Israeli army stays in biblical birthplace

BETHLEHEM, West Bank

On the first Sunday since Israel reoccupied Bethlehem, troops barred Christians from worshipping at the Church of the Nativity, one of Christianity’s most sacred shrines. Soldiers in another part of the West Bank searched four mosques for suspected militants.

There were no signs that the Israelis were near an end to the operation in the biblical town, despite a State Department call for troops to leave as soon as possible, with Christmas just a month away. Christian tradition holds that Jesus was born in a grotto under the Bethlehem church.

Israeli forces rolled into Bethlehem, in the West Bank just south of Jerusalem, early Friday after a Palestinian suicide bomber from Bethlehem blew himself up on a Jerusalem bus a day before, killing 11 passengers and injuring more than 40 others.

The army has been conducting house-to-house searches for militants there. Soldiers arrested a local Islamic Jihad leader yesterday, the military said. Since Friday, more than 30 Palestinians have been detained, including three men believed to be connected to suicide bombing operations, army officers said.

Church bells rang yesterday, but Manger Square, like the streets of Bethlehem, was empty as soldiers enforced a strict curfew, confining the town’s residents to their homes.

U.S. troops in Mideast training for war

WASHINGTON

Even without the use of Saudi Arabia’s vast desert expanses to launch a ground invasion of Iraq, the U.S. military would have plenty of room to operate from tiny Kuwait and elsewhere, defense experts say.

There already are more than 12,000 U.S. forces in Kuwait – mostly Army soldiers – training in desert warfare. At least another 14,000 are in other Persian Gulf nations, and the Navy has an aircraft carrier, the USS Lincoln, in the northern Persian Gulf with more than 5,500 sailors and dozens of warplanes aboard.

If President Bush decided to go to war, thousands more forces would flow into the area.

Saudi Arabia was the key to assembling the massive allied force used in the 1991 Gulf War, starting shortly after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990. By February 1991, about a quarter-million combat troops were ready to push into occupied Kuwait and southern Iraq, and the fighting was declared over in 100 hours. Those combat troops were backed by a similar number of support forces, mostly at bases in Saudi Arabia.

Dockworkers ready to sign new contract

SAN FRANCISCO

West Coast dockworkers and shipping companies reached tentative agreement on a contract that could end the drawn-out labor dispute that shut down the coast’s major ports for 10 days and prompted the president to intervene.

The six-year contract would provide wage and benefit improvements for union members, plus technology and dispute-resolution improvements that the companies needed, said Peter Hurtgen, head of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

He praised both sides, saying lead negotiators “demonstrated statesmenlike leadership, which made this agreement possible.”

The agreement, reached late Saturday, still must be ratified by a majority of the 10,500 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

Cofn could contain Christ’s brother

TORONTO

The French scholar who discovered the purported burial box of Jesus’ brother, James, strongly defended the artifact’s identification yesterday against skeptical points raised at a convention of religion scholars.

Despite the doubts, Andre Lemaire asserted that “myself, I have been very cautious. I say it is very probable.”

The animated panel discussion, attended by 800 people, involved mainly crucial technical points such as grammar and the forms of handwriting in the inscription, which reads “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”

The words appear on a 1st century bone box known as an “ossuary,” a form of Jewish burial that ended in A.D. 70. The New Testament identifies James as Jesus’ brother and the leader of Jerusalem’s early Christians.

Former coup leader wins presidency

QUITO, Ecuador

A former coup leader viewed as a crusader against corruption won Ecuador’s presidential runoff yesterday, defeating a billionaire businessman who socializes with America’s rich and powerful.

With 97 percent of the votes counted, Lucio Gutierrez, a cashiered army colonel, had 54.3 percent of the votes compared with 45.7 percent for Alvaro Noboa, who heads a banana and shipping empire that includes 110 companies.

The 45-year-old president-elect, who led a 2000 coup that toppled a highly unpopular president seen as corrupt, campaigned as an anti-corruption crusader.

That appealed strongly to voters fed up with leaders who plunder government coffers.

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