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    Monday, March 31, 2008

    Heli round two

    It flys

    USA TODAY - Singer Sean Levert dies at 39

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    By Thomas J. Sheeran, Associated Press

    Singer Sean Levert, a third of the 1980s R&B trio LeVert and son of lead O'Jays singer Eddie Levert, has died after falling ill while serving a jail term. He was 39.

    Levert's family released a statement:

    "There are no words that can express what we are feeling today. There is no song that can capture the loss that we have in our hearts. But we are humbly overwhelmed by the generous outpouring of love, condolences and support from the many friends, fans and admirers of our son Sean. At this very difficult time, we thank you for your prayers and hope you will understand our need for privacy."

    No funeral arrangements have been made.

    Levert was sent to the Cuyahoga County jail last week for failing to pay child support. He died at Lutheran Hospital in Cleveland late Sunday, less than an hour after he was taken there from the jail, said coroner Frank Miller. An autopsy was planned, he said.

    His brother Gerald Levert, who had success as a solo artist after leaving their trio died in 2006 at age 40 of an accidental mix of prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

    The brothers had formed LeVert in the 1980s with childhood friend Marc Gordon. Their hits included and Baby I'm Ready,(Pop, Pop, Pop, Pop) Goes My Mind and Casanova.

    Casanova was nominated for a Grammy in 1988 for best R&B performance by a duo or group with vocal. It was also nominated for best R&B song.

    At Gerald Levert's funeral service in November 2006, Sean Levert and his father performed Dance With My Father and personalized the words for Gerald. The elder Levert's group, the O'Jays, was known for such smash hits as Back Stabbers and Love Train.

    Sean Levert found a new third partner last year and was trying to revive LeVert.

    Warden Kevin McDonough said Levert had been sick and guards were watching him at the jail's regular cellblock because he had been acting strangely. He declined to be more specific about Levert's medical condition.

    Levert suffered from high blood pressure and had been hallucinating in jail, Caesar said. Toxicology reports could take four to six weeks, he said.

    Sean Levert had pleaded guilty last week to six counts of non-support involving children ages 11, 15 and 17.

    Website address:

    USA TODAY - Absolut sale: Vodka-maker sold for about $9B

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    By Karl Ritter, Associated Press Writer

    French liquor group Pernod Ricard outbid three other companies to buy Sweden's state-owned Vin & Sprit, the maker of Absolut vodka, for $8.89 billion, the company said Monday.

    The deal ends months of speculation over who would take over one of the world's biggest vodka brands, which was put on the auction bloc as part of a sell-off of state-owned companies.

    Absolut is the world's fourth best-selling international spirit brand behind Diageo's Smirnoff vodka, Bacardi rum and Diageo's Johnnie Walker scotch.

    Managing Director Pierre Pringuet said the acquisition will fill a strategy gap for Pernod Ricard, which didn't previously have any premium vodka brands in its portfolio.

    "We wanted to bolster our presence in the U.S. and Absolut, with its 5 million cases will definitely do that," Pringuet told reporters in Stockholm, referring to Absolut's yearly sales of 9-litre cases of vodka in the U.S.

    "We intend to develop the brand and if possible accelerate its strengths," he said.

    The world's second-largest wine and spirits company beat the favorite, Jim Beam bourbon maker Fortune Brands (FO), to win control of one of the biggest and fastest-growing spirits brands half of which is sold in the United States.

    It also beat Bacardi and an investment group controlled by Sweden's Wallenberg family.

    Analysts at HSBC hailed it as a "master stroke", but said the high cost of the deal proved there were no cheap opportunities left in the fast-consolidating drinks sector.

    The French company said it will buy Vin & Sprit for $6.05 billion plus 1.45 billion euros and assume outstanding debt of 346 million euros, giving the deal an enterprise value of $8.89 billion, using Friday's exchange rate.

    The Swedish government, using an average exchange rate over the past 30 days, said the deal was worth 55 million kronor or $9.24 billion.

    "Pernod Ricard submitted an offer that on an overall assessment is the most attractive," the government said. "Pernod Ricard will be an excellent home for V&S. The board of V&S has expressed that they see significant industrial logic in the transaction."

    The government said the French company owner of brands such as Chivas Regal whisky, Mumm champagne and Beefeater gin intends to keep Vin & Sprit and Absolut vodka based in Sweden.

    "There is no written contract about that but the value of the brand is because it is Swedish," Pernod Ricard Chairman Patrick Ricard said. "A Swedish brand must be produced in Sweden."

    The government said the deal includes the whole company, except for Vin & Sprit's 10% share in U.S. spirits company Beam Global Spirits & Wine, which would be sold under a previous agreement with Beam shareholders.

    The deal will be completed during the summer.

    With its range of flavors from peach to blackcurrant, Absolut is the premium brand in Vin & Sprit's product range. Its other brands include Cruzan rum, Plymouth gin, a handful of Scandinavian aquavits and bitters and hundreds of wines.

    Absolut is believed to represent roughly half of the company's sales of $1.48 billion in 2006.

    Pernod Ricard said the deal would generate synergies estimated at $197 million to $237 million annually before taxes, partly by integrating distribution networks.

    "These synergies should be put into place in between two-four years after the finalization of this acquisition, depending on the timeline of distribution accords," the company said.

    As a result of the deal, Pernod Ricard said it would end its distribution agreement with vodka brand Stolichnaya, or Stoli.

    Contributing: Reuters

    Website address:

    USA TODAY - NFL rethinking playoff seeding

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    PALM BEACH, Fla.
    By Jarrett Bell, USA TODAY

    Part of the New York Giants' mojo in streaking to an unexpected Super Bowl XLII title in February was wrapped in their identity as road warriors.

    DARK DAYS AHEAD? Analyzing the NFL owners meetings

    First stop, Tampa. Then Dallas. Then Green Bay.

    The Giants never had a home playoff game, but it didn't stop them from getting an opportunity to upset the undefeated New England Patriots.

    At the NFL meetings beginning Monday, owners will consider a proposed rule change that could have allowed the Giants to open the postseason at home. The proposal to re-seed the playoffs could have afforded the Jacksonville Jaguars, who also won a road playoff opener against a division champion (Pittsburgh) with a worse record, the same opportunity.

    DISCUSS: Would you re-seed the playoffs?

    The league's competition committee seeks to shuffle the third through sixth seeds in each conference, basing the order on regular-season record rather than reserving the third and fourth seeds and a home game the first week of the playoffs for division champions.

    "This is something we've talked about for five or six years," said Rich McKay, the Atlanta Falcons' president and co-chair of the competition committee. "It goes back to when we went to eight divisions (in 2002) we were extremely nervous about the fact that you could have a situation where there's a division or two that's extremely weak one year or another, and create an imbalance as to who should qualify for the playoffs."

    The proposal on the table wouldn't include preventing a division champ from making the playoffs. And the division winners from each conference with the best two records would still earn a bye. Yet as illustrated with the Giants (10-6 during the last regular season) and Jaguars (11-5) both finishing a game better than their first-round opponents, wild-card teams would compete for home playoff games.

    Since the league realigned in 2002, four playoff settings might have been re-bracketed with a new formula.

    With first-round home games at stake, the final weekend of the regular season that is typically distinguished by random cases of non-competitiveness could become a lot more interesting.

    The Buccaneers, for example, lost their final two regular-season games in 2007 after wrapping up the NFC South title in Week 15. Quarterback Jeff Garcia was rested, with little incentive to win.

    A re-seeding could reduce the number of cases where a team's competitiveness is questioned because players are held out.

    Opponents of the proposal, however, might argue that the value of winning a division title will be diminished; that it is their right to rest players for the playoffs.

    Said McKay: "I think to make as many games as competitive as we can late in the year would be a good step for the league."

    Owners will also consider several other proposals, including one that would allow a defensive player to wear a helmet equipped with a radio transmitter that would receive instructions from a coach on the sideline. There are also measures that would prevent players from covering their names and numbers on their jerseys by long hair; eliminate the "force-out" rule; and allow for instant replay to be used for field goals.

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    USA TODAY - Housing Secretary resigns under pressure

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    From staff and wire reports

    Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson announced Monday he was resigning after seven years on the job.

    Jackson, 62, is under criminal investigation and has been fending off allegations of cronyism and favoritism involving HUD contractors for the past two years.

    ON DEADLINE: More on Jackson's resignation

    He also was under intense pressure from Democrats to resign.

    He did not mention the probe in his statement Monday to the media.

    The FBI has been examining the ties between Jackson and a friend who was paid $392,000 by Jackson's department as a construction manager in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

    "I am eternally grateful for the opportunity that you reposed the confidence in me to serve our country in this capacity and for the special friendship we share," Jackson said, thanking President Bush for the "privilege" of serving his country. "We have helped families keep their homes, we have transformed public housing, we have reduced chronic homelessness" and preserved affordable housing, he said.

    Bush, in a statement Monday, said "I have known Alphonso Jackson for many years, and I have known him to be a strong leader and a good man. I have accepted his resignation with regret."

    Jackson said he needs time to attend to personal and family matters.

    He did not take questions or elaborate on the family reasons he cited for the decision.

    Jackson resigns at a time when nation's housing industry is in a crisis so serious that it has imperiled the nation's credit markets and led to a major economic slowdown.

    His resignation takes effect on April 18.

    Jackson has a friendship with President Bush that dates to the late 1980s, when they lived in the same Dallas neighborhood.

    He was the first black leader of the housing authority in Dallas and president of American Electric Power-TEXAS in Austin.

