Upbeat Christmas in Bethlehem

Thousands of pilgrims from around the world descended on the traditional birthplace of Jesus on Thursday, greeted by choruses, scout troops and rock bands for the most upbeat Christmas celebrations this Palestinian town has seen in years. Residents of Bethlehem, hemmed in by an Israeli security barrier and still recovering from years of violence, celebrated their town’s annual day in the spotlight along with pilgrims and tourists. Visitors milled around Manger Square, mingling with clergymen, camera crews and locals hawking food and trinkets. Christmas in Bethlehem has its incongruous elements — the troops of Palestinian boy scouts who wear kilts and play bagpipes in one of the town’s holiday traditions, for example, or the inflatable Santa Clauses hanging from church pillars and storefronts looking out of place and overdressed in this Middle Eastern town with not a snowflake in sight.

Passengers Subdue Would-Be Jet Terrorist

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano concedes that the aviation security system failed when a young man on a watch list was able to get a U.S. visa and to take a powerful explosive on  board a fight from Amsterdam to Detroit.  A tragedy was averted when passengers overpowerd the man as he apparently tried to ignite the explosives. “Our system did not work in this instance,” Napolitano said on NBC’s Today show. “No one is happy or satisfied with that. An extensive review is under way.” Meanwhile, travelers face longer lines, more security following last week’s incident.

Gitmo to Remain Open till 2011

Despite Obama’s pledge to shut the Guantanamo Bay prison by January 2010, it might not close until 2011 because it will take months for the federal government to buy an Illinois prison and upgrade it to hold suspected terrorists. Congress must first appropriate money for the takeover of the Thomson Correctional Center and the necessary construction. Lawmakers wary of moving detainees from the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, military base into the United States could balk at approving the funds. In the Senate, there’s always the chance of delaying tactics that could hold up the money for months. Congress also needs to change a law prohibiting detention in the U.S. of detainees who are not awaiting trial.

Violence Drops in Border Cities

Even as rampant drug-related killings continue in Mexico, intensified U.S. efforts to prevent the violence from spilling across the border are succeeding. Murders in key U.S. border cities dropped in the first half of 2009, new FBI crime data show, and some law enforcement officials say that trend is continuing. Although 1,000 people were slain in the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez in the first six months of 2009, according to the U.S. State Department, neighboring El Paso had just four murders. With one week left in 2009, murders total 13, compared with 18 in 2008. One of the largest drops was in Tucson, where murders fell from 30 in the first half of 2008 to nine in the same period this year. Declines, although smaller, also were reported in San Diego and the Texas border cities of Brownsville and McAllen.

In Drought, California Learns to Use Less Water

Across the semi-arid Southern California region that is home to more than 20 million people, restrictions on water use in homes and businesses imposed this year have produced a 15% savings. Leading the way has been Los Angeles itself, where a more than 18% reduction means the city will have used less water in 2009 than it did 25 years ago, despite the addition of 1 million people in that time. The biggest water conservation results have come from residential customers, rather than business or industry, city water figures show. The cost, for many residents, has been brown, dormant or dying grass lawns due to a stricter water diet. The result has been a more than 23% reduction in water use by single-family homes.

Lawsuits to Challenge ‘Obamacare’

Obamacare, as critics have dubbed the president’s plan to socialize health care, will be flooded with lawsuits if it ever becomes law, according to an organization that works to protect rights and liberties of Americans. In an alert issued this week, Liberty Counsel, run by President Mathew Staver, promised his organization “is prepared to challenge the constitutionality of the bill since Congress has no authority to require every person to obtain insurance coverage and has no authority to fine employers who do not provide the coverage standards that are required in the bill.”

Economic News

Holiday shoppers spent a little more this season than last, according to data released Monday, giving merchants some reason for cheer. The spending bounce means retailers managed to avoid a repeat of last year’s disaster even amid tight credit and double-digit unemployment. Retail sales rose 3.6% from Nov. 1 through Dec. 24, compared with a 3.2% drop in the year-ago period.

The government has handed an ATM card to beleaguered mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The Treasury Department said Thursday it removed the $400 billion financial cap on the money it will provide to keep the companies afloat. Already, taxpayers have shelled out $111 billion to the pair. By making the change before year-end, Treasury sidestepped the need for an OK from a bailout-weary Congress. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac provide vital liquidity to the mortgage industry by purchasing home loans from lenders and selling them to investors. Together, they own or guarantee almost 31 million home loans worth about $5.5 trillion, or about half of all mortgages.

Deflation tightened its hold on Japan in November and the unemployment rate rose for the first time in four months, as the world’s second-biggest economy struggles to stage a convincing comeback. The unemployment rate climbed to 5.2%, reversing an improvement to 5.1% in October. Core consumer prices fell 1.7% from a year earlier. The key consumer prices index, which excludes volatile fresh food prices, has now fallen for nine straight months.

Yemen

A Nigerian man’s claim that his attempt to blow up a U.S. plane originated with al-Qaeda’s network inside Yemen deepened concerns that instability in the Middle Eastern country is providing the terror group with a base to train and recruit militants for operations against the West and the U.S. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has been charged with trying to destroy a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas day in a botched attempt to detonate explosives. The 23-year-old claimed to have received training and instructions from al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen.

