Insurgents attack bus, kill 17 civilians

Gunmen opened fire on a bus carrying unarmed Iraqis to work at a U.S. weapons dump near Tikrit yesterday, killing 17 and bringing the toll from three days of intensified insurgent attacks to at least 70 Iraqi dead and dozens wounded.

The attacks, focused in Baghdad and several cities to the north, appeared to be aimed at scaring off those who cooperate with the American military — whether police, national guardsmen, Kurdish militias, or ordinary people just looking for a paycheck.

The violence came just weeks after the United States launched major offensives aimed at suppressing guerrillas ahead of crucial elections set for Jan. 30. Later yesterday, several small Sunni Muslim groups joined more influential Sunni clerics in demanding that the vote be postponed by six months.

Yesterday’s bloodshed began when gunmen opened fire at the bus as it dropped off Iraqis employed by coalition forces at a weapons dump in Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, said Capt. Bill Coppernoll, spokesman for the Tikrit-based U.S. 1st Infantry Division. Coppernoll said 17 people died and 13 were wounded in the attack.

Survivors said about seven guerrillas were involved, emptying their clips into the bus before fleeing. The bodies of the victims were brought to a morgue too small to fit all of them; some were left splayed on a street outside.


CAIRO, Egypt

Israel and Egypt relations begin to warm

In a series of dramatic steps capped yesterday by a high-profile prisoner swap, Israel and Egypt are moving rapidly to improve relations, seizing the opportunity for a Middle East peace deal presented by Yasser Arafat’s death.

A year ago, Egypt’s president dismissed Israel’s prime minister as incapable of making peace. Today, he calls Ariel Sharon the region’s best chance for an end to hostilities. The change in attitude is also apparent in Syria and across the Gulf, as Arab nations signal they are ready to work with Sharon, a man they long have described as a butcher.

But it was yesterday’s Israeli-Egyptian prisoner swap that provided the most striking example.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s decision to free Azzam Azzam, an Israeli Arab convicted of spying for Israel, in exchange for six Egyptian students held by Israel reversed his government’s long-standing policy — and eliminated a central point of friction between the two countries over the past eight years.

Israel may also release Palestinian prisoners in the future, Sharon said.



Gays to challenge “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy

The Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is being challenged by 12 people who have been separated from the military because of their homosexuality.

They plan to file a federal lawsuit today in Boston that would cite last year’s landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling banning state laws making gay sex a crime as ground for overturning the policy. Other courts have upheld the 11-year-old policy, but C. Dixon Osburn, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which is advising the plaintiffs, said those decisions came prior to the 2003 Supreme Court ruling.

“We think the gay ban can no longer survive constitutionally,” he said.

Justin Peacock, a former Coast Guard boatswain’s mate from Knoxville, Tenn., who is among the plaintiffs in the planned U.S. District Court lawsuit, was kicked out of the service after someone reported he was seen holding hands with another man.

“I would love to rejoin, but even if I don’t get back in at least I could say I tried to get the policy changed,” Peacock said.


KIEV, Ukraine

Opposition leader prepares for new election

Ukraine opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko began campaigning for the Dec. 26 presidential election rerun yesterday with a call for quick passage of anti-fraud legislation. Supporters signed up by the thousands to monitor polls and ensure a fair vote.

“We are witnessing a struggle between forces of good and forces of evil,” Yushchenko told throngs of chanting supporters gathered at Kiev’s main square and waving his campaign’s orange flags. “The entire world is applauding our victory. The entire world is proud of Ukraine.”

While thousands of pro-Yushchenko demonstrators marked two weeks of a round-the-clock vigil in downtown Kiev, supporters of his rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, were largely out of sight in eastern regions near Russia — Yanukovych’s stronghold.


— Compiled from Daily wire reports

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