    U.S. Senator Patty Murray, D-Washington, and chairman of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees the HUD's budget, said in a statement she called on Jackson to resign 10 days ago "because it was clear that the ethical allegations against him meant that the Bush Administration's ineffective housing policies were being burdened by an even more ineffective HUD Secretary."

    She said Bush should nominate a Housing Secretary with experience and credibility."Hopefully with new leadership at HUD, we can negotiate a bipartisan plan with the Bush administration to spare the maximum number of families the devastating consequences of losing their home," she said.

    Contributing: Associated Press

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    Henry Paulson

    We're trying our best

    Reuters - Treasury pitches regulatory overhaul

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    Treasury pitches regulatory overhaul

    Monday, Mar 31, 2008 3:59PM UTC

    By David Lawder and Mark Felsenthal

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson revealed sweeping plans on Monday for streamlining a hodgepodge of regulations that are blamed for allowing the U.S. mortgage crisis to balloon into a full-blown economic threat.

    The proposals, in the form of a 218-page "blueprint" that was started before markets unraveled last August, offer no quick fix for the credit contraction that threatens to tip the U.S. economy into recession.

    Paulson acknowledged that most of the proposals would not be enacted until after the current troubles had passed, perhaps long after President George W. Bush leaves office next January. The plan is expected to meet stiff resistance from Capitol Hill, within the financial sector and from competing corners of the government bureaucracy.

    The regulatory blueprint proposes eventually vesting new powers in the Federal Reserve as a "market stability regulator" -- effectively formalizing a role the central bank already has started to perform recently by expanding the list of financial firms who can borrow directly.

    It would give the Fed authority to demand that all financial system participants supply it with full information on their activities and grant the Fed a right to collaborate with other regulators in setting rules for their behavior.

    The Bush administration has faced political pressure from critics who blame lax regulatory oversight for the mortgage mess. Paulson, a 30-year Wall Street veteran, stressed that regulation must be light enough to keep markets innovative, and said those who tried to label the blueprint as advocating more or less regulation were "oversimplifying."

    The administration's proposal drew a quick reaction from Sen. Barack Obama, a Democratic presidential candidate, who told a campaign rally that Bush was "not making the regulations any tougher. He's not preventing the predatory lending that is responsible for a lot of these problems."

    However, Paulson downplayed the need for more regulation, saying: "I am not suggesting that more regulation is the answer, or even that more effective regulation can prevent the periods of financial market stress that seem to occur every five to 10 years."

    "I am suggesting that we should and can have a structure that is ... more flexible, one that can better adapt to change, one that will allow us to more effectively deal with inevitable market disruptions, one that will better protect investors and consumers, and one that will enable U.S. capital markets to remain the most competitive in the world," he said.


    Since problems surfaced last August with rising failure rates on subprime mortgage loans to less credit-worthy borrowers, credit markets have come near seizure several times. Public anger has mounted at what was perceived as slack enforcement of existing rules.

    Many mortgage loans were made without basic fact-checking. Some did not even verify whether borrowers actually earned the incomes they claimed or whether they were steered into inappropriate loans with low initial "teaser" rates that soon reset at higher rates requiring much larger monthly payments.

    Among changes, the Treasury wants to merge the Securities and Exchange Commission, the U.S. markets watchdog, with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which is charged with overseeing the activities of the nation's futures market.

    It also recommends getting rid of a Depression-era charter for thrifts, which was intended to make it easier to obtain mortgage loans, saying it is no longer necessary. That would mean closing the Office of Thrift Supervision and transferring its duties to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which oversees national banks.

    In one important change to try to clamp down on mortgage brokers, the Treasury is urging the establishment of a "Mortgage Origination Commission" made up of regulatory agency representatives that would be able to set licensing standards for mortgage brokers.

    That would boost consumer protection by increasing scrutiny of the personal conduct, disciplinary history and educational qualifications of the brokers, who are frequently the first contact for borrowers.

    (Writing by Emily Kaiser and Glenn Somerville; Editing by Frank McGurty)

    Walking in the rain

    And so

    Sunday, March 30, 2008

    Reuters - Pernod Ricard reportedly wins auction to buy Vin & Sprit

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    Pernod Ricard reportedly wins auction to buy Vin & Sprit

    Monday, Mar 31, 2008 1:0AM UTC

    NEW YORK (Reuters) - France's Pernod Ricard SA has won an auction to acquire Sweden's Vin & Sprit AB, the maker of Absolut vodka, a Wall Street Journal report said, citing people familiar with the matter.

    The details of the winning bid were not immediately clear but the deal with V&S, which is owned by the Swedish government, was expected to fetch as much as $7 billion, the Journal said on its Website late on Sunday.

    An announcement is expected Monday, the newspaper said.

    Both companies were not immediately available for comment.

    Binding bids for V&S are due on Thursday, when Pernod Ricard, U.S. spirits maker Fortune Brands, Bermuda-based Bacardi, and Sweden-based private equity group EQT are in the running, a source told Reuters earlier this week.

    Absolut is the world's third-largest premium liquor in terms of volume, after Diageo PLC's Smirnoff vodka and Bacardi rum.

    Fortune Brands, which had teamed up with Nordic Capital, a private-equity firm, was thought by some to have a leg up because it already distributes Absolut in the United States, the Journal said.

    Reuters - Abu Dhabi's Mubadala in talks to buy into U.S. firm

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    Abu Dhabi's Mubadala in talks to buy into U.S. firm

    Sunday, Mar 30, 2008 8:22AM UTC

    ABU DHABI (Reuters) - Abu Dhabi government investment firm Mubadala Development Co said on Sunday it was in discussions to buy a stake in a U.S. real estate firm.

    "We are in discussions to buy a stake in The John Buck Co," Carlos Obeid, chief financial officer of Mubadala, told a news conference in Abu Dhabi on Sunday, without giving further details.

    Mubadala said in a statement it had set up a new real estate company with Chicago-based The John Buck Co to develop projects in Abu Dhabi and the Middle East.

    Known as John Buck International, the joint venture will be based in Abu Dhabi and will focus on real estate. leasing and management services, Mubadala said in a statement.

    Mubadala did not give a value for the new company.

    London-based MEED reported earlier this month the joint venture will first develop Suwa island in Abu Dhabi, which is being developed as a commercial centre for the city, in line with the Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 masterplan.

    The island will include a stock exchange, along with commercial and residential buildings, a hotel and a hospital, MEED said.

    (Reporting by Stanley Carvalho; Editing by John Irish)

    Reuters - Zimbabwean forces patrol after poll result delay

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    Zimbabwean forces patrol after poll result delay

    Sunday, Mar 30, 2008 11:49PM UTC

    By Cris Chinaka

    HARARE (Reuters) - Riot police appeared on the streets of Zimbabwe's capital after a long delay to election results fuelled opposition suspicions that President Robert Mugabe may try and cling to power by rigging the vote.

    Reuters journalists saw the riot police in Harare late on Sunday and residents in outlying poor townships said they had seen stepped up patrols by security forces.

    "We have been told to stay indoors," said a resident in the eastern suburb of Tafara, declining to be named.

    Mugabe, 84, faced the biggest challenge of his 28-year-rule in Saturday's election because of Zimbabwe's economic collapse and a two-pronged opposition attack that put him under unprecedented political pressure.

    The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by Morgan Tsvangirai said it had won an overwhelming victory, but electoral officials said no official results would be released until 6 a.m. (0400 GMT) on Monday, 35 hours after polls closed.

    Results in past votes have begun emerging soon afterwards.

    The chairman of Zimbabwe's electoral commission, George Chiweshe, said the delay was caused by the complexity of holding presidential, parliamentary and local polls together for the first time, and the need to verify results meticulously.

    All results would be announced on Monday, he told reporters.

    "Mugabe has lost the election. Everyone knows no one voted for Mugabe, but they are now trying to cook up a result in his favor, " said MDC Secretary-General Tendai Biti.

    Zimbabwe is suffering from the world's highest inflation rate of more than 100,000 percent, chronic shortages of food and fuel, and an HIV/AIDS epidemic that has contributed to a steep decline in life expectancy.

    Two South African members of a regional observer mission said the delay in announcing the election results "underscores the fear that vote-rigging is taking place".

    They refused to sign a positive preliminary report on the poll by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and said there was evidence of "widespread and convincing" MDC wins.


    Mugabe's government warned the opposition it would regard victory claims as a coup attempt. The president, in power since independence from Britain, accuses the West of sabotaging Zimbabwe's economy and rejects vote-rigging allegations.

    SADC mission chairman Jose Marcos Barrica of Angola told reporters through an interpreter the election "has been a peaceful and credible expression of the will of the people".

    Mugabe is being challenged by veteran rival Tsvangirai and former finance minister and ruling ZANU-PF party official Simba Makoni. Both accuse the former guerrilla leader of wrecking a once prosperous economy and reducing the population to misery.

    Although the odds seem stacked against Mugabe, analysts believe his iron grip on the country and backing from the armed forces will enable him to declare victory.

    Barrica expressed concern about the voters roll, opposition access to the media and statements by the heads of security forces who had said they would not accept an opposition victory.

    But he said: "We saw that the basic conditions for a free and fair election were there."

    The dissenting SADC mission members, who belong to South Africa's opposition Democratic Alliance, said in a statement: "It is impossible for this deeply flawed electoral process to be viewed as a credible expression of the will of the people."

