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The CNN Wire: Thursday, Sep. 20

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Editor's Note: The CNN Wire is a running log of the latest news from CNN World Headquarters, reported by CNN's correspondents and producers, and The CNN Wire editors. "Posted" times are Eastern Time.

Suicide car bomb explodes in Kabul, NATO convoy involved

(CNN) -- A NATO convoy was involved in a suicide car bomb explosion in the Afghan capital, Kabul, Friday, NATO's International Security Forces spokesman Maj. Charles Anthony said.

No other information was immediately available.

"It's just a very short while ago that this occurred," Anthony told CNN by phone. "We've got the location, we've got the fact that it's ISAF convoy that was involved.

"This is difficult to track. You've got military convoys going from point to point and on top of that you have rumors and hearsay." (Posted 2:05 a.m.)

Suicide car bomb explodes in Kabul, NATO convoy involved

(CNN) -- A NATO convoy was involved in a suicide car bomb explosion in the Afghan capital, Kabul, Friday, NATO's International Security Forces spokesman Maj. Charles Anthony told CNN.

No other information was immediately available.

"We're still sorting out the other details," Anthony said. (Posted 2 a.m.)

Coalition, Afghan forces kill 40 militants in southern Afghan fighting

(CNN) -- A combined team of U.S.-led coalition and Afghan forces killed approximately 40 Taliban militants in southern Helmand province during a Friday operation, the coalition command press center said.

No troops were hurt or killed during the operation, which aimed at deterring "hostile activities" in the province's Garmsir district, according to the coalition.

Soldiers used precision-guided munitions, "killing a large number of combatants," and coalition spokesman Maj. Christopher Belcher said "one of the largest caches of weapons found to date" was uncovered in a building.

"Several rooms were found filled with small-arms, explosives, rocket-propelled grenades and large caliber ammunition," Belcher said.

Two buildings and weapons caches were destroyed to "prevent their future use." (Posted 1:45 a.m.)

3 NATO soldiers die in southern Afghanistan

(CNN) -- Three soldiers serving under NATO's International Security Assistance Force died Thursday in southern Afghanistan, officials said.

Two British soldiers died in a road-side traffic accident while taking part in a re-supply mission in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province Thursday, Britain's defense ministry said.

"No enemy forces were involved," the ministry added.

With their deaths, 81 British soldiers have been killed since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Also, the Dutch Defense Ministry said a 20-year-old Dutch soldier was killed Thursday when his patrol came under fire by militant forces in southern Uruzgan province.

He is the 11th Dutch soldier killed in Afghanistan, either accidentally or in combat. (Posted 12:55 a.m.)

Rather says he's suing CBS to strike a blow for independent journalism

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather says the $70 million lawsuit he filed Wednesday against his former employer is an effort to strike a blow against political and corporate influence that he believes threatens the independence of American journalism.

"This is the right stand, at the right time, about the right issue," Rather told CNN's Larry King Thursday night, in his first TV interview since filing the suit. "We have to, somehow, get back to integrity in the news and somehow at least alleviate, if not eliminate, these big corporate and big government pressures."

"You can't have freedom of the press if you're going to have large, big corporations and big government intruding and intimidating in newsrooms. The chilling effect on investigative reporting is going to be something we don't want to see," he said.

Rather's breach of contract suit charges that CBS made him the scapegoat when the network came under intense criticism over a September 2004 "60 Minutes II" story challenging President Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. (Posted 11:40 a.m.)

Source: FBI taped calls between Alaska senator and disgraced oilman

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The FBI has taped conversations between Republican Sen. Ted Stevens and an oil company executive who has pleaded guilty to bribery in a wide-ranging Alaska corruption probe, a source with knowledge of the investigation said Thursday.

The calls were between Stevens, who is up for re-election in 2008, and Bill Allen, then CEO of oilfield services firm VECO Corp., the source said. In May, Allen and another VECO executive pleaded guilty to paying more than $400,000 in bribes to Alaska public officials.

