Scandal may hurt Sharon’s bid for re-election

JERUSALEM

An upset by challenger Amram Mitzna no longer seems impossible in Israel’s elections two weeks from now – thanks to a corruption scandal that has weakened Ariel Sharon and his party.

This has given new meaning to the choice facing Israelis between Sharon’s policy of trying to crush the Palestinian uprising and Mitzna’s vow to leap back into peace talks with Yasser Arafat.

Even if he keeps his job, a weakened Sharon would probably be even less inclined to sign on to a U.S.-backed plan for Palestinian statehood by 2005.

The prime minister will not be crowned on election day, Jan. 28. With 15 parties likely to win seats in the 120-member Knesset, it will probably take weeks of negotiations before either Sharon or Mitzna has formed a majority coalition and is pronounced prime minister.

That’s a change from the last three elections – in 1996, 1999 and 2001 – when Israelis elected their prime minister directly.

When Sharon called early elections two months ago, he seemed assured of victory, but his campaign has become mired in allegations of corruption ranging from vote buying to a $1.5 million loan from a friend to help repay illegal campaign funds.

U.S. deploys more troops, ships to Iraq

WASHINGTON

Building up for a possible war against Iraq, the Navy is deploying a seven-ship armada with up to 7,000 Marines from California, matching a force already under way from the East Coast.

The new amphibious task force would mirror a seven-ship deployment of Marines that headed out over the weekend from bases on the Virginia coast, Navy officials said yesterday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Together the task forces will present Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander who would run a war against Iraq, with the option of amphibious assaults from the northern Persian Gulf, the officials said.

The Marines also could go ashore in Kuwait to be part of an Army-led land attack into southern Iraq.

Trained to operate in austere environments, the Marines also could move by helicopter into Iraq from their ships in the Gulf or from Kuwait to establish forward bases, as they did in southern Afghanistan early in that war.

The movement of naval forces is part of a broader buildup of American military might in the Gulf region.

Stone tablet may hold biblical clues

JERUSALEM

Israeli geologists said yesterday they have examined a stone tablet detailing repair plans for the Jewish Temple of King Solomon that, if authenticated, would be a rare piece of physical evidence confirming biblical narrative.

The find is about the size of a legal pad, with a 15-line inscription in ancient Hebrew that strongly resembles descriptions in the Bible’s Book of Kings. It could also strengthen Jewish claims to a disputed holy site in Jerusalem’s Old City that is now home to two major mosques.

Muslim clerics insist, despite overwhelming archaeological evidence, that no Jewish shrine ever stood at the site. That claim was made by Palestinian officials in failed negotiations with Israel in 2000 over who would be sovereign there.

The origin of the stone tablet is unclear, making it difficult to establish authenticity.

Palestinians killed after grenade attack

JERUSALEM

Two Palestinians threw grenades yesterday at an Israeli bus in the Gaza Strip and were shot dead by Israeli troops, and an Islamic Jihad activist was killed in an explosion in the West Bank – the latest incidents in escalating violence two weeks before Israel’s election.

In the Gaza incident, the two attackers charged the bus as it left the Jewish settlement of Netzarim, a senior army officer said. Troops opened fire, killing the assailants. A pistol and six more grenades were found on the bodies, said the officer, who gave only his first name, Yoel. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility.

In a valley near Nablus, Islamic Jihad fugitive Raami Abu Bakr was killed and another activist, Fuad Ahmed, was wounded in an explosion. Ahmed said they were hit by an Israeli missile, but he could not say where it came from.

Townshend arrested for child pornography

LONDON

Pete Townshend, the legendary rock guitarist and co-founder of The Who, was arrested yesterday on suspicion of possessing indecent images of children, police said.

Townshend has acknowledged using an Internet Web site advertising child pornography, but said he was not a pedophile and was only doing research for an autobiography dealing with his own suspected childhood sexual abuse.

The musician was released early yesterday after questioning at a southwest London police station, Scotland Yard police headquarters said.

“Shortly after midnight he was released on police bail pending further inquiries and will return to the station later in January,” a police spokesman said on condition of anonymity.

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