17 Die in Mosul Helicopter Crash

Two American Black Hawk helicopters collided in midair and crashed in the northern city of Mosul Saturday. At least 17 U.S. soldiers were killed and 5 wounded in the deadliest single incident involving U.S. troops since the start of the Iraq war. The incident brings the death toll of US troops since the war began to over 400.

Military officials are still investigating reports that the two choppers collided when one ascended suddenly to avoid ground fire. Five U.S. helicopters have been downed by hostile fire in the past three weeks. Also in Mosul, five U.S. soldiers were injured when a roadside bomb detonated under their convoy.

U.S. Steps Up Pressure in Iraq Amid Mounting Losses

Meanwhile, U.S. troops have been shelling targets near Saddam Hussein’s home-town of Tikrit as part of Operation Ivy Cyclone Two to step up the pressure against insurgents in Iraq in response to mounting losses. The Washington Post reports that the U.S. military has surrounded a village on the outskirts of Tikrit with concertina wire, issued identification cards to all male residents and begun controlling access to the town to clamp down on attacks.

American soldiers backed by armored vehicles and helicopters also raided a Baghdad neighborhood overnight searching 450 houses over seven hours in the hunt for weapons and fighters.

And U.S. forces fired a satellite-guided missile at a "guerrilla camp" west of Kirkuk for the first time since major combat ended.

New Tape From “Saddam”

The operation in Tikrit took place hours after an Arabic TV station broadcast an audio tape purported to be of the ousted Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. The voice called on Iraqis to resist the occupying forces and warned of more deaths for US-led troops saying, "The evil ones are at a dead end in Iraq after having imagined they were going out for a walk."

Accelerated Plan For Transfer of Authority in Iraq

The U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and the American occupation authority agreed Saturday on the terms of a new plan for the accelerated transfer of authority in Iraq. Paul Bremer, chief administrator in Iraq, said the U.S. would help write an interim Iraqi constitution that, "embodies American values." The plan authorizes the creation of a provisional government that would assume sovereignty by the end of June.

The New York Times and the Washington Post note that this would allow for a reduction in American forces in Iraq just as the 2004 presidential campaign gets underway. Pentagon officials, however, have said that "tens of thousands" of troops would likely remain in Iraq for several years as "invited guests" of the new government.

Synagogue Bombings in Turkey Kill 23

Nearly simultaneous truck-bombs exploded outside two synagogues in Istanbul Saturday killing 23 people and leaving more than 300 wounded. Two Arabic-language publications said yesterday that they had received separate statements asserting al Qaeda’s responsibility for the attack. The New York Times reports that one of the groups, Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, has claimed credit for numerous events that al-Qaeda has not been involved with, such as last summer’s big blackout.

Unprecedented Security for Bush State Visit to UK

President Bush is set to arrive in Britain tomorrow on the first state visit by a U.S. President since President Woodrow Wilson in 1918.

Five thousand officers and hundreds of security agents will protect the President during the series of protests planned to mark his stay, including a mass national rally on Thursday. Extra police are at ports and airports, and have been checking people arriving on Eurostar trains from France. Bush will also be protected by hundreds of armed guards from the US.

Separately, British security services were placed on their second highest state of alert following information that al Qaida supporters in North Africa could be planning an attack. The alert is said to be unrelated to the President’s visit but will further tighten security on what was already described as an "unprecedented" policing operation.

One in Three Britons Think Bush is Stupid

A new poll finds that more than one in three people in Britain say Bush is "stupid" and a clear majority think he is a threat to world peace. The poll was conducted by YouGov and was published in The Sunday Times.

Kathleen Blanco Wins LA Governor’s Race

Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco became the first woman ever elected governor of Louisiana on Saturday narrowly defeating conservative Indian-American Republican Bobby Jindal.

The win put the Louisiana governorship back in the Democratic column for the first time since Gov. Foster won the first of his two terms eight years ago. The governor could not run again because of term limits.

GOP Campaigns for Medicare Bill

Republican leaders began an intensive campaign yesterday to sell a new agreement on Medicare drug benefits that would affect 40 million Americans, constituting the biggest expansion of Medicare in its 38-year history.

President Bush immediately pronounced himself an ally of the plan, which contains, among other things a limited prescription drug plan, a nudge for the elderly to join private plans, and higher premiums for people who earn over $80 thousand. The GOP is racing to push the legislation through Congress over the objections of leading Democrats who say it would severely undermine the traditional government-run Medicare program. Senate Democratic leader, Tom Daschle said, "The more Democrats learn about this plan, the more concerned we become."

Pentagon: Perle Did Not Violate Ethics Law

The Pentagon’s inspector general has concluded that Richard Perle, the former head of the Defense Policy Board violated no ethics laws by representing companies that had major dealings with the Defense Department while he was the group’s chairman.

Perle resigned his chairmanship of the influential civilian advisory group during the controversy in March. He remains a member of the advisory board.

Political Crisis After Serbia Fails to Elect President

This news from Serbia: For the third time in a year, Serbia failed to elect a president because of low voter turnout, triggering a political crisis in the country. The failed election left Serbia in a power vacuum. Parliament was dissolved last week because the government lost parliamentary support, leaving no one to call a new presidential vote. New general elections were set for Dec. 28. Serbia’s deputy prime minister, Zarko Korac, described the election results as a "tragedy" and said "We are entering a dangerous, dramatic phase of our future."

Pope Criticizes West Bank Wall

Pope John Paul II criticized Israel for building a barrier in the West Bank, saying the Middle East "does not need walls but bridges." The comments came on the eve of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s arrival for a 3-day visit to Italy.

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