    The SADC, which critics say has been too soft on Mugabe, has unsuccessfully tried to mediate an end to Zimbabwe's crisis, which has turned a quarter of the population into refugees.

    Zimbabwe's security forces, which have thrown their weight firmly behind Mugabe, said before the election they would not allow a victory declaration before counting was complete.

    Government spokesman George Charamba warned the opposition against such claims. "It is called a coup d'etat and we all know how coups are handled," he told the state-owned Sunday Mail.

    Residents in the eastern opposition stronghold of Manicaland said riot police stopped a victory demonstration by about 200 MDC supporters on Sunday. There was no violence, they said.

    The United States said it was worried by the conduct of the election and the absence of most international observers.

    "The Mugabe regime is a disgrace to the people of Zimbabwe and a disgrace to southern Africa and to the continent of Africa as a whole," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters during a visit to Jerusalem.

    (Additional reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe, Stella Mapenzauswa, Nelson Banya, Muchena Zigomo and Arshad Mohammed in Jerusalem)

    (Writing by Barry Moody)

    Reuters - Motorola spin-off is no panacea: Barron's

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    Motorola spin-off is no panacea: Barron's

    Sunday, Mar 30, 2008 5:48PM UTC

    NEW YORK (Reuters) - Motorola Inc's <MOT.N> decision to spin off its handset division will not raise a share buying opportunity for investors and will not improve chances of a turnaround at the unit, Barron's reported on Sunday.

    Motorola does not have a detailed plan as to how, or specifically when, the spin-off will occur, Barron's said in its March 31 edition.

    The paper said Motorola has also been unable to find a qualified executive to manage the new handset company.

    "There's a lot of execution risk" to the spin-off plan, Mark Sue, RBC Capital Markets analyst, said in the Barron's report.

    It said the notion that a spin-off would improve the chances of a turnaround in handsets is "seriously flawed".

    (Reporting by Yinka Adegoke, editing by Maureen Bavdek)

    Artists get social

    I rule your world

    Reuters - Musicians take social networking into their own hands

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    Musicians take social networking into their own hands

    Saturday, Mar 29, 2008 8:0AM UTC

    By Jennifer Netherby

    NEW YORK (Billboard) - 50 Cent has more than 1 million friends on MySpace, but if the rapper ever decides to leave the social network, he'll be leaving behind those friends, too. So like a growing number of artists, he's started his own social networking site.

    On, fans can create profiles and friend lists just like on MySpace, but 50 Cent has direct access to the site's users and their e-mail addresses.

    More and more acts, from Kylie Minogue to Ludacris to the Pussycat Dolls, are launching their own social networks, which are becoming a sort of next-generation version of artist Web sites.

    The social networking component gives fans a reason to hang out on a site and visit more often than they would a standard Web site. And artists can sell advertisements on their sites and offer downloads and merchandise for sale -- options they don't have on MySpace or Facebook. Plus, they own the content and data on how fans use their site, which they don't get on other social networks.

    "The thing that separates Thisis50 from MySpace is we control the e-mail database," says Chris "Broadway" Romero, director for new media at G-Unit Records, which handles Thisis50. "We can e-mail members if we want to."

    Thisis50 isn't meant to be a fan club, but rather a platform for 50 Cent to showcase his music and music he likes, and comment on news and user profile pages. Ludacris', on the other hand, is more of a hub for aspiring artists to upload their music.

    The artist networks aren't meant to replace MySpace or Facebook, which tend to attract a broader audience and more users.

    "(Artists) think about MySpace and Facebook as funnels for their own social networks," says Gina Bianchini, CEO of Ning, a company that provides social networking tools for Thisis50, Sara Bareilles and others. "They take and use services where they don't know the users, don't have access and don't have full control, and funnel those fans to something they do control."


    The key to getting users coming back to the sites is artist involvement, either through blogs or comments on user pages or exclusive footage and other content.

    "The biggest thing we push to artists is, 'Embrace the site,'" says Evan Rifkin, CEO of, a social networking platform partly owned by MTV.

    It's relatively inexpensive to create a social network if artists use one of the growing number of companies that provide the tools and hosting. For instance, Ning charges $34 per month for a site and hosting. And Flux works with artists and labels on a revenue-sharing basis. Artists can set up their main site for free and pay a percentage of revenue from advertisements and sales on additional pages.

    Artists also tend to pay for labor to run the sites. But if fans get involved and add things to the site to share with others, it can reduce the need for staff to constantly provide new content, Romero says.

    In addition, many artists are simply turning their main Web site into a social network. Suretone Records director of new media Ashley Jex says the label is working with Flux to incorporate social networks into all its artists' sites to cater to the hardcore fans and keep them clicking around.

    With Flux, which also has deals with Universal Music Group and Virgin, users create one profile and with one click they can join the network of any artist using it, rather than having to create new profiles for each.

    Ice Cube and DJ Pooh added a twist earlier in March, launching UVNTV, a broadband TV and social networking site where artists and brands can create their own channel and subscribers can create profiles and chat with one another. Artists get detailed information on their users and can sell advertisements, merchandise, downloads or even subscriptions to their channel. They also own and control the content.

    "You know the demographic of anybody watching your content," DJ Pooh says. "You know what they watched and clicked on." The service is in beta and free to artists and is expected to formally launch in January 2009. So far, Snoop Dogg has a channel there, as does Ice Cube and such brands as RockStar Games and Source.

    Even more important: Fans seem to be buying directly from the sites. On Minogue's KylieKonnect, launched in fall 2007 through U.K.-based New Visions Mobile, nearly 25 percent of users have made a ringtone, download or merchandise purchase, company director Julia McNally says.


    Reuters - Apple has biggest impact on world consumers: survey

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    Apple has biggest impact on world consumers: survey

    Monday, Mar 31, 2008 1:22AM UTC

    By Rachel Sanderson

    LONDON (Reuters) - The Apple brand has the biggest impact on the world's consumers, while Microsoft and the United States nation brand are those considered most in need of a remake, a survey showed on Monday.

    The poll by online magazine asked its readers to identify the brands with the greatest impact on their lives, and say how they affected readers' behaviour and their view of the world.

    The nearly 2,000 professionals and students who voted named Apple overwhelming winner. The creator of the iPod and Mac computer triumphed in six categories including most inspiring brand and the one readers cannot live without.

    Microsoft, the world's largest software maker was also a winner, but it received the dubious honor of the brand most readers wanted to argue with, and the one they most wanted to revamp. Voted into second place in the category was brand USA.

    "Apple has clearly captured the hearts and minds by leading across most categories. Others, such as the USA nation brand, which ranks highly as most in need of a rebrand, requires help according to our readers," said brandchannel editor Jim Thompson.

    The poll does not take account of economic brand value, the murky science of assigning a financial value to brand, which regularly puts Coca-Cola Co's (KO.N) Coke in first place.

    One of the more surprising results from the survey, was that few of the respondents -- who came from 107 countries -- thought that there was such a thing as a "green" brand.

    The result comes despite millions of dollars spent by some of the world's biggest companies to rebrand themselves as "environmentally-friendly".

    Discussing Apple, one anonymous reader said there was "never a dull moment" with the company "reinventing itself all along and providing, over and over again, a new perspective on what we thought was carved in stone".

    At the other end of the spectrum, Microsoft had "gone from innovative and bold to stodgy and follower," said another unnamed reader.

    After Apple, the most inspiring brands were Nike, Coca-Cola, Google and Starbucks, the survey showed.

    The same brands, except with Virgin in place of Starbucks, were the brands most readers would "like to sit next to at a dinner party".

    The rankings by were based on answers from almost 2,000 readers from 107 countries. The survey was conducted online from February 24 to March 9.

    (Editing by Richard Balmforth)

    Reuters - N.Korea threatens to cut off dialogue with South

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    N.Korea threatens to cut off dialogue with South

    Sunday, Mar 30, 2008 5:30PM UTC

    By Jon Herskovitz

    SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea threatened to suspend dialogue with the South over comments made by a South Korean military official and said it was ready to attack its wealthy neighbor, the North's state media said at the weekend.

    Over the past several days, the North has lashed out at the new conservative government in Seoul and its ally the United States by test-firing missiles, expelling South Korean officials at a joint factory park in the North and threatening to slow down a nuclear disarmament deal.

    "The Korean People's Army (KPA) will counter any slightest move of the south side for 'pre-emptive attack' with more rapid and more powerful pre-emptive attack of its own mode," the North's KCNA news agency quoted one of its military officials as saying.

    North Korea, one of the world's most militarized states, has made similar statements for years threatening pre-emptive attacks, but those have almost always been in response to joint South Korean-U.S. military drills.

    The new chairman of the South's Joint Chiefs of Staff last week said the South would hit North Korea's nuclear weapon base to disable it if the North attacks but had no plans for a pre-emptive strike, according to the Defence Ministry.

    In the dispatch released late on Saturday, the North's military official demanded an apology for those comments.

    "If the south side does not retract the outbursts calling for 'pre-emptive attack' nor clarify its stand to apologize for them, the KPA will interpret this as the stand of the south side's authorities to suspend all inter-Korean dialogues and contacts."

    The South's Defence Ministry said it would decide whether to respond in the next few days to a North Korean threat also made in the dispatch to cut back on inter-Korean military talks.


    The two Koreas stepped up bilateral contacts after the first summit of their leaders in 2000, which has led to a decrease in tensions on the heavily armed peninsula and the South helping to keep the decrepit economy of it pauper neighbor afloat with massive aid.

