US abortion ruling “unconstitutional”

It was the first major limit on abortion law in the US since it was enshrined after the famous 1973 Roe vs. Wade case.

Judge Phyllis Hamilton, a federal judge in San Francisco, said the law is too vague, and restricts women’s rights to choose to have an abortion.

The White House has hit out at the ruling, with spokesman Scott McClellan saying late-term abortion is “an abhorrent procedure that must be ended once and for all.”

The ruling was after a case was brought by Planned Parenthood, an organisation that operates abortion clinics across the country.

“This court concludes that the act is unconstitutional because it poses an undue burden on a woman’s ability to choose a second-trimester abortion; is unconstitutionally vague; and requires a health exception,” said Judge Hamilton’s ruling.

The law was implemented to ban an abortion method that is usually used in the fifth or sixth month of pregnancy but can be used as early as the 12th to 15th weeks.

The method is defined by law as “partial-birth abortion”, in which the foetus is taken outside the mother’s body before being killed.

Mr Bush and the US Justice Department had described partial-birth abortions as inhumane and medically unjustified.

The White House said Mr Bush “strongly disagrees with today’s California court ruling, which overturns the overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress that voted to pass this important legislation,” and has promised an appeal.

How opponents of the ban on the method argue that it does not allow exemptions for a woman’s health, a caveat cited by former US President Bill Clinton, who twice rejected similar legislation.

Abortion is one of the most politically and socially divisive issues in the US, frequently splitting the country along party and religious lines.

Georgia-Ossetia tensions mount

Georgia’s military sources said some 400 interior ministry troops had been sent to Georgia’s trading posts with South Ossetia, but said that their main task was to stamp out illegal trade through the region.

The leader of the separatist region vowed that his militia would fight back if Georgian troops crossed the contentious border.

“We are in full control of the situation,” Eduard Kokoity told Russia’s NTV television.

“I, as the commander-in-chief, have issued an order to revert to the use of force in case the border of South Ossetia is crossed,” Kokoity said.

Russian peacekeepers patrol inside South Ossetia where most people hold Russian passports.

Georgia reportedly agreed to withdraw some of the troops after settling an agreement with South Ossetia’s Russian authorities.

But Moscow issued a firm condemnation of the troop relocation and Russia’s foreign ministry said Georgia was using “excuses” to pull its troops up to South Ossetia’s borders and that “the situation was only being destabilized” in the region.

After the statement, the Kremlin reported that Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili called his counterpart Vladimir Putin to explain Georgia’s position, but gave no other details.

Saakashvili also appeared in a nationally-televised address, saying “we have no plans to attack, or to have a war with, Ossetia.”

He said his talks with Putin were “warm” and that he expected the situation to be ironed out completely by Tuesday.

Saakashvili has vowed to pull together his fractured republic since peacefully overthrowing the leadership of Eduard Shevardnadze last year, and then winning the presidency in a nearly unanimous vote in January.

He has offered South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another pro-Moscow region that controls a key port on the Black Sea, special status.

Abkhazia has already rejected the offer, and a parliamentary election in South Ossetia this month handed victory to the party of the region’s pro-Russian president.

South Ossetia fought a separatist war with Georgia in the early 1990s, seeking union with their ethnic brethren over the border in the Russian region of North Ossetia.

Georgian troops were defeated and withdrew leaving South Ossetia to run its own affairs, though it is still internationally recognised as a part of Georgia.

Dutroux gives first evidence

Dutroux – is accused of kidnapping and repeatedly raping six girls in the 1990s, and killing four of them – said he was the hapless fall-guy for a shadowy paedophile gang.

He admitted building an underground cell to hold kidnapped girls, but he told the court he was acting for a “big crime ring”.

Dutroux addressed the court from behind bullet-proof glass to claim that two police officers were part of a sinister network that kidnapped and raped girls to order.

He described what he claimed was only a limited role in events that led to the discoveries of the bodies of four girls and the rescue of two others in the summer of 1996.

The jobless electrician’s wife, Michelle Martin, demolished his denials, but confessed to letting two eight-year-old girls starve to death.