The source would provide no further detail, and the FBI declined comment on the matter Thursday night. The existence of the tapes was first reported by The Associated Press.

Federal agents searched Stevens' home outside Anchorage in July in connection with the corruption probe, which has also snared a state lobbyist and led to bribery and conspiracy charges against three current and former state legislators. Stevens' office had no additional comment beyond a statement previously issued to reporters, in which the GOP's longest-serving senator urged constituents "not to form conclusions based upon incomplete and sometimes incorrect reports in the media." (Posted 10:31 p.m.)

Southern town swamped with protesters

JENA, La. (CNN) -- At least 15,000 people crowded the tiny town of Jena., La., on Thursday to show their indignation over what they consider unjust, unequal punishments meted out in two racially charged incidents, state police reported.

They swarmed over the grounds of Jena High School, where nooses were hung from an oak tree in early August 2006 -- about three months before six black teens known as the "Jena 6" were accused of beating a white classmate. Louisiana State Police estimated the turnout at between 15,000 and 20,000 people, Sgt. Markus Smith said.

While the tension was palpable in the town of 3,000 in central Louisiana, news broke Thursday afternoon that the state 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal ordered a hearing within 72 hours to determine if the only one of the six still behind bars can be released.

The order has "got to be good," Mychal Bell's attorney, Bob Noel, told CNN. "It means we have a day in court. Any day in court is going to be a good day." (Posted 10:05 p.m.)

Court administrator apologizes to Simpson lawyers for camera-phone pic

LAS VEGAS (CNN) -- A court administrator apologized to lawyers for O.J. Simpson on Thursday after a court employee was caught taking a picture of the former football star during his first court appearance on robbery, kidnapping and assault charges.

Charles Short, the chief executive officer for Clark County, Nev., courts, said a court reporter snapped the picture on a mobile phone camera of Simpson as he left the courtroom at the end of Wednesday's hearing. "Our court is a professional organization, and this behavior is an aberration and will not be tolerated," Short wrote in a letter to Simpson lawyers Yale Galanter and Gabriel Grasso. The photo was deleted before it could be distributed, and the employee's actions have been addressed "in the appropriate way," he wrote.

Simpson, 60, was arrested on Sunday on charges related to a reported armed robbery of sports memorabilia, including many items the NFL hall of famer and onetime murder defendant has said were his own property.

He returned to his home in Florida late Wednesday after making bail, which had been set at $125,000 during Wednesday's hearing. He faces a total of 11 criminal counts, including robbery and assault with a deadly weapon, kidnapping, burglary and conspiracy. (Posted 8:27 p.m.)

Airport authority asks judge to toss ACLU brief in Craig case

(CNN) -- An attorney for Minneapolis' airport authority asked a judge Thursday to strike a brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in the case of Sen. Larry Craig, who has asked to withdraw his guilty plea to a disorderly conduct charge stemming from a bust in an airport men's room.

The ACLU's "friend of the court" brief "concentrates on issues irrelevant" to the withdrawal of Craig's plea, and "seeks to improperly inject" the organization's own agenda into the case, wrote Christopher Renz, prosecuting attorney for the Metropolitan Airports Commission.

Craig was arrested in June at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport after a police officer in a bathroom stall next to the Idaho Republican alleged that Craig had attempted to solicit sex.

Craig pleaded guilty Aug. 8 to one count of disorderly conduct -- but when the case came to light later that month, he came under intense pressure from fellow Republicans to resign. Craig announced he would leave the Senate on Sept. 30. But days later, he said he would fight to get his guilty plea revoked and would remain in office if he is succeeded. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Wednesday. (Posted 7:21 p.m.)

Forecasters eye weather system in Gulf that could go tropical

(CNN) -- Forecasters are keeping a wary eye on a low pressure system in the eastern Gulf of Mexico west of the Florida peninsula that has the potential of developing into a tropical system and heading northwest toward Louisiana.

