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Iraq Imposes Heavy Security for Shi'ite Rituals in Karbala


IRAQ: Iraqi authorities have imposed tight security as Shi'ite pilgrims gather in the city of Karbala today for the annual Ashura religious observances -- one of the holiest events for Shi'ite Muslims. Some two-point-five million people from across Iraq and the rest of the Muslim world are expected to participate in a commemoration of the seventh-century death in battle of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. Witnesses say Iraqi helicopters circled over Karbala, military vehicles guarded all entrances to the city and a total ban on civilian vehicular traffic is being imposed.

THAILAND POL: Thailand's People Power Party, which supports ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, has announced that it has formed a six-party coalition to form a new government. Under the coalition announced today by PPP leader Samak Sundaravej, the party will control about two-thirds of the 480 seats in the lower house of Parliament. On Friday, Thailand's Supreme Court dismissed legal challenges to the PPP's election victory, clearing the way for it to form a new government. The court said it had no jurisdiction to rule on claims that the PPP should be disqualified from the December 23rd parliamentary election, which it won with a plurality of votes.

US POL: Residents of South Carolina are voting in a Republican presidential primary today, as Republican and Democratic voters in Nevada participate in caucuses. Public opinion polls in South Carolina suggest a tight race between Arizona Senator John McCain, who won the New Hampshire Republican primary, and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa Republican caucus. This is the first contest of the campaign in a southern state, and the candidates' views on the military and religion are expected to be key factors. McCain is focused on voter concerns about a weakening U.S. economy.

KENYA: Police in Nairobi are on alert today - and tensions are high in Kenya's capital city - following three bloody days of protests. At least 23 people have died since opposition leader Raila Odinga started nationwide demonstrations Wednesday. He and his supporters say the re-election last month of President Mwai Kibaki was fraudulent. On Friday, the opposition said it would end the protests in favor of economic boycotts. African leaders have been shuttling between the feuding factions to try to resolve the growing crisis.

ISRAEL - PALESTINIANS: Palestinian medical workers say at least two Hamas militants were killed in an Israeli air strike in the Gaza Strip today as the Jewish state intensifies efforts to end Palestinian rocket fires into Israel. The Israeli army says the air strikes were aimed at rocket launchers in northern Gaza. Witnesses say Palestinian gunmen also exchanged fire with Israeli troops backed by tanks and bulldozers as they searched several homes in the town of Jabaliya in the Hamas-controlled territory. Friday, United Nations officials asked Israel to reverse its decision to close its border with the Gaza Strip, saying the closure could worsen an already dire situation for Gaza Palestinians.

LEBANON: The leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah group, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, appeared in public today for the first time in more than a year to participate in one of the most important Shi'ite religious events in Beirut. Television footage shows Nasrallah in a black turban, surrounded by his security men, marching among a sea of people for the Ashura religious procession in the Hezbollah stronghold of southern Beirut. The last time Nasrallah appeared in public was in September 2006 at what was called a "Victory Rally" marking the end of a month-long war between his Shi'ite militant group and Israel.

BRITAIN - CHINA: British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is switching his focus from investment to the environment during his second day in China. Mr. Brown is scheduled today to visit the gas-powered Taiyang Gong Power Station, which was partly financed by Britain under the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism. This allows industrialized nations to meet their emissions targets by funding projects to reduce greenhouse gases in other countries (that do not have targets - such as China, in this case). The British prime minister will also visit Beijing's 91-thousand-seat National Olympic Stadium - nicknamed "the Bird's Nest" due to its unusual design.

BUSH - US ECONOMY: President Bush has called on the Democratic-controlled Congress to work with his administration in creating an economic growth package to boost the U.S. economy. Mr. Bush says the economy is fundamentally strong, but the risk of a downturn or recession is rising. He wants a stimulus package to encourage consumer spending, along with tax reductions to help businesses make larger investments and hire more people. Administration officials say Mr. Bush's plan could cost between 140 billion and 150 billion dollars.

SRI LANKA: Sri Lanka's military says more than 30 Tamil Tiger rebels and one soldier were killed in a series of battles along the front lines in the country's north since Friday. The military says the fighting took place in the districts of Mannar and Vavuniya, and at two place on the Jaffna peninsula. There has been no immediate comment from the rebels about the latest military claims. On Friday, the military accused the rebels of killing 10 civilians in a village southeast of Colombo - a relatively calm region of the country. Violence has intensified in Sri Lanka since the government two weeks ago formally pulled out of a 2002 cease-fire agreement with the rebels, saying Tamil Tigers had used the truce to regroup and rearm.

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