Palestinians: Obama Vows to "Stop the Settlements"

Israeli and Palestinian leaders are meeting in Washington today for their first direct talks in nearly two years. President Obama kicked off the negotiations on Wednesday with a day of preparatory meetings at the White House also involving Jordan and Egypt. Speaking from the Rose Garden, Obama said the US aims to resolve all of the issues in the way of a peace deal.

President Obama: "These negotiations are intended to resolve all final status issues. The goal is a settlement negotiated between the parties that ends the occupation which began in 1967 and results in the emergence of an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace and security with a Jewish state of Israel and its other neighbors. That’s the vision we are pursuing."

Both sides agreed to sit down last month after the US successfully pressured Palestinian leaders to drop their precondition of an Israeli settlement freeze. In advance of the talks, the Obama administration also rejected a Palestinian request for the US to present a peace plan of its own, as President Bill Clinton did just months before leaving office. Nabil Shaath of the Palestinian Authority said President Obama has vowed to pressure Israel on settlement construction.

Nabil Shaath: "He expressed his big interest, and that of his administration, to reach a solution that would lead to an independent Palestinian state that encompasses all the goals and ambitions of the Palestinian people, and that this goal must be achieved now. He also stressed that this is in America’s interest, not just in Palestinian, Arab or Israeli interests. And he stressed that he would do all he can to reach an agreement within a year, and that he will do all he can to stop the settlements. That was his principal message."

Also Wednesday, Palestinian militants shot and wounded two Israeli settlers as they drove in the occupied West Bank. The shootings came one day after Palestinian militants killed four Israeli settlers in the West Bank town of Hebron. The military wing of the Palestinian group Hamas has claimed responsibility for both attacks. Residents of the Israeli settlement of Adam announced they would respond with the immediate resumption of construction of Jewish-only homes.

Biden Marks Nominal End to US Combat Operations in Iraq

Vice President Joe Biden and top US military officials marked the nominal end of US combat operations in Iraq with a formal change-of-command ceremony in Baghdad. In what’s been described as a made-for-television event, Biden said the US is on track to withdraw all its troops by the end of next year.

Vice President Joe Biden: "The United States has now ended our combat mission in Iraq, and Iraqi troops are taking lead responsibility for their country’s security. We’ve kept a promise, a promise made to the American people and to the people of Iraq, by drawing down our forces to roughly 50,000. And we’re on track to remove all of our troops by end of next year according to the agreement signed by President Bush made with the Iraqi government."

Tens of thousands of US troops, special operations forces and private contractors remain in Iraq. According to the New York Times, the commander of one of the remaining US brigades, Colonel Malcolm Frost, recently wrote to his soldiers’ families: "We will move around Iraq fully protected in armored Strykers and other armored vehicles, wearing full body armor, and fully loaded with ammunition to deal with the enemy if/when they raise their head in anger against us."

Over 60 Killed in Pakistan Air Strikes

In Pakistan, over sixty people have been killed in a series of air strikes on three villages in the tribal region of Khyber. Pakistani officials say over thirty suspected militants were killed. But witnesses say the dead include at least nine civilians, three of them children.

Justice Dept. Charges Mehsud with CIA Bombing in Afghanistan

The Justice Department has charged the head of the Pakisani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, with plotting the attack that killed seven CIA employees in Afghanistan last December. The charges come just over eight months after the Obama administration claimed it was "about 90 percent certain" that Mehsud had died in a CIA drone strike. At the State Department, Coordinator for Counterterrorism Daniel Benjamin announced the Pakistani Taliban has been added to the US government list of designated foreign terrorist organizations.

Daniel Benjamin: "The TTP is very much part of the most dangerous terror threat that the United States faces. The TTP and Al Qaeda have a symbiotic relationship. TTP draws ideological guidance from Al Qaeda, while Al Qaeda relies on the TTP for safe haven in the Pashtun areas along the Afghan-Pakistani border. The mutual cooperation gives TTP access to both Al Qaeda’s global terrorist network and the operational experience of its members. Given the proximity of both groups and the nature of their relationship, TTP is a force multiplier for Al Qaeda."