Yemen‘s military hit suspected al-Qaeda hideouts for the second time in a week, killing at least 30 militants in a remote area of the country — a fragmented, unstable nation the U.S. fears could turn into an Afghanistan-like refuge for the terrorist network. The strikes on Thursday, which were carried out with U.S. and Saudi intelligence help, hit a gathering of top leaders and other targets in a remote mountain valley,. The newly aggressive Yemeni campaign against al-Qaeda is being boosted by a dose of American aid, a reflection of Washington’s concerns about al-Qaeda’s presence in a highly strategic location on the border with oil-rich U.S.-ally Saudi Arabia.

Iraq

A blast in northeastern Iraq killed five people Sunday in a crowd of pilgrims who had gathered for the most important Shiite religious observance of the year It was the latest in a string of attacks targeting Shiites during the 10 days of religious ceremonies that reached their high point Sunday. The blast in the town of Tuz Khormato wounded 15 people. Sunday’s commemorations marked the climax of Ashoura, the yearly mourning period in which Shiite Muslims remember the 7th Century death of the Prophet Muhammad‘s grandson, Imam Hussein, in a battle in the central city of Karbala.

ASSIST News Service reports that five people were killed when two Assyrian churches and a church school were attacked in a series of terrorist bombings in Mosul. Several bombs had exploded shortly before in Baghdad. A newborn infant was killed and another 40 people were wounded. The U.S. military said they have detained several al-Qaeda members responsible for the attacks. The bombings were only the latest in a consistent stream of attacks against the Assyrian Christian population in Iraq. Nearly 50 churches have been attacked since 2004, leaving hundreds of thousands of Assyrians internally displaced, or living as refugees in neighboring countries.

Iran

Iranian security forces stormed a series of opposition offices on Monday, rounding up at least seven prominent anti-government activists in a new crackdown against the country’s reformist movement. Iranian security forces opened fire on anti-government protesters in the capital Sunday, killing at least four people in the fiercest clashes in months. Thousands of opposition supporters chanting “Death to the dictator,” a reference to hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, defied official warnings of a harsh crackdown on any protests coinciding with a religious observance on Sunday. Iranians were marking Ashoura, commemorating the seventh-century death in battle of one of Shiite Islam’s most beloved saints. Security forces tried but failed to disperse protesters on a central Tehran street with tear gas, charges by baton-wielding officers and warning shots fired into the air. They then opened fire directly at protesters, killing at least three people.

Pakistan

A bomb ripped through a government official’s house in northwestern Pakistan on Sunday, killing him and his five family members in an attack that police said was in retaliation for military operations targeting Taliban in the area. The military has stepped up airstrikes in Kurram since many militants fled there following a major ground offensive launched in nearby South Waziristan in mid-October. Both areas are in Pakistan’s lawless tribal region near the Afghan border. A suspected U.S. missile strike killed three people Saturday in a northwest Pakistani tribal region where militants focused on fighting the West in Afghanistan are concentrated.

Afghanistan

Two members of the Afghan National Police were killed when militants attacked a checkpoint in western Afghanistan/ Three other policemen were missing following the attack Saturday night in the Qadis district of Badghis province. A heavily armed Taliban commander was killed during a pre-dawn shootout at a mosque in eastern Afghanistan, NATO said as it reported an American service member died in a separate attack. A joint Afghan-international force went Saturday to a compound in Wardak province to look for an insurgent believed responsible for planning attacks and buying weapons and parts for making bombs, the international coalition said. When the joint force approached the compound, the Taliban commander, armed with grenades and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, ran to a nearby mosque.

Suriname

A stabbing death in a Suriname border town set off rioting that targeted foreign workers, and at least 20 women were raped and more than 120 people had to be evacuated The riot in Albina began late Thursday and escalated Friday after a Brazilian allegedly stabbed a local man to death. Townspeople began attacking Brazilians working in Albina about an hour after the killing, and the violence spread to Chinese-owned businesses, officials said. Businesses were looted and several stores were burned. Suriname is a normally tranquil former Dutch colony on the northeastern shoulder of South America. It is home to about 480,000 people.

Weather

Drifting snow and cold rain that have plagued much of the U.S. for days stranded drivers and airline passengers Saturday trying to get home after Christmas. Storms from Texas to the Upper Midwest that dumped 23.9 inches of snow in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and 18 inches near Norfolk, Nebraska, began subsiding, but blowing and drifting snow hampered visibility in many areas. Warmer temperatures and rains in the East began melting and washing away last week’s record-setting snowfalls, threatening the region with flooding.

A fierce Christmas storm dumped snow and ice across the midsection of the United States, stranding travelers as highways and airports closed and leaving many to celebrate the holiday just where they were. The storm dumped significant snow across the region, including a record 14 inches in Oklahoma City and 11 inches in Duluth, Minn., on Thursday. Some churches decided to cancel Christmas Eve services, while others saw sharply lower attendance. Slippery roads were blamed for at least 18 deaths as the storm made its way across the country from the Southwest. Driving was so treacherous that authorities closed interstates in Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas to prevent further collisions.

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