A reconnaissance aircraft that investigated the low Thursday found an area of "broad circulation" located about 115 miles west-southwest of St. Petersburg, Fla., according to an advisory from the National Hurricane Center. While there was no indication the low had begun to acquire tropical characteristics, the weather system could become tropical over the next 24 hours as it moves west-northwest over warm Gulf waters, forecasters said.

Computer models tracking the low show it moving northwest toward the northern Gulf and reaching the coast between Pensacola, Fla., and New Orleans over the weekend. While the system was not yet powerful or organized enough to be classified a threat, forecasters urged people on the northern Gulf coast to keep an eye on the system.

Tropical systems can gain strength quickly, as witnessed last week when Hurricane Humberto blew up from a tropical depression to a full-fledged Category 1 hurricane in just 14 hours before slamming into southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana. (Posted 7:20 p.m.)

Spector trial jury resumes deliberations with fresh instructions

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Two days after reporting they were at an impasse, jurors in the murder trial of music producer Phil Spector resumed deliberations Thursday with fresh instructions from the judge.

Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler told the nine-man, three-woman jury to ignore a previous jury instruction that stated that for Spector to be guilty of killing B-movie actress Lana Clarkson, he must have committed "an act" that led to her death. "Treat it as though you never heard it," Fidler told the panel before sending them off. Some jurors told Fidler on Tuesday that they were confused by the phrase "an act" and had trouble applying the instruction to their deliberations.

Jurors deliberated for less than an hour Thursday afternoon before breaking for the day. The panel was scheduled to return Friday morning.

Spector, 66, is charged with second-degree murder in the February 2003 death of Clarkson, the 40-year-old star of 1985's "Barbarian Queen" and the 1987 spoof "Amazon Women on the Moon." The trial began in April, and jurors began deliberating Sept. 10. Tuesday, jurors told Fidler they were split 7-5 after four ballots, but did not tell him which way they were leaning. (Posted 7:16 p.m.)

39 indicted in international money-laundering investigation

(CNN) -- A federal grand jury has indicted 39 defendants, mostly Pakistanis, charging they laundered nearly a million and a half dollars around the globe, a U.S. attorney in Baltimore announced Thursday.

One of the four indictments handed down accuses one of the defendants of concealing funds for terrorist activities, U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said. Other charges include operating unlicensed money transmission businesses and conspiracy to bribe a public official.

The four-year probe detailed in the indictments involved people working undercover for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the FBI who told the defendants that they were a major drug trafficker, cigarette smugglers and other criminals. One posed as a terrorist, telling the defendants he wanted to send money to al Qaeda, documents show.

According to the indictments, the defendants used an informal system numerous times to launder various amounts of money -- ranging from approximately $50,000 to $450,000 -- in Maryland, New York, Spain and Australia. (Posted 7:08 p.m.)

Ahmadinejad says he won't insist on Ground Zero visit

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Faced with a host of American objections, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says he won't push to visit the site of the destroyed World Trade Center during his coming visit to the United Nations.

New York city officials have denied Ahmadinejad's request to lay a wreath at the scene of the the 2001 al Qaeda attacks, citing safety concerns at what is now a construction site. The Bush administration considers Iran a state sponsor of terrorism, and a State Department spokesman called the request "the height of hypocrisy."

In an interview to be aired Sunday with CBS' "60 Minutes," Ahmadinejad said he would try to visit the site "if we have the time and the conditions are conducive." But he said if local officials cannot make the proper arrangements, "I won't insist."

More than 2,700 people died in the attack on the World Trade Center, when al Qaeda operatives flew hijacked passenger jets into the twin towers. A third jet hit the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed in a Pennsylvania field after passengers resisted their hijackers. (Posted 7:07 p.m.)

