Volcano Plume Thins

The Eyjafjallajokull volcano that is wreaking havoc with European air traffic may be reverting to a more normal, lava-spewing phase after the past six days of explosive eruption, seismologists say. Geologists in Iceland on Monday reported that the volcano is producing less smoke and ash and more lava and chunks of molten rock. As of late Monday, the ash plume from the volcano was very elongated and thin, and stretched as far east as mid-Russia and as far west as Newfoundland and Labrador. Northwesterly winds are forecast to continue funneling the ash plume into the United Kingdom and Western Europe the next few days.

Britain reopened its airspace Tuesday evening and air controllers lifted all restrictions on German airspace on Wednesday, paving the way for more flights into one of Europe’s busiest airports. Flights resumed in many areas, but the situation was anything but normal as airlines worked through an enormous backlog after canceling over 95,000 flights in the last week. Airlines announced they had cancelled over 80,000 flights and lost at least $1.7 billion and criticized government actions during the volcanic ash crisis. Giovanni Bisignani, the head of the International Air Transport Association, called the economic fallout from the six-day travel shutdown “devastating” and urged European governments to examine ways to compensate airlines for lost revenues.

Martyred: 176,000 Christians in 1 Year

A new ministry partnership has launched a campaign to raise awareness of the fact that an estimated 176,000 Christians around the world were martyred – killed for their faith – in a one-year period from the middle of 2008 to the middle of 2009. That’s 482 deaths per day, one every three minutes. Martyrdom didn’t go away with the Middle Ages, according to reports from Open Doors USA, which now has combined efforts with actor Kirk Cameron of “The Way of the Master” ministry as well as evangelist Ray Comfort of Living Waters ministry to focus on those who are being persecuted for their faith. Emeal Zwayne, executive vice president of Living Waters, said that few Christians in the U.S. are even aware that many Christians today are being martyred for their faith. “It’s so hard to believe that in this day and age so many Christians are losing their life for their faith. It’s as though we in the U.S. live in a different world from the rest of the Body of Christ,” he said. Zwayne said the ministries have been working together “to try and draw attention to the plight of the Persecuted Church.”

National ID Card Included in Immigration Reform Bill

Objections are being raised over a proposed immigration reform measure that involves a provision calling for a national ID card. Senators Charles Schumer (D-New York) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) have proposed the biometric national ID card, but a coalition of groups has written a letter voicing opposition to it. John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, tells OneNewsNow that everyone seeking employment will be required to present the biometric ID, and employers will have to use scanners to verify citizenship. “It will contain your fingerprint, your retina scan information, even a mapping of the veins in the top of your head and other information that is uniquely identifiable to you as an individual,” Whitehead explains. Personal and financial records would be included on the ID card as well, so the Rutherford Institute president warns that the idea could eventually result in government-issued radio frequency identification (RFID) tags which would allow the government to track people. If this bill is passed, the Rutherford Institute plans to file for religious objections. When the biometric ID idea was proposed during his administration, President Ronald Reagan referred to the cards as “the mark of the beast.”

Health-Care Mandates Could be ‘Null and Void’

A group of Americans who believe the federal government overstepped its constitutional bounds in passing the recent health-care legislation is rallying allies to a bold and controversial initiative: state nullification of the federal law. The Tenth Amendment Center is reaching back into the history books to suggest states take up “nullification,” a controversial measure that would essentially involve states saying to the federal government, “Not in our borders, you don’t. That law has no effect here.” The Center is partnering with WeRefuse.com to announce release of model nullification legislation for states, called the Federal Health Care Nullification Act, and a call for 100,000 Americans to join a state-by-state petition to prompt legislators into action. “Nullification will allow Americans to stop the overreaching federal government now, not years from now,” said Trevor Lyman of WeRefuse.com.

SEC Investigating Use of Accounting Trick at 19 biggest Banks

The Securities and Exchange Commission is examining whether any of the 19 largest U.S. banks are using an accounting trick that a bankruptcy examiner has said led to the collapse of Lehman Brothers, SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro said Tuesday. Schapiro testified at a congressional hearing that the SEC is scrutinizing Lehman’s use of the accounting move, known as Repo 105, that allowed it to mask its weakness before it failed. She said the agency has sent letters to the 19 banks, seeking information about any such transactions. Lehman’s collapse was the biggest corporate bankruptcy in U.S. history and threw global financial markets into crisis. The hearing probed the bankruptcy examiner’s report that said the firm masked $50 billion in debt. The “trick” was to sell securities — mainly those made up of mortgages — at the end of a quarter. That wiped them off its balance sheet, avoiding the scrutiny of regulators and shareholders. Then the bank quickly repurchased them — hence the term “repo.”

