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WORLD BRIEFLY: Obama tells Israelis 'peace is possible'

Thursday, March 21, 2013 | 9:15 p.m. CDT

Here are today's top stories from The Associated Press.

Obama eases demands on Israeli settlements, insists to all sides Mideast 'peace is possible'

JERUSALEM — Insisting "peace is possible," President Barack Obama on Thursday prodded both Israelis and Palestinians to return to long-stalled negotiations with few, if any, preconditions, softening his earlier demands that Israel stop building settlements in disputed territory.

The president made his appeal just hours after rockets fired from Hamas-controlled Gaza landed in a southern Israeli border town, a fresh reminder of the severe security risks and tensions that have stymied peace efforts for decades.

Obama, on his second day in the Middle East, shuttled between Jerusalem and Ramallah, reaching out to the public as well as political leaders. He offered no new policies or plans for reopening peace talks but urged both sides to "think anew" about the intractable conflict and break out of the "formulas and habits that have blocked progress for so long."

"Peace is possible," Obama declared during an impassioned speech to young people in Jerusalem. "I'm not saying it's guaranteed. I can't even say that it is more likely than not. But it is possible."

The deep disputes dividing the Israelis and Palestinians have remained much the same over the years, and include deciding the status of Jerusalem, defining borders and resolving refugee issues. Palestinians have been particularly incensed over Israeli settlements in disputed territories, and the Israelis' continued construction has also drawn the condemnation of the United States and other nations.

Syrian suicide bombing in mosque kills top pro-Assad Sunni preacher and 41 other people

BEIRUT  — A suicide bombing tore through a mosque in the Syrian capital Thursday, killing a top Sunni Muslim preacher and longtime supporter of President Bashar Assad along with at least 41 other people.

The assassination of Sheikh Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Buti removes one of the few remaining pillars of support for the Alawite leader among the majority sect that has risen up against him.

The powerful explosion struck as al-Buti, an 84-year-old cleric and religious scholar who appeared often on TV, was giving a religious lesson in the Eman Mosque in the central Mazraa district of Damascus, according to state TV.

Suicide bombings blamed on Islamic extremists fighting with the rebels have become common in Syria's 2-year-old civil war. But Thursday's explosion marked the first time a suicide bomber detonated his explosives inside a mosque.

Syrian TV said 84 people were wounded in the explosion and showed footage of wounded people and bodies with severed limbs on the blood-stained floor and later, bodies covered in white body bags lined up in rows. Sirens wailed through the capital as ambulances rushed to the scene of the explosion, which was sealed off by the military.

Gun control advocates press Democrats on expanding background checks as best response to Newtown

WASHINGTON— Gun control advocates are pressing Democrats to make expanded federal background checks for firearms buyers a cornerstone of the gun control legislation the Senate plans to debate next month, calling it the best way for lawmakers to salvage a meaningful response to December's elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is widely expected to include a broadening of the background system in the overall gun legislation, say Senate aides and lobbyists who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal Democratic deliberations.

They caution he has yet to make a final decision as he waits to see if senators can strike a bipartisan deal on the proposal. If they don't, he will have to calculate whether to introduce a more modest overall gun bill without background checks or dare Republicans to scuttle a bolder one that includes the expanded system.

Background checks are designed to keep guns from criminals, people with serious mental problems and others. The checks are currently required only for sales involving federally licensed gun dealers, not for private transactions at gun shows or online.

President Barack Obama and other supporters say the system helps keep dangerous people from getting guns and should be expanded to virtually all firearms transactions. The National Rifle Association and other opponents say the checks are easily avoided by criminals who get their weapons illegally, and say expanding them would be a step toward a government registry of firearms owners — which is forbidden by federal law.

GOP-dominated House passes budget plan promising slashing cuts, balance in 10 years

WASHINGTON — The Republican-controlled House passed a tea party-flavored budget plan Thursday that promises sharp cuts in safety-net programs for the poor and a clampdown on domestic agencies, in sharp contrast to less austere plans favored by President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies.

The measure, similar to previous plans offered by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., demonstrates that it's possible, at least mathematically, to balance the budget within a decade without raising taxes.

But its deep cuts to programs for the poor like Medicaid and food stamps and its promise to abolish so-called "Obamacare" are nonstarters with the president, who won re-election while campaigning against Ryan's prior budgets. It passed on a mostly party-line 221-207 vote.

The House measure advanced as the Democratic Senate debated its first budget since the 2009 plan that helped Obama pass his health care law.

The dueling House and Senate budget plans are anchored on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum in Washington, appealing to core partisans in the warring parties that are gridlocked over persistent budget deficits. Obama is exploring the chances of forging a middle path that blends new taxes and modest curbs to government benefit programs.

Facing four-day ultimatum, Cyprus scrambles to come up with a new plan to avoid bankruptcy

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Cypriot politicians moved Thursday to restructure the country's most troubled bank as part of a broader bailout plan that must be in place by Monday to avoid financial ruin. Concerned customers rushed to get cash from ATMs as bank employees protested.

Cyprus has been told it must raise 5.8 billion euros ($7.5 billion) if it is to receive 10 billion euros ($12.9 billion) from its fellow eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund. If it does not find a way by Monday, the European Central Bank said it will cut off emergency support to the banks, letting them collapse.

That would throw the country into financial chaos and, ultimately, cause it to leave the euro zone, with unpredictable consequences for the region.

Party leaders and the government were hashing out three new laws on Thursday night, ranging from restricting bank transactions to restructuring the most troubled bank, Cyprus Popular Bank, or Laiki.

The pressure has increased since lawmakers on Tuesday rejected an earlier proposal to seize up to 10 percent of people's bank accounts. Banks have been shut since last weekend to avoid a run and will not open until Tuesday at the earliest.

No Powerball winner? Lottery officials say that means $320 million jackpot could swell

DES MOINES, Iowa — Viola Mourton buys a Powerball ticket every day. But with a $320 million jackpot that could grow in the next few days, she's upping her chances Thursday and buying several at her local convenience store.

"It's just a chance to win big money," said the 51-year-old secretary from Ottumwa, Iowa. "I'll probably buy a couple today because it's so high. But it only takes one to win."

That could be the game plan for others around the country. No Powerball winner yet? No problem. That just means a bigger jackpot for the rest of us.

Lottery officials said no ticket matched all the numbers in Wednesday night's Powerball drawing. Three tickets won the $1 Million Match 5 prize. But it means the current $320 million jackpot could swell before the next drawing on Saturday.

The jackpot is the sixth highest in history, but it could grow depending on sales at the end of each day, said Mary Neubauer, spokeswoman for the Iowa Lottery, one of the founding Powerball states.


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