Deal giving Dubai firm part ownership of NASDAQ to be reviewed

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A proposed deal that would put nearly 20 percent of the New York-based NASDAQ stock exchange in the hands of a company owned by the government of Dubai will be reviewed to see if it raises any national security issues, President Bush said Thursday.

"We're going to take a good look at it as to whether or not it has any national security implications involved in the transaction," he said. "And I'm comfortable that the process will go forward."

NASDAQ, the largest U.S. electronic stock market, and Bourse Dubai have voluntarily submitted the deal announced Thursday for review by the Treasury Department's Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who was a leading critic of an ill-fated deal last year to turn over management of several U.S. ports to another Dubai company, called on the Treasury Department to review the NASDAQ deal under tougher requirements mandated by Congress in the wake of the ports controversy, even though they have not yet gone into effect. (Posted 5:47 p.m.)

Democratic fund-raiser Hsu charged with campaign finance violations

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Federal prosecutors have charged Democratic fund-raiser Norman Hsu with breaking campaign finance laws and cheating investors out of millions of dollars in a $60 million Ponzi scheme.

The criminal complaint was announced Thursday at a press conference in Manhattan.

Hsu is charged with one count of violating the Federal Election Campaign Act after after using investors in his companies as straw donors, making various political contributions greater than $25,000, which Hsu then paid back to the straw donors. Other charges include one count each of wire fraud and mail fraud.

Hsu contributed to political campaigns to raise his profile and draw more investors to his Ponzi scheme, prosecutors allege, saying, "It doesn't appear the Ponzi scheme was devised in order to generate money for the political contributions." --From CNN's David Miller

Sarkozy says he wants tougher sanctions on Iran, but not war

PARIS (CNN) -- French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Thursday that he would seek tougher U.N. sanctions on Iran for continuing to produce nuclear fuel, but backed away from his foreign minister's warning that Europe should prepare for war.

Speaking in a joint interview with French television networks TF1 and France 2, Sarkozy said it was clear that Iran "is trying to equip itself with a nuclear bomb." But he said diplomatic pressure has spurred other countries to give up nuclear weapons programs before.

"How can we convince them to renounce this project, like the international community convinced Libya and North Korea? By discussion, dialogue and sanctions," he said.

Sarkozy said he will lobby for tougher sanctions on Iran when he attends the U.N. General Assembly session in New York next week. (Posted 4:52 p.m.)

Hearing to be held on release of last of 'Jena 6' still in jail

JENA, La. (CNN) -- As thousands of protesters from around the country clogged the tiny town of Jena., La., Thursday to show their indignation over what they consider unjust, unequal punishments meted out in two racially charged incidents, news broke that an appeals court had ordered a hearing for the last of six black teens known as the "Jena 6" still in jail.

The 3rd District Court of Appeal ordered a hearing within 72 hours to determine if Mychal Bell should be released. He and the other five are accused of beating up a white classmate.

The order has "got to be good," Bell's attorney, Bob Noel, told CNN. "It means we have a day in court. Any day in court is going to be a good day."

Bails for the "Jena 6" were set at between $70,000 and $138,000, and all but Bell, 17, have posted bond. He has been in prison since his arrest. The judge has refused to lower his $90,000 bail, citing Bell's record, which includes four juvenile offenses -- two simple battery charges among them. (Posted 4:48 p.m.)

39 indicted in international money-laundering investigation

(CNN) -- A federal grand jury has indicted 39 defendants, mostly Pakistanis, charging they laundered nearly a million and a half dollars around the globe, a U.S. attorney in Baltimore announced Thursday.

One of the four indictments handed down accuses one of the defendants of concealing funds for terrorist activities, U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said. Other charges include operating unlicensed money transmission businesses and conspiracy to bribe a public official.

The four-year probe detailed in the indictments involved people working undercover for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the FBI who told the defendants that they were a major drug trafficker, cigarette smugglers and other criminals. One posed as a terrorist, telling the defendants he wanted to send money to al Qaeda, documents show.