    South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's government, in office for a month, has told the touchy North that if it wants to keep receiving aid it should clean up its human rights, abide by an international nuclear deal and start returning the more than 1,000 South Koreans it kidnapped or has held since the 1950-53 Korean War.

    Lee's left-of-centre predecessors in the presidential Blue House for the past 10 years have sent billions of dollars in aid to the North while asking for little in return, seeing it as the price to pay for stability.

    North Korea, which has a habit of test-launching missiles as a way to ratchet up political tensions, shot off ship-to-ship missiles into the Yellow Sea on Friday.

    It also said if South Korean ships continued to patrol in disputed Yellow Sea waters, there could be a battle.

    The commander of the some 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea that support the South's military of about 670,000 said on Friday last week the two could easily defeat the North's antiquated army of 1.2 million.

    "If North Korea should attack ... we will defeat them quickly and decisively and end the fight on our terms," General B. B. Bell said before the reported missile launch.

    (Additional reporting by Lee Jin-joo; Editing by Alex Richardson)

    Fracture of the 'Dems',

    We are split in twain

    Reuters - Democrats face summer of bitter infighting

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    Democrats face summer of bitter infighting

    Sunday, Mar 30, 2008 8:19PM UTC

    By David Wiessler

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Supporters of Barack Obama backed away on Sunday from calls for Hillary Clinton to drop out of the presidential race as Democrats faced a long summer of bitter fighting to win the party's White House nomination.

    In an interview published in The Washington Post, Clinton said she would fight all the way to the late August nominating convention, where a candidate will be chosen to face presumptive Republican nominee John McCain in the November election.

    "I think the race should continue," said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former Democratic presidential candidate who supports Obama. "She has every right to stay in the race. She's run a very good campaign."

    Some Obama backers have called on New York Sen. Clinton to give up, citing the Illinois senator's leads in the popular vote, states won and delegates to the convention to choose the nominee.

    But Clinton has used those calls to rally her supporters, saying Washington insiders are trying to force her out before all Democrats have voted. She also stressed the need for new votes in Florida and Michigan, whose earlier primary votes were rejected because they violated party rules.

    "I have no intention of stopping until we finish what we started and until we see what happens in the next 10 contests and until we resolve Florida and Michigan," Clinton said in the Post interview. "And if we don't resolve it, we'll resolve it at the convention."


    With the next big contest coming in Pennsylvania on April 22, Clinton and McCain took much of the day off, but Obama campaigned at Pennsylvania State University. Some 22,000 people came to listen to him speak at an open air rally, which aides said was one of the biggest events of the Democratic campaign.

    "I believe that the Democrats will be unified as soon as this nomination is settled. We will be unified because we understand that we do not want to be clinging to the policies of the past. We are the party of the future," Obama said.

    College students have been some of Obama's most active supporters and in Pennsylvania he must score big among them if he is to do well against Clinton.

    "You will have a president who has taught the constitution and believes in the constitution and will obey the constitution of the United States of America," Obama told the crowd, making a comparison between himself and President George W. Bush.

    Obama supporters hit the Sunday morning television talk shows to play down talk that Clinton should quit -- at least before the final nomination contests on June 3.

    But after that, with neither Democratic contender likely to have captured the 2,024 delegates needed to face McCain, they wanted a quick resolution so the fight does not last all summer. The outcome will probably lie with several hundred "superdelegates" -- party leaders and elected officials free to vote for either candidate.

    "After June 3, it's important that Democrats come together and not be so divided as we have been," Richardson said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "But I think it's important that, at the end of the June 3 date, we look at who has the most delegates, who has the most popular vote, who has the most states."

    That would most likely favor Obama. But Clinton backers did not see the need to hurry.

    "Neither Sen. Clinton nor Sen. Obama, based on what people say the math is, can get the required number of delegates. And so you have to play it out until the end," Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, a Clinton backer, said on the CBS show.

    Tennessee's Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen has proposed the superdelegates get together to make their choices after June 3 so the party can heal its wounds and go after the Republicans.

    "You have to bring it to a closure sometime long before the end of August so that you can start that healing process and, you know, whoever wins can say their mea culpas about what they said, and bring the party back together," he said on "Fox News Sunday."

    Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, an Obama supporter who was the party's losing presidential nominee in 2004, said the superdelegates needed to make up their minds early so Democrats can organize to beat McCain.

    "As a former nominee, I will tell you, this time right now is critical to us," he said on ABC's "This Week. "I think every day does give John McCain an ability to organize nationally."

    (Additional reporting by Matt Bigg in Pennsylvania; writing by David Wiessler and Christopher Wilson; editing by Patricia Zengerle)

    (To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at

    CNN - 'Doe Network' works to give names to the dead

    Sent from's mobile device from

    'Doe Network' works to give names to the dead

    Their faces seem to float from Todd Matthews' computer -- morgue photographs, artist sketches, forensic reconstructions -- thousands of dead eyes staring from endless Web sites as though crying out for recognition. John and Jane and Baby "Does" whose nameless bodies have never been identified.

    His wife, Lori, complains that Matthews, a 37-year-old auto parts supplier, spends more time with the dead than he does with the living, including his two sons, Dillan, 16, and Devin, 6.

    You need a hobby, she says, or a goal.

    I have a goal, he replies, though he describes it as a "calling."

    He wants to give "Does" back their names.

    His obsession began two decades ago, when Lori told him about the unidentified young woman wrapped in canvas whose body her father had stumbled on in Georgetown, Kentucky, in 1968. She had reddish-brown hair and a gap-toothed smile. And no one knew her name.

    So locals blessed her with one. They buried her under an apple tree with a pink granite tombstone engraved with the words "Tent Girl."

    Tent Girl haunted him. Who were her siblings? What was her name?

    Matthews began searching library records and police reports, not even sure what he was seeking. He scraped together the money to buy a computer. He started scouring message boards on the nascent Internet.

    In the process, Matthews discovered something extraordinary. All over the country, people just like him were gingerly tapping into the new technology, creating a movement -- a network of amateur sleuths as curious and impassioned as Matthews.

    Today the Doe Network has volunteers and chapters in every state. Bank managers and waitresses, factory workers and farmers, computer technicians and grandmothers, all believing that with enough time and effort, modern technology can solve the mysteries of the missing dead.

    Increasingly, they are succeeding.

    The unnamed dead are everywhere -- buried in unmarked graves, tagged in county morgues, dumped in rivers and under bridges, interred in potter's fields and all manner of makeshift tombs. There are more than 40,000 unnamed bodies in the U.S., according to national law enforcement reports, and about 100,000 people formally listed as missing.

    The premise of the Doe Network is simple. If the correct information -- dental records, DNA, police reports, photographs -- is properly entered into the right databases, many of the unidentified can be matched with the missing. Law enforcement agencies and medical examiners offices simply don't have the time or manpower. Using the Internet and other tools, volunteers can do the job.

    And so, in the suburbs of Chicago, bank executive Barbara Lamacki spends her nights searching for clues that might identify toddler Johnny "Dupage" Doe, whose body was wrapped in a blue laundry bag and dumped in the woods of rural Dupage County, Illinois, in 2005.

    In Kettering, Ohio, Rocky Wells, a 47-year-old manager of a package delivery company, scoots his teenage daughters from the living room computer and scours the Internet for anything that might crack the case of the red-haired Jane Doe found strangled near Route 55 in 1981. "Buckskin Girl," she was called, because of the cowboy-style suede jacket she was wearing when she was found.

    And in Penn Hills, Pennsylvania, Nancy Monahan, 54, who creates floor displays for a discount chain, says her "real job" begins in the evening when she returns to her creaky yellow house and her black cat, Maxine, turns on her computer and starts sleuthing.

    Monahan's cases include that of "Beth Doe," a young pregnant woman strangled, shot and dismembered, her remains stuffed into three suitcases and flung off a bridge along Interstate 80 near White Haven in December 1976. And "Homestead Doe," whose mummified body was found in an abandoned railroad tunnel in Pittsburgh in 2000. Her toenails were painted silver.

    Monahan was so moved that last year she sought out the tunnel, climbed down the embankment and offered a silent prayer for the young woman whose life ended in such a pitiful place.

    "It's like they become family," Monahan says. "You feel a responsibility to bring them home."

    The stories of Doe Network members are as individual as the cases they are trying to solve. Bobby Lingoes got involved through his connection with law enforcement -- he's a civilian dispatcher with the Quincy, Massachusetts, police department. Traycie Sherwood of Richmond, Missouri, joined when her adoptive mother died and she went on line searching for her birth mother. Daphne Owings, a 45-year-old mother of two in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, needed something to take her mind off the war when her husband was sent to Iraq.

    Matches can be triggered by a single detail -- a tattoo, a piece of clothing, a broken bone. It's just a question of the right person spotting the right piece of information and piecing together the puzzle. The process can be tedious and frustrating.

    And it can take its toll. Lori Matthews once left her husband for six months because of his obsession with Tent Girl. "He didn't talk about anything else," she said. "It wasn't normal."

    They reconciled after Matthews agreed to limit the amount of time -- and money -- he spent on "Does."

    Still, Matthews and others say the rewards of cracking a case make the time worthwhile. The Doe Network claims to have assisted in solving more than 40 cases and ruling out hundreds more.

    "They do God's work," says Mark Czworniak, 50, a veteran homicide detective in Chicago.

