Monday, February 27, 2012

Published:

Violence against Americans brings election-year criticism of Obama war strategy in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Obama administration is sticking determinedly to its stay-the-course message in Afghanistan despite a week of anti-American riots, the point-blank killing of U.S. military advisers and growing election-year demands to bring the troops home.

In an echo of the Bush administration on continuing the unpopular war in Iraq, the White House and Pentagon insisted Monday that the wave of violence against Americans will not derail the war strategy in Afghanistan or speed up the calendar for bringing American forces home.

"We work alongside thousands of Afghans every single day to ensure a better future for the Afghan people. And nothing that has happened over the past week is going to deter us from that goal," Pentagon spokesman George Little said. "We're making progress. We have put the enemy on its heels in many parts of the country."

Administration spokesmen were at pains to answer the larger question of whether to keep fighting a war that has lost support not only in the United States but also among the people the U.S. has pledged to protect. The perception that Afghans are ungrateful for U.S. sacrifice and are turning on their American advisers complicates President Barack Obama's plan to ease out of combat against Taliban extremists over the next two years.

Under current strategy, tens of thousands of U.S. forces will remain in Afghanistan at least through the end of this year and Afghan forces would have full control of the country's security by the end of 2014. Both Democrats and Republicans have said the timetable should move up.

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German lawmakers approve new Greek bailout after Merkel says benefits outweigh risks

BERLIN (AP) -- The German parliament approved a second, €130 billion ($173 billion) loan package for Greece on Monday after Chancellor Angela Merkel warned lawmakers that it would be irresponsible to abandon the country to bankruptcy.

Although the motion was always expected to be easily approved -- the final tally Monday was 496-90 with five abstentions -- the idea of bailing out Greece has remained very unpopular in Germany, Europe's biggest economy, among the public and many politicians.

"The road that lies in front of Greece is long and truly not without risk," Merkel told lawmakers before the vote. "That also goes for the success of the new program -- no one can give a 100 percent guarantee of success."

Earlier Monday, the mass-circulation Bild daily, which has always taken a very hard line on Greece, plastered the word "STOP!" over its front page. Its message to lawmakers was: "Don't keep on going the wrong way."

Merkel, however, said it would be irresponsible to risk a Greek bankruptcy.

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Activist group says 144 killed in Syria as aid reaches besieged neighborhood

BEIRUT (AP) -- A Syrian activist group reported Monday that 144 people have been killed across the country, scores of them in the embattled opposition stronghold of Homs by security forces as they tried to flee. A team from the Syrian arm of the Red Cross delivered aid to one of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods after days of trying to reach the area.

The activist group did not say whether all 144 died on Monday or were killed over the past few days. Many of the casualties were believed to be from the rebel-controlled Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, which the Syrian Arab Red Crescent entered late Monday. Also in the neighborhood are two wounded foreign journalists along with the bodies of two of their colleagues who were killed last week.

European and American diplomats and aid workers have been trying desperately to find a way to evacuate them, but Red Cross spokeswoman Carla Haddad said late Monday that the Red Crescent had not managed to get them out. She did not know whether the group had stopped trying for the evening.

Homs has emerged as the center of the 11-month-old uprising seeking to oust authoritarian President Bashar Assad and has borne the brunt of his regime's bloody crackdown on dissent. Parts of the city have been surrounded for weeks, making it impossible for rescue workers to reach the wounded and for families to bring their dead and injured to the hospital.

Reports by numerous activists that more than 60 bodies were brought to the hospital, all of whom appeared to have died in one incident, reflect the spreading carnage.

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1 dead, 4 wounded in shooting at Ohio school; student described as an outcast is arrested

CHARDON, Ohio (AP) -- A teenager opened fire in the cafeteria at a suburban Cleveland high school Monday, killing one student and wounding four others before he was chased from the building by a teacher and captured a short distance away, authorities said.

A student who saw the attack up close said it appeared that the gunman targeted a group of students sitting together and that the one who was killed was gunned down while trying to duck under the cafeteria table.

FBI officials would not comment on a motive. And Police Chief Tim McKenna said authorities "have a lot of homework to do yet" in their investigation of the shooting, which sent students screaming through the halls at the start of the school day at 1,100-student Chardon High.

An education official said the suspected shooter is a Lake Academy student, not a student at Chardon High. Brian Bontempo declined to answer any questions about the student. Bontempo is the superintendent of the Lake County Educational Service Center, which operates the academy.

The alternative school in Willoughby serves 7th through 12th grades. Students may have been referred to the school because of academic or behavioral problems.

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Obama gains among women amid improving economy, new talk about their access to birth control

WASHINGTON (AP) -- It's looking like President Barack Obama may be back in the good graces of women.

His support dropped among this critical constituency just before the new year began and the presidential campaign got under way in earnest. But his standing with female voters is strengthening, polls show, as the economy improves and social issues, including birth control, become a bigger part of the nation's political discourse.

"Republicans are making a big mistake with this contraception talk, and I'm pretty sure that they are giving (the election) to Obama," says Patricia Speyerer, 87, of McComb, Miss., a GOP-leaning independent. "It's a stupid thing."