According to the indictments, the defendants used an informal system numerous times to launder various amounts of money -- ranging from approximately $50,000 to $450,000 -- in Maryland, New York, Spain and Australia. (Posted 3:58 p.m.)

Landis: Arbitration panel's decision 'a blow to athletes and cyclists'

(CNN) -- Formally stripped of his 2006 Tour de France victory by an arbitration panel's decision to uphold a test result showing he used synthetic testosterone, cyclist Floyd Landis insisted he is innocent Thursday and said the decision is "a blow to athletes and cyclists everywhere."

The panel, which heard evidence and witnesses on the test results during a nine-day arbitration hearing in Malibu, Calif., in May, voted 2-1 against Landis.

"The majority decision came despite serious charges regarding the accuracy and reliability of the test results and the competency of the testing procedures of the laboratory run by the AFLD (the French anti-doping agency)," a spokeswoman for Landis said in a written statement.

"This ruling is a blow to athletes and cyclists everywhere," Landis is quoted in the statement as saying. "For the panel to find in favor of USADA (the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency) when, with respect to so many issues, USADA did not manage to prove even the most basic parts of their case, shows that this system is fundamentally flawed. I am innocent, and we proved I am innocent." (Posted 3:40 p.m.)

Reid: Frustrated Dems will keep pushing for end to Iraq war

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday that Democrats are disappointed that they have been unable to force President Bush to change course in Iraq, but vowed to keep pushing with or without Republican help.

GOP senators have successfully filibustered every Democratic-led push to bring troops home from Iraq, using a procedural vote Wednesday to kill a proposal that would have required the Pentagon to give troops returning from Iraq stateside time equal to their time in the combat zone.

Though six Republicans joined Democrats in voting for the plan, the final vote was four short of the 60 needed to break a filibuster.

"They want to protect the president more than they want to protect our troops," said Reid, D-Nev. --From CNN Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash (Posted 3:32 p.m.)

Democratic fund-raiser Hsu charged

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Federal prosecutors have charged Democratic fund-raiser Norman Hsu with breaking campaign finance laws and creating a $60 million Ponzi scheme.

Federal prosecutors announced the criminal complaint Thursday at a press conference in Manhattan. (Posted 1:21 p.m.)

Non-combants killed in fighting between Taliban, ISAF in Afghanistan

(CNN) -- Fighting in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday led to "a number of civilian casualties," NATO's International Security Assistance Force said Thursday.

The fighting occurred between ISAF troops and the Taliban in Upper Gereshk Valley. Previous deaths of civilians during fighting in Afghanistan have generated criticism of NATO and coalition forces.

"Taliban fighters attacked ISAF from a compound and an airstrike was called in to neutralize the threat," ISAF said. " ISAF was unaware of civilians in the vicinity of the target and unfortunately it appears that a number of non-combatants were caught in the attack and killed."

It said it regrets the casualties and is investigating the incident. (Posted 1:20 p.m.)

Southern town swamped with protesters

JENA, La. (CNN) -- Thousands of protesters clogged the tiny town of Jena., La., Thursday to show their indignation over what they consider unjust, unequal punishments meted out in two racially charged incidents.

They swarmed over the grounds of Jena High School, surrounding the stump of the tree from which nooses hung in early August 2006, about three months before six black teens known as the "Jena 6" were accused of beating a white classmate.

There was an aura of a pilgrimage near the former oak tree, with many people touching the ground and some retrieving a lump of dirt, said CNN's Eric Marrapodi. School administrators cut down the tree before school began in the fall of 2006.

In the background, groups shouted "Black power" and "No justice, no peace." (Posted 12:55 p.m.)

Bush slams MoveOn.org ad, reluctance of some Democrats to criticize it

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush on Thursday slammed last week's advertisement from an anti-war group that criticized the top military commander in Iraq and upbraided Democrats, saying they were skittish about criticizing the group.