    He first encountered the Doe Network when he was approached by Lamacki, the Chicago bank executive, about potential matches. Unlike some officers, Czworniak has no hesitation about working with civilian volunteers, especially those willing to devote endless hours to cold cases that he cannot get to.

    Czworniak says there are hundreds of "Does" in the department files. He is assigned five, including a tall, 30-something man found at the Navy Pier in 2003. Czworniak hopes that the man's height will help Lamacki or another Network volunteer eventually make an identification.

    "She's like a little bloodhound," says Czworniak, who exchanges e-mails with Lamacki on cases every week and has introduced her to other detectives. "She has the wherewithal and interest and time and she searches these sites I'm not even aware of."

    In another sign of the network's influence, Matthews was asked to serve on a government task force involved in creating the first national online data bank for missing and unidentified.

    The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, NamUS, launched last year, is made up of two databases, one for the missing and one for the unidentified. The goal is to have medical examiners and law enforcement agencies around the country constantly update information on both sites. Next year the sites will be linked and made available for public searching.

    No one believes NamUS will put the Doe Network out of business -- there will always be a need for people with their expertise to make the necessary connections.

    And so, families of the missing will no doubt continue to rely on people like Todd Matthews.

    At his house in Livingston, Matthews has built a little nook next to the living room -- his "Doe office," he calls it. His desk is laden with pictures of dead bodies. He says he gets many e-mails about cases every week. Every night he scrolls down the lists, searching for new information:

    Unidentified White Female. Wore a necklace of silver beads and three small turquoise stones, one resembling a bird. Found in a Calendonia cornfield in New York state in 1979. ...

    Unidentified White female. Strawberry-blonde hair and 12 infant teeth. Wearing a pink and white dress that buttoned in the back and a disposable diaper. Found Jackson County, Mississippi, 1982. ...

    Unidentified Black Female. Gunshot wound to the skull. Found next to highway ramp in Campbell County, Tennessee, in 1998...

    The last case is close to Matthews' heart. Sally, he named her, after a Campbell County police officer entrusted him with her skull in 2001.

    The police didn't have the time or means to pay for a clay reconstruction, and so -- with the approval of the local coroner -- Matthews took the skull to a Doe Network forensic artist. A picture of the reconstructed head was placed on the Network site. The skull sat on Matthews' desk for over a year, and even Lori, who was at first so horrified she couldn't look at it, grew fond of Sally. She remains unidentified.

    But even Sally cannot take the place of the first Doe, the one who changed Matthews' life. He still regularly drives to Kentucky, to a lonely plot in Georgetown to visit her.

    "She's family now," he says.

    Standing by her grave, he tells of the night in 1998 when, scouring chat rooms for the missing, he stumbled upon a message from Rosemary Westbrook of Benton, Arkansas.

    Westbrook sought information about her sister, Bobbie, who was 24 when she went missing 30 years earlier. Bobbie had married a man who worked in a carnival, and she was last seen in Lexington. She had reddish-brown hair and a gap-toothed smile.

    Over and over Matthews stared at the message. And in his heart he knew.

    Lori, he cried, racing into the bedroom and shaking awake his wife

    "I've found her. I found Tent Girl."

    Weeks later the remains were exhumed. The match was confirmed by DNA.

    The family decided to re-inter her in the place that had been her resting spot for so many years. Beneath the stone etched "Tent Girl" they placed a small gray one engraved with her real name, the name that Matthews had restored.

    She is Barbara Ann Hackmann, now and for eternity.

    Reuters - Dave Stewart, Nokia envision brave new mobile world

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    Dave Stewart, Nokia envision brave new mobile world

    Sunday, Mar 30, 2008 3:9AM UTC

    By Antony Bruno

    DENVER (Billboard) - At first glance, Nokia's Tero Ojanpera and Dave Stewart might seem like an odd pair.

    As executive vice president of entertainment and communities for Nokia, Ojanpera oversees all of the company's music, gaming, video and social networking initiatives, including the Nokia Music Store and Comes With Music.

    Stewart is a musician/producer best known as one half of the Eurythmics. In February, Stewart was named founding member of Nokia's new Artist Advisory Council, an initiative created to foster an artist-friendly environment within the company.

    But the two have more in common that meets the eye. Stewart has strong ideas on how technology and digital business models should benefit acts and their fans, and, in fact, was the driving force behind the council's creation. Ojanpera, meanwhile, aims to combine Nokia's entertainment content services with its social networking capabilities to help fans and artists better connect and communicate to promote and distribute new content.

    For Nokia, the effort is central to its reinvention from a handset vendor with 40 percent of the global mobile phone market share to a Web services company. For Stewart, the technologies of today and tomorrow represent a new stage of creative and professional development he hopes to share not only with musicians but also with filmmakers and others in the creative community.

    Q: Can you give us a better idea what the vision of the Artist Advisory Council is?

    Dave Stewart: It's a vision of the future where people would want to dig deeper in the world of an artist and where artists would be willing to be more experimental because the payment systems would be more transparent and different than they are today. It's about artists linking together and being collaborative.

    Tero Ojanpera: If you think about the artist's point of view, it's not about selling one track or selling a ringtone or wallpaper. It's about how you create a discovery mechanism (that) represents the artist in a way that gives justice to their work. It's not just putting something online in a digital format -- the technology will enable us to make a rich world where things come together in a really new fashion.

    Q: How do you plan to achieve this?

    Ojanpera: At this point it's about understanding the artist and understanding the consumer and making that connection. The rest will sort itself out. It may need some facilitation, but we should worry about those two things first. If you can bring value to the consumer and to the creative talent, I'm sure we will do well.

    Stewart: Imagine a future where you have a little cloud above your head and in that is everything you think is groovy, and you can carry that along with you and pull it down to either watch or share ... and it's all controlled by this little device in your pocket. The other part of it is that there are artists all over the world who don't want to share much more than what they can control -- there are filmmakers who want to make 10-minute short films. So you can't put everything into one bag. What you can do is create a facility that can put all that work -- whatever it is -- into a context and in a way (that) consumers can access it.

    Q: Dave, what is your perspective as an artist on the current digital/mobile business constructs?

    Stewart: What I'm talking about is dropping a neutron bomb on the old paradigm of the entertainment industry and the way in which it functions. It's completely insane. In America, it's all gotten completely strangleholded by these providers. Nobody ever talked to artists about what they wanted to do. Steve Jobs didn't talk to me about selling music online -- it just went straight to the music labels.

    Artists make their work, and people come along and treat it like something you can chop up into bits and sell into other bits. They say ringtones is a $3 billion business; I still haven't seen one cent on a "Sweet Dreams" download. There's always been a bit of foggy accounting. There's ways and means through technology and through common sense to create a way in which the consumer gets a fair deal and the creator gets a fair deal and business is good.

    Q: So it sounds like the vision is to try to use mobile phones as a way of distributing content directly to fans without all the other layers.

    Stewart: I'm not going to try to do that. I am going to do it. It's also about trying to get artists to understand that, in the new world, it's not about making an album or a film that has to fit the exact demographic and exact length. It's going to be a completely different world. I can send you clips of what I'm working on and you can pre-order it. There's a dialogue going on so you actually know who your fans are and where they are.

    Q: Do phone manufacturers have more power in the mobile value chain now that entertainment services have made the phone more of a consumer electronics device and less a mere network access device?

    Ojanpera: This is a great opportunity for the whole industry to grow: device manufacturers, carriers and the content companies. The fact that content is coming to mobile will enable us to continue to innovate for the industry. We have the strength to invest in this space, and that's valuable to the content industry. This is not about who has more power or less power -- this is about, Can we attract the consumer to really use these services?

    Q: So on that note, how is the Nokia Music Store doing?

    Ojanpera: We're not sharing any specific data. But the service is live in the U.K. and Germany, and we are launching (in) additional countries in Europe and Asia. So one could describe it as a store rollout phase for the next month or two and getting the catalog in place. The feedback from the U.K. store is good; people are using it and seeing that there's an easy way to get music on your device, both side-loading and (over the air). We're currently seeing about 75 percent side-loading and 25 percent OTA. We think once the Comes With Music service is in place later this year, it will make the purchase decision easier, and we believe that can and will really scale the music market up.



    I get to vote

    Reuters - Zimbabwe govt warns opposition over victory claims

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    Zimbabwe govt warns opposition over victory claims

    Sunday, Mar 30, 2008 2:12PM UTC

    By MacDonald Dzirutwe

    HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe's opposition said on Sunday it had won the most crucial election since independence, but President Robert Mugabe's government warned premature victory claims would be seen as an attempted coup.

    Tendai Biti, secretary general of the main MDC opposition party, told diplomats and observers overnight that early results showed it was victorious. "We have won this election," he said.

    Officials said they would begin announcing results of the presidential, parliamentary and local polls on Sunday. Voting ended at 7 p.m. (1700 GMT) on Saturday.

    Biti said later the MDC was concerned at delays in announcing results, which traditionally begin emerging soon after polls close.

    "We're aware the results are final in most constituencies but they are deliberately taking their time to announce. ... The whole idea of having an election is so you can have a result."

    George Chiweshe, chairman of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), had to be rescued by security men in a Harare hotel when he was confronted by journalists and opposition supporters demanding results be published.

    Zimbabwe's security forces, which have thrown their backing firmly behind Mugabe, said before the election they would not allow a victory declaration before counting was complete.

    Government spokesman George Charamba also warned the opposition against such claims. "It is called a coup d'etat and we all know how coups are handled," he told the state-owned Sunday Mail.