UN Increases Estimate of DRC Rape Victims

The United Nations has disclosed more people may have been victimized in recent mass rapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo than previously thought. The UN now says some 240 women, girls and babies may been raped when Rwandan and Congolese rebels stormed the town of Luvungi, up from the previous estimate of 150. It took three weeks for the UN to respond, even though the town is just miles from a UN base.

Evacuations Ordered in NC Ahead of Hurricane Earl

Evacuation orders have been issued for two islands in North Carolina’s Outer Banks as Hurricane Earl approaches the East Coast. Federal officials say Earl has strengthened into a Category 4 storm. North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue has declared a state of emergency.

Armed Suspect Killed After Taking Hostages at Discovery Channel

A hostage-taking at the Maryland headquarters of the television network Discovery Channel ended Wednesday with the fatal shooting of the suspect. Police say James Lee had entered the building armed with a handgun and possibly wearing explosives. Lee was described as a mentally unstable environmentalist who had long railed against Discovery’s coverage of environmental issues.

Judge Rejects Dismissal of Suit to Overturn Drilling Ban

A federal judge has rejected the Obama administration’s attempt to dismiss an energy industry lawsuit challenging the six-month ban on deepwater oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. The White House reimposed the ban in July after the same judge struck it down the month before. The judge, Martin Feldman, has extensive energy industry financial ties. On Wednesday, Feldman ruled the suit can proceed because the new moratorium doesn’t differ in substance from the first.

BP Ad Spending Tops $93M Since Spill

New figures, meanwhile, show BP has spent more than $93 million on advertising in the over four months since the oil disaster began. That amounts to $5 million per week, and over three times BP’s ad spending during the same span in 2009.

Recession Spurs Sharp Decline in Undocumented Immigration

New figures show the number of undocumented immigrants entering the United States has declined by almost two-thirds in the past decade. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the number fell by more than half to 300,000 after the recession hit in 2007. Overall, an estimated 11.1 million undocumented immigrants lived in the United States last year, an eight percent decrease from a peak of 12 million in 2007.

Wyoming Town Near Drilling Told Drinking Water Unsafe, Potentially Explosive

Residents of a Wyoming town where natural gas drilling has occurred for years are now being warned their water is not only undrinkable but potentially explosive. The Environmental Protection Agency issued the warning after a second round of testing on the town of Pavillion’s water supply. The first round found at least three water wells contained chemicals used in the natural gas drilling process of hydraulic fracturing. ProPublica reports the latest tests confirmed the presence of those chemicals as well as benzene, metals, naphthalene, phenols and methane. In addition to being told not to drink their water, Pavillion residents are also being advised to use fans and ventilation when showering or washing clothes to avoid the risk of explosions.

WikiLeaks Founder Speaks Out Against Swedish Probe

Sweden’s top prosecutor has reopened an investigation of rape allegations against the co-founder of the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks despite dropping the same case last month. The probe of Julian Assange comes less than two months after his group released thousands of classified US government documents on the Afghan war. In a television interview, Assange again denied the allegations and said he’s the target of a smear campaign.

Julian Assange: "In a system that has rule of law, the police should have the burden to prove their case. However, we can see here that what is happening is not happening inside a court of law, it is happening in the jury of public opinion, because of deliberate attempts to push this into the public opinion, starting from the very beginning and including either major errors or outright complicity by the prosecution."

Lawyer: Mental Health of Alleged Leaker Was Questioned

And the Washington Post meanwhile is reporting the jailed soldier accused of leaking the Afghan war documents, Bradley Manning, faced scrutiny around his mental health late last year. According to Manning’s attorney, the sergeant who oversaw Manning disabled Manning’s weapon after becoming concerned about his behavior. Despite the claim, the sergeant also admitted that he didn’t refer Manning for any mental health treatment and continued to let him work in his post as an intelligence analyst with access to classified material. The attorney also says Manning is currently receiving treatment, including a regimen of prescription drugs, for depression and insomnia.

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