Bush, at a press conference at the White House, was asked about his reaction to MoveOn.org's ad in The New York Times that "mocked" Gen. David Petraeus as Gen. "Betray Us."

The president called the advertisement "disgusting." The group and other war critics have accused Petraeus and the Bush administration of "cherry-picking" to make it seem that military success is being achieved in Iraq.

Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, in reports to Congress last week, said they believe the U.S. troop increase, or "surge," has had successes, an assertion questioned by war critics.

Many Democratic lawmakers immediately criticized the ad after it was published. (Posted 12:06 p.m.)

Iraqi intelligence officer arrested for links to 'illegal militia activities'

BAGHDAD (CNN) -- An Iraqi National Police intelligence officer was taken into custody Thursday for "suspected involvement in illegal militia activities," the U.S. military said.

Col. Thamir Mohammad Sinah al-Husayni, also known as Abu Turab, was arrested by U.S. troops. The military said that since May 11, several security force members have been detained "for suspected involvement in illegal activities."

The U.S. military and Sunni Arabs in Iraq have been concerned about the presence of militia members in the Interior Ministry, which heads the National Police.

An intelligence officer operating in northwestern Baghdad, the colonel "is responsible for large quantities of intelligence data and is suspected of using that information against coalition and Iraqi forces throughout the area," the military said. (Posted 11:53 a.m.)

Bush wants extension on current kids health-care plan; threatens veto of congressional plan to expand it

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush on Thursday asked Congress to give him a "clean" extension of a state-run, federally funded children's health-care insurance program so he could sign it before the program ends Sept. 30.

He threatened to veto a plan that he said Democrats in Congress have come up with to "score political points in Washington" that would "raise taxes on working people and would raise spending between $35 million to $50 million."

"My 2008 budget proposed to increase SCHIP (State Children's Health Insurance Program) funding by $5 billion over five years. It's a 20 percent increase over current levels of funding," the president said. "Unfortunately, instead of working with the administration to enact this funding increase for children's health, Democrats in Congress have decided to pass a bill they know that will be vetoed. One of their leaders has even said such a veto would be, quote, 'a political victory.'"

"We're not playing politics," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., on the floor of the Senate shortly after the president's news conference. "We were coming together in a bipartisan way to be able to give more children, American children, the ability to get their health-care needs taken care of. And it's time that we have the president join with us in the right set of priorities for American families." (Posted 11:49 a.m.)

Top U.S. commander cites decrease in Iraq, Baghdad violence

BAGHDAD (CNN) -- A top U.S. commander in Iraq says attacks in the country -- which rose after last year's attack on a Shiite mosque -- and violence in Baghdad have fallen since the U.S. military bolstered troop levels in and around the capital.

Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of the Multi-National Corps, told reporters Thursday that attacks across the nation have dropped " to their lowest levels" since the strike in February 2006 on the Askariya Mosque in Samarra, an attack that spurred sectarian violence.

And in Baghdad, he said, civilian casualties have dropped from an average of 32 per day to 12 over the year. He said violence is down 50 percent in the capital but did not elaborate on how that figure was determined.

"What we do know is that there has been a decline in civilian casualties, but I would say again that it's not at the level we want it to be," he said. (posted 11:30 a.m.)

Bush threatens veto of congressional plan to expand health-care program

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush on Thursday asked Congress to give him a "clean" extension of a state-run, federally funded children's health-care insurance program so he could sign it before the program ends Sept. 30.

He threatened to veto a plan that he said Democrats in Congress have come up with to "score political points in Washington" that would "raise taxes on poor people and raise spending." That plan would expand the program to cover more people. (Posted 10:57 a.m.)