    Residents in the eastern opposition stronghold of Manicaland said riot police stopped a victory demonstration by about 200 MDC supporters. There was no violence, they said.


    Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, faced his most formidable challenge in the election against MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai and ruling ZANU-PF party defector Simba Makoni, who campaigned on the collapse of Zimbabwe's economy.

    Although the odds seem stacked against Mugabe, 84, analysts believe he will be declared the winner and the opposition accused him of widespread vote-rigging.

    Observers from the Pan-African parliament told the electoral commission they had found more than 8,000 non-existent voters registered on empty land in a Harare constituency.

    The United States said it was worried by the conduct of the election and the absence of most international observers.

    "The Mugabe regime is a disgrace to the people of Zimbabwe and a disgrace to southern Africa and to the continent of Africa as a whole," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters during a visit to Jerusalem.

    Mugabe, who accuses the West of sabotaging Zimbabwe's economy, expressed confidence on Saturday he would be returned to office. "We will succeed. We will conquer," he said.

    He rejected vote-rigging allegations.

    Once-prosperous Zimbabwe is suffering from the world's highest inflation rate of more than 100,000 percent, chronic shortages of food and fuel, and an HIV/AIDS epidemic that has contributed to a steep decline in life expectancy.

    Biti said early results, based on 12 percent of the vote, showed Tsvangirai was projected to win 67 percent nationally.

    He said Tsvangirai had made significant inroads in Mugabe's rural strongholds by leading in the southern province of Masvingo and Mashonaland Central Province, north of Harare, where the MDC has not won a parliamentary seat since 2000.

    If no candidate wins more than 51 percent of the vote, the election will go into a second round.

    (Additional reporting by Cris Chinaka, Stella Mapenzauswa, Nelson Banya and Muchena Zigomo)

    (Writing by Barry Moody; Editing by Mary Gabriel)

    Al Sadr say stop the Nonsense.

    I'm looking for trouble

    CNN - Al-Sadr calls off fighting amid airstrikes, crackdown

    Sent from's mobile device from

    Al-Sadr calls off fighting amid airstrikes, crackdown

    Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr told his followers to stop fighting and cooperate with Iraqi security forces Sunday, as U.S. and Iraqi forces targeted his Mehdi Army in Basra and Baghdad.

    In the nine-point statement -- which was issued by his headquarters in Najaf and came a day after al-Sadr told his fighters not to surrender their weapons -- the cleric demanded that the government give his supporters amnesty and release any of his followers that are being held.

    "We announce our disavowal from anyone who carries weapons and targets government institutions, charities and political party offices," said the statement that was distributed across the country and posted on Web sites linked to his movement.

    The Mehdi Army entered negotiations with the Iraqi government Saturday night, said Sheikh Salah al-Obaidi, a top aide to al-Sadr. The meeting in Najaf marked the first talks between the two sides since the Iraqi government announced a crackdown on "outlaws" in Basra, al-Obaidi said.

    U.S. forces targeted the cleric's Shiite militia in Baghdad as well, launching airstrikes that killed 15 people Sunday in neighborhoods known to be Mehdi Army strongholds, an Interior Ministry official said.

    Two airstrikes in the Sadr City neighborhood killed nine people and wounded 14 others, and another strike in the al-Zuhor neighborhood, in northeastern Baghdad, killed six people and wounded 14 others, an Interior Ministry official said.

    The U.S. military said it killed 11 militants in those same areas Saturday.

    The Baghdad bombings came as Iraqi authorities extended indefinitely a strict curfew on the capital and as fighting between government troops and Shiite militants stretched into its sixth day, leaving about 400 people dead, according to reports from U.S. and Iraqi officials.

    In Basra, part of southern Iraq's Shiite heartland, at least 200 people have been killed and 500 wounded in battles since Tuesday, a high-ranking security official said.

    Authorities there extended a ban on pedestrian and vehicle traffic just hours before the curfew was to expire Sunday morning.

    Al-Maliki compared the outlaws, on whom the government is cracking down, to al Qaeda and said troops would not leave Basra "until security is restored."

    "We will continue to stand up to these gangs in every inch of Iraq," he said. "It is unfortunate that we used to use say these very words about al Qaeda, when all the while, there were people among us who are worse than al Qaeda."

    Al-Maliki met Saturday in Basra with area tribal leaders and other prominent figures, who expressed support for the government's effort to "save Basra from criminal gangs," according to a statement from the prime minister's office.

    The prime minister further said that militants had until April 8 to surrender their weapons in a guns-for-cash program.

    On Saturday, supporters of al-Sadr said they were being unfairly singled out in the crackdown, and the cleric told his followers not to hand over their arms "except to a state that can throw out the occupation," al-Obaidi said.

    Other developments

    ? The U.S. military said Sunday it found a mass grave with 14 bodies near Muqdadiya. The bodies, which showed signs of torture, appeared to have been in the grave for two to six months. They were found just 100 yards from where 37 bodies were found buried Thursday, the military said.

    ? The International Zone -- where where many Iraqi government buildings and embassies are located -- was targeted Sunday by rockets or mortars, a U.S. Embassy official said, but no injuries or damage were immediately reported.

    Saturday, March 29, 2008


    I get to vote

    Reuters - Charges of fraud in Zimbabwe vote

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    Charges of fraud in Zimbabwe vote

    Saturday, Mar 29, 2008 11:3PM UTC

    By Nelson Banya

    HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe's opposition accused President Robert Mugabe of rigging the country's election to stay in power despite economic disaster and African observers also said they had detected fraud.

    Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, faced his strongest challenge in Saturday's election, with veteran opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and ruling ZANU-PF party defector Simba Makoni exploiting widespread misery caused by the wrecked economy.

    As polls closed, Tsvangirai's MDC party said their voters and officials had been turned away from polling stations and erasable voting ink was used to enable fraud by government supporters.

    Combined with inflated voter rolls and the printing of 3 million surplus ballot papers, this "ensures that there will be multiple voting," said MDC secretary-general Tendai Biti.

    Observers from the Pan-African parliament said in a letter to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission that they had found more than 8,000 non-existent people registered on a piece of empty land in a Harare constituency.

    Biti said the MDC had also found "ghost voters" in Harare.

    Many Zimbabweans were desperate for change to end the country's economic misery.

    The once-prosperous nation is suffering the world's highest inflation rate at more than 100,000 percent, chronic shortages of food and fuel and a rampant HIV/AIDS epidemic that has contributed to a steep decline in life expectancy.

    Mugabe blames the collapse on Western sanctions.


    "I am voting for change. I am praying for a free and fair election. It is the only way this country can move forward," said Richard Mutedzi, 25, a mechanic who voted in Chitungwiza, 30 km (20 miles) south of Harare.

    Mother of three Gertrude Muzanenhamo, 36, voted early in the poor township of Warren Park, telling reporters: "People are dying in hospitals and funeral expenses are very high. How do you expect us to survive? Shop shelves are empty."

    Final results are not expected for several days from the presidential, parliamentary and local polls.

    The local election observer group ZESN said turnout looked low and some voters were turned away in opposition strongholds.

    A local journalist who asked not to be named said thousands of voters had turned out in Mugabe's southern stronghold of Masvingo province. He said village heads appeared to have instructed them to vote for the president.

    Most international observers were banned and a team from the regional grouping SADC did not comment on Saturday. Critics say SADC, which has tried to mediate an end to Zimbabwe's crisis, is too soft on Mugabe.

    Mugabe displayed his usual confidence when he voted in Harare. "We will succeed. We will conquer," he said.

    "Why should I cheat? The people are there supporting us. The moment the people stop supporting you, then that's the moment you should quit politics," Mugabe told reporters.

    Despite the fraud allegations, Tsvangirai said he would win. "We are absolutely confident that the outcome will be in the favor of the people," he said as he voted in Harare.

    Sagodolu Sikhosana, a villager in the opposition stronghold of Matabeleland said after voting: "Things have been too hard for too long. I think now there needs to be a change and they need to take us more seriously."

    The powerful security forces have backed Mugabe, stoking accusations that he will use his incumbent power to rig victory.

    If no candidate wins more than 51 percent of the vote the election will go into a second round in three weeks, when the two opposition parties would likely unite.

    Mugabe said a second round was unlikely.

    "We are not used to boxing matches where we go from round one to round two. We just knock each other out," he said.

    (Additional reporting by Cris Chinaka, Stella Mapenzauswa, MacDonald Dzirutwe and Muchena Zigomo)

    (Writing by Barry Moody; Editing by Giles Elgood)

    Fracture of the dems

    We are split in twain

    CNN - Clinton rejects calls to quit Democratic race

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    Clinton rejects calls to quit Democratic race

    Sen. Hillary Clinton on Saturday rejected calls by supporters of rival candidate Barack Obama to quit the Democratic presidential race, and Obama said Clinton should remain in race "as long as she wants."

    "The more people get a chance to vote, the better it is for our democracy," the New York senator and former first lady told supporters at a rally in Indiana, which holds a May 6 primary.

    "There are some folks saying we ought to stop these elections," she said.

    "I didn't think we believed that in America. I thought we of all people knew how important it was to give everyone a chance to have their voices heard and their votes counted."

    Clinton has won primaries in the biggest states so far, but Obama has won more total contests and leads her in the race for delegates to the party's August convention in Denver -- where the Democratic nominee will be formally ratified.

    Two of Obama's leading supporters, Sens. Christopher Dodd and Patrick Leahy, said Friday that Clinton should rethink her chances of overcoming that deficit and consider folding her campaign.