The recent furor over whether religious employers should be forced to pay for their workers' contraception is certainly a factor but hardly the only reason for women warming up to Obama again after turning away from him late last year.

An Associated Press-GfK poll suggests women also are giving the president more credit than men are for the country's economic turnaround.

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AP source: Israel will keep US out of the loop if it decides to strike Iran's nuclear program

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Israeli officials say they won't warn the U.S. if they decide to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, according to one U.S. intelligence official familiar with the discussions. The pronouncement, delivered in a series of private, top-level conversations, sets a tense tone ahead of meetings in the coming days at the White House and Capitol Hill.

Israeli officials said that if they eventually decide a strike is necessary, they would keep the Americans in the dark to decrease the likelihood that the U.S. would be held responsible for failing to stop Israel's potential attack. The U.S. has been working with the Israelis for months to persuade them that an attack would be only a temporary setback to Iran's nuclear program.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak delivered the message to a series of top-level U.S. visitors to the country, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the White House national security adviser and the director of national intelligence, and top U.S. lawmakers, all trying to close the trust gap between Israel and the U.S. over how to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Netanyahu delivered the same message to all the Americans who have traveled to Israel for talks, the U.S. official said.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive strategic negotiations.

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NYPD's Kelly not apologizing for surveillance of Muslims in NJ, calls criticism 'knee-jerk'

NEW YORK (AP) -- The New York Police Department's top official reiterated his defense Monday of the department's aggressive intelligence-gathering operations, saying there's no need to apologize for keeping tabs on some Muslims if that's what it takes to protect the city.

"Not everybody is going to be happy with everything the police department does, that's the nature of our business," Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said. "But our primary mission, our primary goal, is to keep this city safe, to save lives. That's what we're engaged in doing."

Kelly's comments to reporters Monday were the latest in a recent string of public statements in response to reports by The Associated Press about the NYPD's surveillance on Muslims across the Northeast following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

On a radio show on WOR, Kelly said some local politicians and potential candidates to succeed Mayor Michael Bloomberg who have criticized the counterterrorism efforts were pandering because of the upcoming election season.

In a newspaper column in the New York Daily News, Kelly said the criticism was a knee-jerk reaction by some New Jersey lawmakers to news that the NYPD had done surveillance in Newark.

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No injuries reported as passenger plane makes emergency landing at Newark Liberty Airport

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) -- Newark Liberty Airport has reopened after a United Express flight from Atlanta made an emergency landing, forcing an hour-long shutdown.

There were no reports of injuries among the 71 people aboard.

Authorities say Flight 5124 landed around 6:20 p.m. Monday, shortly after the pilot was approaching the airport to land as scheduled and noticed a landing gear problem.

Newark firefighters were called to the scene, but found no smoke or fire aboard the plane.

A spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey says the airport was closed shortly after the landing. Two of the airport's three runways reopened about an hour later.

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Webcam view of same-sex encounter wasn't a dorm secret for long, witness says in Rutgers trial

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (AP) -- A key prosecution witness in the trial of a former Rutgers University student accused of watching his roommate's intimate encounter via webcam testified Monday that she agreed to keep it a secret because it was so shocking to see the images -- but that it wasn't under wraps for long.

"First of all, it was shocking. It felt wrong. We didn't expect to see that. And now that what we did, it was like we shouldn't have seen it," Molly Wei said told jurors. "We didn't want people to know what had happened."

But within minutes, she testified, she and defendant Dharun Ravi were online chatting with friends about seeing two men kissing. And within the hour, Wei said, she agreed to show a few seconds of the video stream to four other women who visited her dorm room.

Still, she said, Ravi did not intend to humiliate his roommate.

Ravi's roommate, 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, jumped to his death from New York's George Washington Bridge in September 2010, days after the spying and the gossip about it online and in their dorm.

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African-Americans wrestle with Hollywood history as they contemplate Viola Davis' Oscar loss

Despite torrents of debate among African-Americans over the merits of the segregation-era movie "The Help," most still hoped that Viola Davis, who plays a maid, would become just the second black winner of the best actress Oscar.

And so there was widespread disappointment when Davis lost the Academy Award to Meryl Streep on Sunday night. Still, ambivalence tinged the reaction: Besides regret that the ranks of black Oscar winners remained small, many felt relief that a role viewed as stereotypical was not honored.

"Oohhhhhhhnnnnnnooooooooooooooo," wailed Robinne Lee on Twitter.

Lee, a black actress who has appeared in films such as "Seven Pounds" and "Hotel for Dogs," said in an interview that Streep embodies excellence and deserved to win. "But Viola had so much hype this year, and there was so much excitement, and it conjured up so much controversy in the black community about this role ... so (the loss) was disappointing."

Yet Lee felt a mix of emotions, since she is eager to see more diverse movie casts in a wider variety of roles. Adding to the conundrum was the best supporting actress victory of Octavia Spencer, who played another maid in "The Help."