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Iraqis Vote in Landmark Election


IRAQ: Iraqis are voting today in elections that are seen as a crucial test of the country's stability. In the first provincial elections since 2005, Iraqis will pick representatives for 14 of the country's 18 local councils. More than 14-thousand candidates are vying for 440 seats. Several mortars exploded near a polling station in the city of Tikrit, north of Baghdad. There were no reported injuries, but the incident underscores the authorities' concerns about violence. Iraqi officials tightened security for the elections, closing the country's airports and borders and restricting traffic in cities.

US - ECONOMY: U.S. President Barack Obama began his weekly address today saying he has good news and bad news about the U.S. economic crisis. The bad news, he says, is that Americans are facing "unprecedented economic turmoil", noting a new report showing the economy shrank by nearly four percent at the end of last year. He said the good news is his administration is working on a new approach to help revive the country's failing financial sector. The president did not reveal any details of the plan, but he said Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner will soon lay out a strategy to get credit flowing to businesses and families.

ISRAEL - PALESTINIANS: The Israeli military says a rocket launched by Palestinian militants in Gaza landed in southern Israel today, without causing any casualties. It is the third such rocket attack in nearly two weeks, since the start of a truce between Israeli forces and Gaza militants. On Friday, the U.S. envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, warned during a trip to the region that there will be more setbacks to peace efforts. He said it is important to consolidate a durable cease-fire while addressing Gaza's humanitarian needs.

SOMALIA: A moderate Islamist leader has won Somalia's presidential election. Somalia's parliament elected Sheikh Sharif Shiekh Ahmed to the post early today during a secret ballot in Djibouti. Lawmakers had earlier this week voted to double the size of the parliament to include Sharif's moderate Islamist party (Islamist Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia, or ARS). His win marks a major boost in efforts to create an inclusive government in Somalia. Sheikh Sharif had previously headed the Islamic Courts Union which briefly controlled much of Somalia in 2006. Last year, he signed a peace agreement with the government.

THAILAND - POL: Thai authorities have vowed to prevent anti-government protesters from seizing the prime minister's compound in a repeat of last year's demonstrations by their opponents. Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban said Friday that he has instructed police to take decisive action if supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra break the law during today's rally and march to Government House. Suthep, who is in charge of security affairs, said police who fail to enforce the law will be held responsible for neglecting their duties. He said the military is prepared to back up police if necessary.

BURMA - UN: The United Nations says its special envoy for Burma arrived in the country today for a four-day visit to broker fresh talks with the ruling military about political reforms. The office of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement Ibrahim Gambari is visiting Burma at the invitation of the government to continue talks on national reconciliation. The statement said the U.N. chief has asked his special adviser to continue his consultations with Burma's government and other relevant parties. It said Mr. Ban looks forward to Gambari's discussions on all the points raised during his last visit.

SRI LANKA: Sri Lanka is rejecting international calls for a cease-fire with Tamil Tiger rebels in the war-torn north, but the government says it will allow civilians to escape the fighting, and is urging the separatists to do the same. The minister of disaster management and human rights on Friday disputed reports that hundreds of civilians have been killed in intense fighting over the last two weeks, and said there will be no cease-fire. A Tamil Tiger official told a pro-Tamil Web site that the Sri Lankan government has stepped up artillery attacks on civilian areas, leaving at least 28 people dead Friday.

US POL - REPUBLICANS: The leaders of the U.S. Republican Party have elected Michael Steele to be the party's first African-American chairman. In a Friday vote, Steele beat four other contenders for the job, including incumbent Mike Duncan who was forced to withdraw because of a lack of support. Steele is the former Lieutenant Governor of Maryland. His task is to rebuild a political party that has been battered in recent national elections. In 2008, the Republicans lost the presidency and seats in both houses of congress. Rival Democrats now hold legislative majorities as well as the White House.

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