    Leahy, of Vermont, said Clinton "has every right, but not a very good reason, to remain a candidate for as long as she wants to."

    Speaking in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Obama said he did not discuss Leahy's call for Clinton to drop out with the Vermont senator, who serves as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

    "My attitude is that Sen. Clinton can run as long as she wants," the Illinois senator said.

    "She is a fierce and formidable competitor, and she obviously believes that she would make the best nominee and the best president. I think that she should be able to compete, and her supporters should be able to support her for as long as they are willing or able."

    Pennsylvania is the scene of the next Democratic primary, on April 22, and is the largest state that hasn't weighed in on the party's presidential race.

    Obama called fears that the Democratic Party would be damaged by a long campaign "somewhat overstated." But he added that both he and Clinton should avoid campaign attacks "that could be used as ammunition for the Republicans" in November.

    A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll released Thursday suggests that the bickering between Clinton and Obama could affect Democratic turnout in November.

    One in six Clinton supporters said they would not be likely to vote in November if Obama gets the nomination; an equal number of Obama's supporters said the same about Clinton.

    Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean said Friday that he would like the fight wrapped up before the Denver convention, and said party leaders have had "extensive discussions" with the Clinton and Obama campaigns about cooling down their rhetoric.

    "I don't think the party is going to implode," he said. But he added that personal attacks "demoralize the base" and that campaigns should focus on issues like the economy and Iraq.

    Friday, March 28, 2008

    Reuters - JC Penney tumbles on cut earnings forecast

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    JC Penney tumbles on cut earnings forecast

    Friday, Mar 28, 2008 3:38PM UTC

    By Nicole Maestri

    NEW YORK (Reuters) - Department store operator JC Penney Co Inc <JCP.N> on Friday cut its first-quarter earnings forecast and said it expects the environment to remain difficult throughout 2008, stoking fears that the second half of the year will not bring relief to struggling U.S. retailers.

    "We believe that investors had generally anticipated weak performance from retailers in the first half" of 2008, wrote Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Uta Werner.

    "However, we expect that JC Penney's commentary regarding its expectation of persistent weakness throughout the full year will be viewed as an incremental negative for the stock and the sector," she wrote in a research note.

    Penney's shares were off more than 9 percent in early New York Stock Exchange trading. The warning also dragged down shares of competitors like Kohl's <KSS.N>, Macy's Inc <M.N> and Dillard's Inc <DDS.N>.

    Department store operators like Penney that cater to middle-income Americans have been hit hard by the slowdown in consumer spending as these shoppers forgo purchases of clothes, jewelry and home furnishings amid fears of a U.S. recession.

    But even upscale department store chains like Nordstrom <JWN.N> and Neiman Marcus Inc are starting to feel the strain of the spending slowdown, and investors are losing hope that the later part of the year, marked by the holiday shopping season, will offer much reprieve from current struggles.

    "I'm hearing more and more that people are just assuming that things are going to stay pretty much difficult for the whole year," said Jason Asaeda, a retail analyst with Standard & Poor's Equity Research. "In doing so, they're planning a lot more conservatively."


    Penney now expects first-quarter earnings of approximately 50 cents per share, down from its previous view of 75 to 80 cents per share.

    It also expects a low-double-digit decline in March sales at stores open at least a year, known as comparable store sales, and a high-single-digit decline in comparable-store sales for the first quarter. Its previous view was for comparable store sales in March and the first quarter to decline in the low single digits.

    "Consumer confidence is at a multi-year low," Myron "Mike" Ullman, chairman and chief executive officer, said in a statement.

    "JC Penney counts half of American families as its customers, and they are feeling macro-economic pressures from many areas, including higher energy costs, deteriorating employment trends and significant issues in the housing and credit markets," he said.

    In February, Penney reported a nearly 10 percent decline in quarterly profit and said there was no clear indication the consumer environment would improve in 2008.

    It also posted a 6.7 percent drop in February sales at stores open at least a year while analysts, on average, were expecting a decline of just 1.9 percent.

    Those disappointing February sales figures prompted JP Morgan analyst Charles Grom to downgrade his rating on the retailer's shares to "neutral" from "overweight," and he said at the time that the company's outlook for its March sales was "too aggressive."

    Shares of Penney were down $3.86, or 9.5 percent, at $36.66.

    (Additional reporting by Aarthi Sivaraman)

    (Reporting by Nicole Maestri, editing by Mark Porter and Gerald E. McCormick)

    Bear dips

    We suck

    Reuters - Bear Stearns shares fall after chairman sells stock

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    Bear Stearns shares fall after chairman sells stock

    Friday, Mar 28, 2008 3:20PM UTC

    NEW YORK (Reuters) - Bear Stearns Cos <BSC.N> shares fell nearly 5 percent on Friday after Chairman James Cayne, who was seen as opposing JPMorgan Chase & Co's <JPM.N> acquisition of the investment bank, sold his stock.

    "It is symbolic that he's selling," said David Dreman, chief investment officer of Dreman Value Management LLC, a New Jersey based fund manager that has over $18 billion under management. "It lessens the potential enormously for a long drawn out battle."

    "I think he knows that they're not going to get much more," said Dreman, whose firm owns JPMorgan shares.

    In a filing on Thursday, Cayne, who stepped down as chief executive of Bear in January after nearly 15 years at the helm, disclosed that he sold all of the 5.6 million Bear shares he directly held. His wife also sold all of her nearly 46,000 shares.

    The sale of the shares, which were worth about $1 billion last year when the stock peaked at over $170 a share, were sold for $61 million.

    Last week, the New York Post reported that Cayne, together with Bear's biggest shareholder Joe Lewis, was quietly searching for a bidder to top JPMorgan.

    But on Monday, JPMorgan agreed to raise its bid and said that board members agreed to vote their shares in favor of the deal. With a stake of about 5 percent, Cayne had by far the largest holding among Bear board members.

    JPMorgan plans to lock up about 39.5 percent of the vote, when it closes a deal to buy 95 million new Bear shares around April 8.

    Bear shares fell 55 cents to $10.68 in morning trade on the New York Stock Exchange. Despite the fall, they are still trading above JPMorgan's all-stock offer of about $9.35 a share at current prices.

    Bear, which until recently ranked as the fifth-largest U.S. investment bank, suffered a liquidity crisis as declining confidence prompted a run on the bank.

    (Reporting by Chris Reiter)

    North Korea gets testy

    What you looking at?

    Reuters - North Korea raises tensions with missile launch

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    North Korea raises tensions with missile launch

    Friday, Mar 28, 2008 3:35PM UTC

    By Jon Herskovitz

    SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea test-fired a battery of short-range missiles on Friday in what analysts saw as a show of the reclusive state's anger at Washington and the new conservative government in Seoul.

    The launch comes a day after the North expelled South Korean officials from a joint industrial complex north of the border, after Seoul told its destitute neighbor to clean up its human rights and stop dragging its feet in nuclear disarmament talks if it wants to receive aid to keep its economy afloat.

    A South Korean presidential spokesman told a news briefing that the North had fired short-range missiles as a part of a military exercise. Local news reports said the three were ship-to-ship missiles launched into the sea off the west coast.

    "We believe the North does not want a deterioration of relations between the South and the North," spokesman Lee Dong-kwan told reporters.

    In Washington, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe called for an end to the missile testing, which he said was "not constructive."

    "North Korea should focus on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and deliver a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear weapons programs, and nuclear proliferation activities and to complete the agreed disablement," Johndroe said.

    New South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has said he wants to end the free ride given to North Korea under 10 years of left-leaning presidents who gave billions in aid while asking for little in return, seeing it as the price to pay for stability.

    Lee's government has said it is ready to invest heavily, provided the North meets conditions such as scrapping its nuclear arms program or returning the more than 1,000 South Koreans it kidnapped or kept in the country after the 1950-53 Korean War.


    Pyongyang was basically sending two messages with the launch, Keio University Korea expert Masao Okonogi said in Tokyo.

    One was aimed at the United States after talks in Geneva, showing the North's dissatisfaction with Washington's pressure to come clean on uranium enrichment and ties with Syria, he said. The other was a riposte to the Lee government's shift in stance.

    "They are warning Seoul not to go back on things agreed between the North and the South," Okonogi said.

    North Korea has more than 1,000 missiles, at least 800 of them ballistic, that can hit all of South Korea and most parts of Japan, experts have said. Its launches are often timed to coincide with periods of political tension.

    At about the same time as the launch, North Korea's official media fired a rhetorical volley at the United States, blaming it for pushing into deadlock six-country talks aimed at ending the North's nuclear arms plans.

    "If the United States continues to delay the resolution of the nuclear problem by insisting on something that doesn't exist, it could have a grave impact on the disablement of the nuclear facility that has been sought so far," the North's KCNA news agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying.

    Pyongyang began disabling its Soviet-era nuclear plant at the end of last year, as its side of a deal with regional powers in return for aid and an end to international isolation.

    The process has reached a stage where it would likely take North Korea at least a year to get its Yongbyon nuclear plant running again, according to South Korean officials.

    U.S. and South Korean officials said most of the work to disable the reactor, a plant that makes nuclear fuel and another that turns spent fuel into arms-grade plutonium is complete, but a few elements have been delayed due to technical reasons.

    The agreement calls for the North to make a complete declaration of its nuclear weapons arsenal and answer U.S. suspicions of proliferating nuclear technology and having a clandestine program to enrich uranium for weapons.

