Friday February 1, 2013

Hagel criticized by GOP senators but seems headed for confirmation

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Republican senators hammered former GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel at his confirmation hearing Thursday on issues ranging from Israel and Iran to his support for a group that advocates the elimination of nuclear weapons. But with most Democrats in his corner, an unflustered Hagel seemed headed for approval as defense secretary.

Hagel, a former two-term senator from Nebraska, described his views as mainstream and closely aligned with those of President Barack Obama, the Democrat who nominated him. But several GOP members of the Armed Services Committee sought to portray him as radical and unsteady. Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., called his ideas "extreme" and "far to the left" of Obama.

Hagel said he believes America "must engage -- not retreat -- in the world," and insisted that his record is consistent on that point.

He pointed to Iran and its nuclear ambitions as an example of an urgent national security threat that should be addressed first by attempting to establish dialogue with Iranian rulers, although he said he would not rule out using military force.

"I think we’re always on higher ground in every way -- international law, domestic law, people of the world, people of the region to be with us on this -- if we have ... gone through every possibility to resolve this in a responsible, peaceful way, rather than going to war," he said.

3 dead after huge storm rakes South
with tornadoes; wind, rain batters Northeast

ADAIRSVILLE, Ga. (AP) -- A violent storm system that spawned deadly tornadoes in the South delivered torrential rain and dangerous winds to the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, leaving at least three people dead and tens of thousands without electricity as swollen rivers threatened flooding.

Two people were killed by tornadoes Tuesday and Wednesday, while a third was found dead Thursday in a flooded homeless camp.

In the Georgia city of Adairsville, many homes splintered by the massive storm front as it punched across the Southeast on Wednesday.

The vast storm front shattered homes and businesses around the Midwest and South with tornadoes and high winds. By Thursday, it had spread tens of thousands of power outages from Georgia to Connecticut, triggered flash floods and forced water rescues in areas outside Washington. Evacuations were ordered in parts of Virginia and Maryland with river levels on the rise. In Laurel, Md., outside Washington, officials were opening some dams to ease pressure after the heavy rains.

Near the nation’s capital, emergency responders in Virginia’s Loudoun County said they conducted water rescues early Thursday after some flash floods. One Virginia motorist was plucked from a van’s rooftop after veering into a water-filled ravine. Water rescues also were reported in the Washington suburb of Montgomery County, Md.

Israeli attack on Syria could be beginning of new strategy as Assad’s grip on power weakens

BEIRUT (AP) -- An Israeli air attack staged in Syria this week may be a sign of things to come.

Israeli military officials appear to have concluded that the risks of attacking Syria are worth taking when compared to the dangers of allowing sophisticated weapons to reach Hezbollah guerrillas in neighboring Lebanon.

With Syrian President Bashar Assad’s grip on power weakening, Israeli officials fear he could soon lose control over his substantial arsenal of chemical and advanced weapons, which could slip into the hands of Hezbollah or other hostile groups. These concerns, combined with Hezbollah’s own domestic problems, mean further military action could be likely.

Tzachi Hanegbi, an incoming lawmaker in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party and a former chairman of parliament’s influential foreign affairs and defense committee, signaled Thursday that Israel could be compelled to act on its own. While Israel’s preference is for Western powers to gain control over Syria’s arms stockpile, he said there are no signs of that happening.

"Israel finds itself, like it has many times in the past, facing a dilemma that only it knows how to respond to. And it could well be that we will reach a stage where we will have to make decisions," Hanegbi told Israel’s Army Radio Thursday. Hanegbi, like other Israeli officials, would not confirm Israeli involvement in the airstrike.

Iran plans to install modern machinery that will vastly speed up nuclear program

VIENNA (AP) -- In a defiant move ahead of nuclear talks, Iran has announced plans to vastly increase its pace of uranium enrichment, which can make both reactor fuel and the fissile core of warheads. Eager to avoid scuttling those negotiations, world powers are keeping their response low-key.

Iran told the International Atomic Energy Agency of its intentions last week, and the IAEA informed member nations in an internal note seen by The Associated Press on Thursday.

The brief note quoted Iran as saying new-generation IR2m "centrifuge machines ...will be used" to populate a new "unit" -- a technical term for an assembly that can consist of as many as 3,132 centrifuges.

It gave no timeframe. A senior diplomat familiar with the issue said work had not started, adding that it would take weeks, if not months, to have the new machines running once technicians started putting them in.

Menendez: reimbursed donor $58.5K on Jan. 4 for 2010 trips to Dominican Republic

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Sen. Robert Menendez’s office says he reimbursed a prominent Florida political donor $58,500 on Jan. 4 of this year for the full cost of two of three trips Menendez took on the donor’s plane to the Dominican Republic in 2010.

More details about the New Jersey senator’s trips emerged as his office said unsubstantiated allegations that the senator engaged in sex with prostitutes in the Dominican Republic are false.

There had been no public disclosure of the two trips until now.

"The senator paid for the two trips out of his personal account and no reporting requirements apply," Menendez spokeswoman Tricia Enright said Wednesday.

Beyonce faces the music: Admits singing along to pre-recorded track at Inauguration

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Beyonce faced the music at a news conference Thursday before the Super Bowl, admitting that she sang along to a pre-recorded track when she performed the national anthem on Inauguration Day.

The singer said she’s a "perfectionist" and wanted her performance for President Barack Obama to be memorable. She called the day "emotional."

"I practice until my feet bleed and I did not have time to rehearse with the orchestra," she said. "Due to no proper sound check, I did not feel comfortable taking a risk. It was about the president and the inauguration, and I wanted to make him and my country proud, so I decided to sing along with my pre-recorded track, which is very common in the music industry. And I’m very proud of my performance."

She opened her news conference in New Orleans with a live rendition of the national anthem that mirrored the one on Inauguration Day. She asked those at the conference to stand before she belted "The Star Spangled Banner," and after, she said with a laugh: "Any questions?"

And despite her performance, there were. When pressed about whether any sound was coming from her voice when she sang for the president, she said she was singing along to the track and not mimicking. And when asked if she would be singing live at the Super Bowl, she said: "I will absolutely be singing live.

Egypt’s police regain Mubarak-era notoriety, reemerging as a political player

CAIRO (AP) -- With near impunity and the backing of the Islamist president, Egyptian police have been accused of firing wildly at protesters, beating them and lashing out with deadly force in clashes across much of the country the past week, regaining their Hosni Mubarak-era notoriety as a tool of repression.

In the process, nearly 60 people have been killed and hundreds injured, and the security forces have re-emerged as a significant political player after spending the two years since Mubarak’s ouster on the sidelines, sulking or unwilling to fully take back the streets.

Moreover, President Mohammed Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood was long oppressed by the security forces, has made it clear that he needs the police on his side to protect his still shaky grip on power. On state TV Sunday, he thanked the police for their response to the protests, a day after dozens had been killed in the Mediterranean city of Port Said.

Riot police continued on Thursday to battle rock-throwing protesters in an area near Tahrir Square in central Cairo, the seventh day of clashes in the wave of political violence that has engulfed Egypt -- though battles elsewhere have eased somewhat.

The police’s furious response to the protests and riots -- some of which targeted their stations and left two police officers dead -- uncovered the depth of discontent in the once all-powerful security forces. Since Mubarak’s fall, they have been demoralized and in disarray. But now they are signaling that they want back the status they held under his rule, when no one questioned their use of force and they had unlimited powers of arrest.