Osama bin Laden releases message calling on Pakistanis to wage 'jihad' on Musharraf

(CNN) -- An audio message from al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden released Thursday called on Muslims to "carry out jihad" against Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf -- restating a call made in the past by bin Laden's lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The 20-minute audio message -- titled "Come to Jihad: A Speech to the People of Pakistan" -- is recorded over a montage of old video, and begins with bin Laden reciting prayers and citations from the Quran in Arabic. The audio fades down, then a narrator translates bin Laden's message into Urdu or Pashtun. The tape is subtitled in English.

The only time reference in bin Laden's message is to the July siege of Islamabad's Red Mosque -- a week-long standoff between Pakistani security forces and Islamic extremists who hoped to establish a Taliban-style rule across the capital. More than 100 people, including militant leader Abdul Rashid Ghazi, died when troops stormed the mosque compound.

While al Qaeda has previously voiced opposition to Musharraf, a key U.S. ally, bin Laden's message comes during a key test to the Pakistani president's grip on power. Musharraf is hoping to secure a third term as Pakistan's president, but has suffered a major loss in popularity after sacking the country's top judge, who was later reinstated. (Posted 10:03 a.m.)

Palestinian president denounces Israel's clamp-down on Gaza as 'collective punishment'

RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNN) -- Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who broke with Hamas leaders after they seized control of Gaza earlier this year, decried Israel's declaration of Hamas-controlled Gaza as a "hostile entity" saying the move may "sabotage" his government's efforts to extend its mandate into Gaza.

"There should be no sanctions against the Palestinian people, neither individual nor collective punishment," he said. "It will harm our bilateral relations, it will harm our discussions and negotiations, it will harm the atmosphere and even sabotage it."

Abbas spoke Thursday at a joint news conference with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Ramallah, the West Bank town where his Fatah-dominated government is based. Rice is on a diplomatic mission ahead of what she hopes will be a "substantive" conference on Mideast peace in November.

Under Israel's plan proposed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Israel would disrupt electrical supplies, reduce fuel shipments to a bare minimum to run hospital generators, and choke off shipments of goods to allow only essential food and medicine to enter Gaza. In addition, the Cabinet said Israel will continue military operations "against terror organizations." (Posted 9:27 a.m.)

Bush announces resignation of Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush on Thursday announced the resignation of Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, calling him an outstanding member of his Cabinet and thanking him for serving his country.

"He is not only a decent person and an honest person but he's a person who can get some things done," Bush said in brief remarks in the White House Rose Garden.

Republican sources told CNN Johanns plans to run next year for the GOP nomination for the seat being vacated by fellow Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, who announced earlier this month that he won't seek re-election to a third term.

Hagel told CNN Wednesday that he had spoken with Johanns Tuesday and encouraged him to run for the seat. (Posted 9:32 a.m.)

Bernanke says housing market woes to continue

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Federal Reserve will take steps to address the subprime mortgage debacle, to protect consumers and prevent weakness from bleeding into other areas of the U.S. economy, Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke plans to tell Congress Thursday morning.

"Recent developments in financial markets have increased the uncertainty surrounding the economic outlook," Bernanke wrote in testimony he plans to deliver to the House Financial Service Committee at 10 a.m. ET.

His comments were made available to the media in advance.

"The committee will continue to assess the effects of these and other developments on economic prospects and will act as needed to foster price stability and sustainable economic growth," the speech reads. (Posted 9:20 a.m.)

Rice calls for 'substantive' Mideast peace conference

RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNN) -- The goal of a coming international conference on Israeli-Palestinian peace will be to tackle key hurdles and not to to hold "a meeting for the sake of meeting," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday.

"We will talk about core issues for the first time in six years," Rice said at a joint news conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The goal of the conference, scheduled for November in Washington, is "to move the process forward to a document that will help to lay a foundation so there can be serious negotiations on the establishment of a Palestinian state as soon as possible," she said.

Abbas said the conference must address the core issues: the borders of a Palestinian state, the dismantling of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.