    "To make it clear, we have not enriched uranium or cooperated with any other country on nuclear projects. We have not even dreamed about it," the North's spokesman was quoted as saying.

    North and South Korea held separate talks on Friday without incident on energy and economic aid the communist state receives in return for complying with the nuclear deal.

    (Additional reporting by Rhee So-eui, Lee Jiyeon and Jack Kim in Seoul, Linda Sieg in Tokyo and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Alex Richardson)


    I found my rocket launcher

    CNN - Baghdad on lockdown as rockets, bombs fly

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    Baghdad on lockdown as rockets, bombs fly

    Baghdad was on virtual lockdown Friday as a tough new curfew ordered everyone off the streets of the Iraqi capital and five other cities until 5 p.m. Sunday.

    That restriction didn't stop someone from firing rockets and mortar rounds into the capital's heavily fortified International Zone, commonly known as the Green Zone. One slammed into the office of one of Iraq's vice presidents, Tareq al-Hashemi, killing two guards.

    An American government worker also was killed in rocket and mortar attacks Thursday in the International Zone.

    U.S. warplanes pounded Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood Friday, killing six people and wounding 10.

    Other U.S. planes bombed Shiite militia positions overnight in the southern city of Basra, a British military spokesman said.

    The British military said the firings were the first by coalition forces since the Iraqi army launched an operation Tuesday in Basra, Iraq's second largest city.

    At least 120 militia fighters have been killed and 240 wounded in Basra since the military operation started, said an Iraqi Defense Ministry official on condition of anonymity.

    Iraq's parliament called a special session for Friday to address the crisis. The Interior Ministry on Thursday imposed a curfew through the weekend in Baghdad, Hilla, Kut, Diwaniya, Simawa and Basra. Officials banned pedestrian, motorcycle and vehicular traffic through 5 a.m. Sunday (10 p.m. ET Saturday.)

    Meanwhile, the Iraqi government on Friday offered cash to people who surrender medium and heavy weapons by April 8.

    New clashes erupted Friday in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriya, a stronghold of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, killing at least four people, an Iraqi Interior Ministry official said.

    Thousands of al-Sadr's supporters took to the streets in Sadr City and another Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad to protest the crackdown launched by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Basra this week. The protesters called al-Maliki the country's "new dictator" and demanded his dismissal.

    The fighting threatens to end al-Sadr's seven-month-long suspension of his Mehdi Army militia, regarded as a key factor in Iraq's dramatic drop in violence in recent months. The cleric, whose militia launched two uprisings against U.S. troops in 2004, has kept his cease-fire edict in place for now, but his supporters accuse the government of singling them out for raids by security forces in recent weeks.

    In Baghdad, the U.S. Embassy warned employees to remain indoors until there's an end to the rocket and mortar fire.

    U.S. State Department official Richard Schmierer said the rocket attacks appeared to be coming from fighters affiliated with al-Sadr who were "trying to make a statement" about the government offensive in Basra. He blamed the violence on "marginal extremist elements" who have associated themselves with the Sadrist movement.

    In Friday's special session, lawmakers were to discuss the security situation around the country, specifically in Basra, where al-Maliki was leading operations against what government officials called "rogue" or "outlaw" militia elements.

    President Bush on Friday praised the Iraqi government's military push into Basra as "a defining moment in the history of a free Iraq," saying the regime is fighting criminals.

    "It was just a matter of time before the government was going to have to deal with it," he said, emphasizing that the decision to mount the offensive was al-Maliki's.

    The operation is an effort to restore order amid disputes among the Sadrists, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Fadhila Party. The fighting has been concentrated in areas controlled by al-Sadr's supporters and has spread north to Baghdad and other cities.

    Al-Maliki's guns-for-cash program was an attempt to stem the violence.

    "We call on all those who hold medium and heavy weapons to surrender their weapons to the security forces in exchange for cash award starting from March 28th until April 8, 2008," al-Maliki said in a statement.

    It follows a call by al-Sadr to end the fighting.

    "Muqtada al-Sadr calls on all groups to adopt a political situation and peaceful protest and to stop shedding Iraqi blood," senior aide Hazem al-Araji said.

    Meanwhile, Iraqi security forces and U.S. soldiers killed eight militants after an attack on an Iraqi army checkpoint Thursday in northern Baghdad, a military statement said. One Iraqi soldier died and seven were wounded.

    The militants hit the checkpoint with rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire, according to the military, and coalition forces responded with an airstrike that killed the eight.

    American military operations targeting al Qaeda in Iraq killed eight suspected terrorists in northern Iraq on Thursday and led to the detention of 17 people, the U.S. military said.

    The operations focused on al Qaeda in Iraq's "propaganda network" in the Tuz, Samarra and Mosul areas, the military said.

    U.S. Air Strike in Basra

    Got to get me a rocket launcher

    Reuters - U.S. forces drawn deeper into Iraq crackdown

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    U.S. forces drawn deeper into Iraq crackdown

    Friday, Mar 28, 2008 1:32PM UTC

    By Peter Graff

    BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. forces were drawn deeper into Iraq's four day-old crackdown on Shi'ite militants on Friday, launching air strikes in Basra for the first time and battling militants in Baghdad.

    The fighting has exposed a rift within the majority Shi'ite community and put pressure on Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose forces have failed to drive fighters loyal to cleric Moqtada al-Sadr off the streets of Iraq's second-largest city.

    Defense Minister Abdel Qader Jassim acknowledged at a news conference in Basra that Iraqi security forces had been caught off-guard by the strength of the opposition.

    "We supposed that this operation would be a normal operation, but we were surprised by this resistance and have been obliged to change our plans and our tactics," he said.

    Journalists attending the conference had to be escorted by Iraqi military vehicles. When the briefing was over they were unable to leave because of clashes taking place in the vicinity.

    Lawmakers, including Sadr loyalists, were due to meet in an emergency session of parliament to seek an end to the impasse.

    Iraqi authorities shut down Baghdad with a strict curfew on Friday but there was little let-up in the rocket and mortar barrages that have wreaked havoc in the capital this week.

    The U.S. embassy ordered its staff in the "Green Zone" diplomatic and government compound to stay under cover when possible and wear body armor and helmets when in the open. A salvo of missiles exploded in the zone at 2.30 p.m. (7:30 a.m. EDT).

    The Green Zone office of Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, was hit in a missile attack but he was not there at the time. One security guard was killed, an official in his office said.

    The government says it is fighting "outlaws", but Sadr's followers say political parties in Maliki's Shi'ite-led government are using military force to marginalize their rivals ahead of local elections due by October.

    The Iraqi ground commander in Basra, Major-General Ali Zaidan, told Reuters his forces had killed 120 "enemy" fighters and wounded around 450 since the campaign began on Tuesday.

    But Reuters television footage from Basra showed masked gunmen from Sadr's Mehdi Army still in control of the streets, openly carrying rocket launchers and machine guns.

    A British Ministry of Defense spokesman said U.S. warplanes had opened fire in Basra for the first time, dropping bombs in support of Iraqi units on the ground.

    British ground troops which patrolled Basra until December have so far remained on a base outside the city, but British or U.S. controllers would have been needed to call the air strikes.

    The fighting has trapped many Basra residents in their homes, raising fears of a humanitarian emergency. The United Nations said its aid agencies were standing by with supplies including blood bags, trauma kits, 200 metric tons of emergency food and 39 million water purification tablets.


    Sadr, who helped install Maliki in power after an election in 2005 but later broke with him, has called for talks with the government. But Maliki has vowed to battle what he calls criminal gangs in Basra "to the end".

    The clashes have all but wrecked a truce Sadr declared last year, which Washington had said helped curb violence.

    A Reuters witness said Mehdi Army gunmen had seized control of Nassiriya, capital of the southerly Dhi Qar province. Mehdi Army fighters have held territory or fought with authorities in Kut, Hilla, Amara, Kerbala, Diwaniya and other towns throughout the Shi'ite south over the past several days.

    In Baghdad there have been clashes in at least 13 mainly Shi'ite neighborhoods, especially Sadr City, the vast slum which is named after the cleric's slain father and where his followers maintain their power base.

    "There have been engagements going on in and around Sadr City. We've engaged the enemy with artillery, we've engaged the enemy with aircraft, we've engaged the enemy with direct fire," said Major Mark Cheadle, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Baghdad.

    In one strike before dawn, a U.S. helicopter fired a hellfire missile at gunmen firing from the roof of a building, killing four of them, Cheadle said. A Reuters photographer there filmed windows blown out of cars and walls pocked with shrapnel.

    Later in the day cars were engulfed in flames after an apparent air strike on a Sadr City parking lot.

    U.S. forces said they killed 27 fighters in operations in the capital on Thursday.

    In Nassiriya, a Reuters reporter said he could see groups of fighters with machineguns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. The sound of sporadic gunfire echoed through the streets. Police appeared to be staying in their stations.

    Militants have also taken control of the town of Shatra, 40 km to the north, he said, citing witnesses.

    On Wednesday Maliki gave militants in Basra 72 hours to surrender. With that deadline looming, he said on Friday they would now be given until April 8 to hand over weapons for cash.

    Oil exports from Basra of more than 1.5 million barrels a day provide 80 percent of Iraq's government revenue. An explosion at a pipeline damaged exports on Thursday, but they were back to normal on Friday.

    (Additional reporting by Ross Colvin, Randy Fabi and Waleed Ibrahim in Baghdad and Aref Mohammed in Basra; Editing by Dominic Evans)

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