Economic News

Ballooning government debt poses the greatest risk to global financial stability and threatens to overshadow the improving health of major banks, according to a stark new warning from the International Monetary Fund. The IMF warning comes as government, or sovereign, debt fears are rattling Europe. Greece is moving toward formally asking for up to 30 billion euros (or $40.3 billion) in European Union loans along with additional IMF money. Financial tremors from countries such as Greece “could have cross-border spillovers,” the IMF said. Banks in heavily indebted countries could have trouble obtaining enough money to support adequate lending to businesses. Starved of credit, those economies could spiral into decline. Likewise, banks outside Greece could suffer punishing losses on their Greek loans.

The darkest cloud over the economic recovery — the troubled commercial real estate market — may be clearing a bit. Prices of commercial property are up slightly compared with last fall. Loan modifications have risen sharply the past six months. Commercial mortgage-backed securities, a big funding source that was comatose for two years, has come to life recently. The developments won’t alleviate the sector’s biggest problem: the rising pace of defaults. But they should contain the damage and provide a lifeline to better-performing properties, analysts say. Developers put up too many commercial buildings earlier this decade and paid the price when the economy wilted as vacancies rose and rents fell. Default rates jumped to 3.8% from 1.6% in 2009 and will hit 5.1% this year, Real Capital Analytics says.

Tight budgets and falling revenues are prompting cities across the USA to consider selling municipal water and sewer systems to private companies. American Water, which operates in 35 states, is discussing deals with 75 municipalities and other entities. Aqua America, which operates in 14 states, sent letters to thousands of cities in the past year and is talking with about 40 of them, CEO Nick DeBenedictis says. He expects to acquire about 20 systems this year. Cities that do so are “mortgaging their future” by ceding control of a vital asset and rates often climb, says Wenonah Hauter of Food & Water Watch, a non-profit group.

General Motors has repaid the $8.1 billion in loans it got from the U.S. and Canadian governments, a move its CEO says is a sign automaker is on the road to recovery. GM got a total of $52 billion from the U.S. government and $9.5 billion from the Canadian and Ontario governments as it went through bankruptcy protection last year. The U.S. considered $6.7 billion of the aid as a loan, while the Canadian governments held $1.4 billion in loans.

Iraq

An Iraqi court on Monday ordered a recount of more than 2.5 million votes cast in Baghdad during the March 7 parliamentary election, a decision that could tilt the results in favor of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and inflame sectarian tensions after what has already been a contentious election. Al-Maliki’s bloc won 89 of parliament’s 325 seats, putting him just two seats behind former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Neither has been able to cobble together a majority coalition with the support of other parties yet. In the meantime, al-Maliki has been trying to alter the outcome through court appeals and other challenges, and by trying to woo support away from Allawi.

The deaths of two al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq are a blow to the Islamist insurgency but may not signal its defeat, foreign policy analysts said Monday. The deaths were part of a joint operation Sunday that culminated with U.S. and Iraqi troops rocketing the home where al-Baghdadi and al-Masri were hiding out miles from the northern city of Tikrit, the home town of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. An additional 16 terrorism suspects were arrested in the operation, the U.S. military said. Al-Masri, who is Egyptian, replaced the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi after he was killed in 2006 in a U.S.-led airstrike. He was the mastermind behind the series of bombings over the past seven months that left hundreds dead.

Afghanistan

NATO troops fired on a vehicle that approached their convoy in eastern Afghanistan, killing four unarmed Afghans and drawing swift condemnation from President Hamid Karzai. NATO said Tuesday two of those killed Monday night were later identified as “known insurgents,” but Karzai and the provincial chief of police, Abdul Hakim Hesaq Zoy, said they were all civilians. Zoy said one of the victims was a 12-year-old boy. The military concluded two of the men were insurgents based on information found in the military’s bio-metric database. NATO released a statement saying the car kept accelerating toward the military convoy despite attempts to flag the vehicle down by flashing lights and firing warning shots. The U.N. has called for better protection of Afghan civilians after the death toll rose last year to its highest level since the 2001 fall of the Taliban regime. Some 2,412 civilians were killed in 2009.

Pakistan

Two bombs, hours apart, exploded in the Pakistani city of Peshawar on Monday, killing 23 people, wounding more than 30, and underscoring the reach of militants despite successive military offensives close to the Afghan border, police said. A suicide bomber was behind the deadly blast, which occurred just before dusk in a crowded market area. Police said the target was apparently officers watching over a rally by members of a political party against power cuts in the city. Ironically, the rally was being held by the Jamat-e-Islami party, an Islamist grouping that is sympathetic to many of the goals of the Taliban and regularly criticizes army operations against them.

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