Dutroux lost his composure only once during his three-hour testimony, when asked by the presiding judge, Stephane Goux, to sum up how he felt about those events.

“I made mistakes, I even committed some crimes. If we could go back to before… but we can’t,” he said.

A lawyer for one of the alleged victims responded angrily to the testimony, saying it made him feel “like crying”.

Mr Dutroux has admitted kidnapping two teenage girls and raping his captives, but denies kidnapping the younger girls and the charges of murder.

He referred regularly to his upbringing in testimony on Wednesday.

“It was the same old story: my mother couldn’t stand me and my father didn’t want to accept me as his son, knowing that he wasn’t my real father,” he said in court.

According to post-mortem examination reports quoted at the trial, two eight-year-olds were left to starve to death after being raped.

Police say the other two victims who died were drugged before being buried alive.

One of the two girls who survived, Sabine Dardenne, is planning to give evidence against him.

About 500 witnesses are expected to give evidence in the trial, which will probably last until June.

Italy faces budget woes

In a report to the central bank on the state of the Italian economy, Mr Fazio stressed that without corrective measures, the Italian budget deficit would breach the three percent limit written into the European Union Stability Pact.

The pact enshrines the rules underpinning the euro currency.

The governor said GDP growth was slow and expected to mount to no more than one percent this year, and that industrial output was falling.

Turning to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s plans to cut taxes, Mr Fazio stressed that the additional resources necessary will have to be found somewhere.

Mr Berlusconi has said he wants to introduce two flat income tax rates of 23 percent and 33 percent, but has ruled out reducing health and welfare spending to finance the cuts.

Meanwhile, the opposition said Mr Fazio’s report was proof of the failure of Mr Berlusconi’s economic policies.

The Democratic Left, the largest opposition party, said that “Fazio said what we’ve been saying for a long time, that the public accounts are getting out of control”.

Democratic Left chief Piero Fassino said that “this is further confirmation that the Italian economy has stalled and that its competitiveness is being undermined”.

Daisy Party leader Francesco Rutelli said that “Fazio has confirmed that Italy is in a difficult situation. We accuse the government of failing to act in the interests of Italy’s economy, its families and its businesses”.

But the government denied that the budget deficit risked breaching the 3 percent ceiling.

Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti said that “Italy will make it this year like every year, respecting its pacts. Such forecasts always arrive at this time of the year and then Italy always pulls through”.

Hamas militants die in missile strike

Witnesses say the car was targeted with two rockets close to the Jewish settlement of Netzarim just south of Gaza City. At least two bystanders were also injured in the missile strike.

The Israeli Government says the three militants were preparing for an imminent attack against Israelis, but gave no further details of the target.

The Israeli military’s chief of staff, Moshe Yaalon, announced on Tuesday that the army would intensify its operations against militant groups in the Palestinian territories.

But chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat has accused Israel of escalating the Middle East conflict, saying the latest attack is proof of Israel’s aggressive intent despite talk of withdrawing troops from Gaza.

The Jewish settlement of Netzarim, whose 65 families are guarded by an entire army battalion, is set to be dismantled as part of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s controversial plan to disengage from the Palestinians.

However the plan has suffered another blow after senior aides to Mr Sharon returned from Washington after failing to secure US backing for the disengagement plan.

But diplomatic sources say they have so far failed to convince Washington to back the “disengagement plan” which would see Israel strengthen control over West Bank settlements as well as pull out from Gaza.

White House officials are expected to travel to Israel for a further round of talks next week, with Washington seeking more details before deciding whether to give the plan its approval.

Mr Sharon has said that he intends to embark on his own unilateral measures within a few months if the deadlock in the bilateral peace process with the Palestinians is not broken, but says US backing for such a project is vital.

Iraq sees its bloodiest day

Tuesday was the bloodiest single day seen in Iraq since Saddam Hussein’s fall and leaders of the country’s Shi’ite majority said the attacks were designed to ignite civil war.

Three days of national mourning have been ordered – some 112 people were killed in Karbala and another 70 in the capital.

The attacks came at the climax of a holy festival which was being marked for the first time in years.

