings during the 18-day revolution in 2011 that toppled the leader’s 29-year regime. Standing trial with them were six police generals, five who faced the same charges, while the sixth was accused of gross negligence. All six were acquitted.

The ruling raised widespread public anger over what was seen as a shoddy prosecution case. Many believed Mubarak should have been convicted for directly ordering the lethal crackdown.

The presiding judge of that first trial said the prosecution’s case lacked concrete evidence and failed to prove the protesters were killed by the police, indirectly giving credence to the testimony of top Mubarak-era officials that "foreigners" were behind the slayings between Jan. 25 and Feb. 1, 2011.

Obama urges critics not to rush to judgment over diversity in Cabinet

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Deflecting criticism about a perceived lack of diversity in his second-term Cabinet, President Barack Obama on Monday urged Americans not to rush to judgment about who he will appoint to replace departing members of his team.

In a declaration tinged with the rhetoric of his re-election campaign, Obama asserted: "We’re not going backwards, we’re going forward."

Scrutiny has been mounting over the number of women and minorities that will surround the nation’s first black president in his second term. Cabinet members who are departing at the end of his first term -- including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- are being replaced largely by white males. But in the final White House news conference of his first term, Obama brushed off that criticism, asking for critics to hold their tongues until the remaining vacancies have been filled.

"I’m very proud that in the first four years, we had as diverse, if not a more diverse, White House and a Cabinet than any in history," Obama said. "I intended to continue that, because it turns out when you look for the very best people, given the incredible diversity of this country, you’re going to end up with a diverse staff."

Running through a list of high-profile positions filled by women during his first term -- such as Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius -- Obama said women comprised 50 percent of his White House staff during his first four years, not to mention the two women he nominated to fill Supreme Court vacancies.

2012 military suicides jumped to 349; some see problem worsening as troops come home

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Suicides in the U.S. military surged to a record 349 last year, far exceeding American combat deaths in Afghanistan, and some private experts are predicting the dark trend will grow worse this year.

The Pentagon has struggled to deal with the suicides, which Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and others have called an epidemic. The problem reflects severe strains on military personnel burdened with more than a decade of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, complicated by anxiety over the prospect of being forced out of a shrinking force.

Pentagon figures obtained Monday by The Associated Press show that the 349 suicides among active-duty troops last year were up from 301 the year before and exceeded the Pentagon’s own internal projection of 325. Statistics alone do not explain why troops take their own lives, and the Pentagon’s military and civilian leaders have acknowledged that more needs to be done to understand the causes.

Last year’s total is the highest since the Pentagon began closely tracking suicides in 2001. It exceeds the 295 Americans who died in Afghanistan last year, by the AP’s count.

Some in Congress are pressing the Pentagon to do more.

Toyota recovers from earthquake to retake global auto sales crown from General Motors

DETROIT (AP) -- Toyota has once again dethroned General Motors as the world’s top-selling automaker.

The Japanese company sold 9.7 million cars and trucks worldwide in 2012, although it’s still counting. GM sold 9.29 million.

Both companies saw higher sales, but Toyota’s growth was far larger as it rolled out new versions of popular models like the Camry. GM executives promised sales growth this year, especially in the U.S. Both companies say publicly that they don’t care about who wins, but concede that the crown is an important morale booster for employees.

GM was the top-selling carmaker for more than seven decades before losing the title to Toyota in 2008. But GM retook the sales crown in 2011 when Toyota’s factories were slowed by an earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The disaster left Toyota dealers with few cars to sell. The company has since recovered.

Toyota’s comeback from the earthquake, and flooding in Thailand, is only part of the story, says Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for LMC Automotive, a Detroit-area industry forecasting firm. The company also has freshened up its stale midsize sedan, the Camry, the top-selling car in the United States