US and Iraqi leaders blamed the carnage on a man accused of links to Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network, but the top Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, criticised the US for failing to secure the country’s borders from foreign attackers.

In a statement, he said: “We put responsibility on the occupation forces for the noticeable procrastination in controlling the borders of Iraq and preventing infiltrators, and not strengthening Iraqi national forces and supplying them with the necessary equipment to do their jobs.”

The US military said three suicide bombers killed dozens of people in Baghdad around the Kadhimiya mosque, and a suicide bomber, mortars and concealed bombs combined to kill scores in Karbala, a Shi’ite holy city 110km to the south.

More than 400 people were wounded in the two cities.

The near-simultaneous attacks ripped through an annual ritual, banned under the Sunni Saddam, during which Shi’ites beat their heads and chests and cut their heads with swords to honour a revered figure killed in battle 1,324 years ago.

Several Iraqi Governing Council members blamed the blasts on Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian whom Washington suspects of being behind a series of major attacks in Iraq.

US forces have placed a $A12.99 million bounty on his head.

They said last month they had intercepted a computer disc with a letter from Zarqawi urging suicide bomb attacks on Shi’ites to inflame sectarian tension in Iraq.

Shi’ites on the Governing Council urged calm and unity among all of Iraq’s myriad religious and ethnic groups.

“The civil war and sectarian strife that Zarqawi wants to inflict on the people of Iraq will not succeed. Zarqawi failed, his gang and their evil plans have failed,” said Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, a Shi’ite Governing Council member.

Iraq’s US governor Paul Bremer said in a statement: “The terrorists want sectarian violence because they believe that is the only way they can stop Iraq’s march toward the democracy that the terrorists fear.”

Violence had been feared but US and other coalition soldiers had left the immediate areas around the mosques to Iraqi security forces so as not to offend religious sensibilities.

In both cities, shock soon turned to anger and foreign civilians and soldiers were targeted.

But later, in active defiance of the attacks, pilgrims continued the last day of the Ashura rituals.

Ruddock admits ASIO missed terror calls

The Federal Attorney General has confirmed Australia’s top spy agency ignored phone calls from Jack Roche who has become the country’s first convicted terrorist.

Roche told a Perth court he tried to warn ASIO about his plan to blow up the Israeli embassy in Canberra by telephoning the organisation in July and August 2000.

Philip Ruddock says ASIO admitted the mistake to the then Attorney General Daryl Williams at the time and gave the government an explanation.

Mr Ruddock says ASIO’S procedures were changed to make sure such contacts are not ignored again.

“And we’ve also legislated to provide that all telephone calls now to ASIO on its public line will be recorded.

“And that, I think, provides greater certainty in terms of the future in that if allegations are made that calls were addressed to ASIO, there is a situation where it can be checked.”

Fifty-year-old Roche was found guilty of plotting with Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah on Friday.

The Labor Party’s homeland security spokesman Robert McClelland says it is possible Roche’s calls could have prevented the Bali bombing in October 2002.

“It means we may well have missed an opportunity to find out about the activities of Jemmah Islamiah both in Indonesia and Australia.

“Now, of course the Bali bombings occurred 18 months later.

“In hindsight it’s difficult to say that it could have prevented that occurring. But nevertheless we need to know whether that was a missed opportunity to find out more about the activities of J I.”

But Mr Ruddock says this is not true.

“The fact is, that nothing that Roche had said had any relevance to Bali.

“There is no suggestion that he knew what was happening there, or any information that would have been provided by him would have given us a warning in relation to that.”

Howard on defensive over Iraq war

Prime Minister John Howard says he would make the same decision to send Australia to war against Iraq if he was ever in the same position again.

The statement comes after a bi-partisan parliamentary inquiry found the Federal Government and the Office of National Assessments overstated the threat posed by Iraq’s alleged banned weapons.

Mr Howard says he has no apologies to make for the government’s actions.

He also says even if weapons of mass destruction are never found in Iraq, Australia did the right thing by joining the United States-led invasion.

“The action taken by the Government to join the coalition of the willing was soundly based in international law,” Mr Howard said.

“The legal basis of of our involvement with the Coalition of the Willing was the serial non-compliance by Iraq with successive resolutions of the United Nations.”

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has again denied the Federal Government put political pressure on the ONA to produce intelligence suggesting Iraq had banned weapons.

The inquiry cleared the government of political interference with the intelligence assessment process.

But questions remain as to why, on September the 13, 2002, the ONA became much more definitive in its assessment that IRAQ had chemical and biological weapons.

Meanwhile, the federal Labor Party is demanding the Federal Government consult it on choosing the head of an independent inquiry into Australia’s spy agencies.

Liberal Party backbencher David Jull has said Labor should be consulted on who will head the inquiry into the Government’s handling of pre-war intelligence on Iraq.

Mr Jull chairs the bipartisan joint parliamentary committee on intelligence organisations, which on Monday recommended the inquiry be headed by a former spy.

But Labor’s foreign-affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd says the foreign minister has so far avoided saying whether the opposition will be consulted.

Alexander Downer is saying he does not mind consulting the opposition but the government will decide who heads the inquiry.

Mr Jull’s committee reported that the federal government had overstated the dangers posed by Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.

The committee said the government remarks on the issue went beyond the advice it received from its intelligence agencies.

It recommended an independent inquiry headed by a former intelligence expert to examine the performance of Australia’s spy agencies leading up to the war.

Several killed in Lebanon clashes

The violence broke out early Thursday in the southern Hay al-Sellom neighbourhood, where protesters were responding to a strike call by labour unions.

Riots spread across several parts of the city, as people vented their anger at the high cost of living and the government’s economic policies.

Witnesses say troops fired shots to disperse the crowd, killing several demonstrators.

Protesters, angered by the shootings, set the Labour Ministry on fire, while others threw stones at soldiers trying to control the crowds.

Demonstrators blocked roads with burning tyres, including the Beirut International Airport highway and the main road out of the capital toward Syria.

Schools, universities and many businesses closed and traffic was thin on the normally congested streets of the Lebanese capital.

Lebanon’s Public Prosecutor Adnan Addoum said preliminary reports showed four men and a woman were killed during the violence, but said the toll might change.

Hospital sources said at least three people died of bullet wounds, as more casualties arrived at nearby hospitals, some in serious conditions.

Lebanon’s General Labour Confederation (GLC), which called the strike, urged an end to the protests and said it was working with political parties to try to restore calm.

Unions have lambasted efforts by the government to cut spending and increase revenues from privatisation and tax, saying they hurt the poor.

They have called on the state to cap soaring petrol prices and to lower taxes.

Lebanese President Emile Lahoud has called for an inquiry into the unrest, the country’s bloodiest clashes in a decade, as the capital gears up to host an OPEC summit next week.

New Iraq resolution circulated

The revised draft seeks to allay the concerns of Iraqis and fellow UN Security Council members including Russia and China.

In the previous version, only the next Iraqi government, which would enter after January elections, would have the authority to ask the force to leave.

However Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said US-led troops would have to remain for “some time” to ensure the country did not slide into chaos and violence.

The new text also says the council would in the future consider the mandate of weapons inspectors on any future visits.

China, France, Germany and Russia had all called for various changes to the text, including the use of stronger language to make clear that Iraq would have full sovereignty after the occupation formally ends on June 30.

The Security Council is to hold a weekend retreat attended by the UN’s Iraq envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who will also give a formal presentation at UN headquarters in New York next week.

The draft text comes as US President George W Bush nominated former US senator John Danforth as the new US ambassador to the United Nations.

Mr Danforth would replace John Negroponte, recently nominated as US ambassador to Iraq, and his nomination is subject to Senate approval.

Meanwhile, five US soldiers have been killed in Iraq during fighting in a Baghdad neighbourhood.

Five others were wounded when an explosion ripped through a Humvee armoured vehicle in the city’s east.

This comes as US and coalition agreed to curtail some patrols in the volatile cities of Kufa and Najaf, where they have been battling militia loyal to cleric Moqtada al-Sadr for weeks.