Rice met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Shimon Peres, before heading to Ramallah on Thursday for talks with Abbas. (Posted 9:20 a.m.)

Town braces for massive rally in support of 'Jena 6'

JENA, La. (CNN) -- For weeks, Mychal Bell expected to find out his punishment Thursday for his alleged role in a school beating that has thrust racial tensions in the tiny Louisiana town of Jena into the national spotlight -- and onto the political stage.

Instead, he and five other black teens will be the focus of a rally that promises to bring enough protesters to Jena, Louisiana, to outnumber its 3,000 residents many times over.

"This is a march for justice. This is not a march against whites or against Jena," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights activist and one of the protest organizers.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King III, and hip-hop artist Mos Def also are planning to attend. (Posted 9:10 a.m.)

Johanns to leave Cabinet for Senate run

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns will resign his post to seek an open seat in the U.S. Senate from his home state of Nebraska, sources told CNN Wednesday.

President Bush and Johanns, who served six years as Nebraska's governor before coming to Washington, will appear at the White House Thursday morning for an announcement, senior administration officials told CNN.

The White House would not confirm that his resignation would be announced. But a Republican source and a Bush administration official told CNN that Johanns had informed the White House that he plans to resign this week.

The Republican source said Johanns has also told friends he will run next year for the GOP nomination for the seat being vacated by fellow Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, who announced earlier this month that he won't seek re-election to a third term. (Posted 9:10 a.m.)

U.S. military: Iranian agent seized by coalition forces in Iraqi Kurdish region

BAGHDAD (CNN) -- Coalition forces in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya on Thursday arrested a member of an elite Iranian unit that has been accused of training and equipping insurgents in Iraq, the U.S. military said.

The person, who was not identified, is being called a member of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force, described by the U.S. military as "a covert action arm of the Iranian government responsible for aiding lethal attacks against the Iraqi government and coalition forces."

The military said the "individual has been involved in transporting improvised explosive devices and explosively formed penetrators into Iraq. Intelligence reports also indicate he was involved in the infiltration and training of foreign terrorists in Iraq."

The person is one of several Iranians in U.S. custody in Iraq. (Posted 8:30 a.m.)

3, including two Iraqi soldiers, killed in Baghdad bombing

BAGHDAD (CNN) -- Two Iraqi soldiers were among three people killed on Thursday when a parked car detonated near an Iraqi Army checkpoint, an Interior Ministry official told CNN.

The bomb exploded in Habibiya neighborhood at the edge of Sadr City, the densely populated Shiite slum in northeastern Baghdad. Seven people were wounded, including four soldiers.

The official said a tow-truck driver hauling a car approached the checkpoint and asked troops if he could drop off the vehicle he was towing near the checkpoint because he had to tow another car.

The driver dropped the car off and left. Moments later, the parked car blew up, the interior ministry official said. (Posted 8:30 a.m.)

Iran's leader to speak at Columbia University during NYC visit

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is slated to speak on the campus of Columbia University during his visit to the U.N. General Assembly next week, a statement from university president Lee Bollinger said.

Iran's controversial, outspoken president is scheduled to address students and faculty Monday during the World Leaders Forum, an annual university event "intended to further Columbia's long-standing tradition of serving as a major forum for robust debate, especially on global issues," Bollinger said in a statement issued Wednesday.

His presence is sure to spark protests on and off campus.

Numerous critics have attacked Ahmadinejad's hard-line anti-Israel stance and his insistence that Iran will defy international demands that it halt its production of enriched uranium. Iran insists it is producing nuclear fuel for civilian power plants, but Washington accuses Tehran of trying to create a nuclear weapons program. (Posted 8:30 a.m.)

Bush administration picks two top officials to deal with Iraqi refugee applications

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration has tapped two senior officials to help surmount the bureaucratic red tape delaying the admittance of refugees from war-torn Iraq -- a country now enduring the most widespread uprooting of people in the Middle East since the creation of Israel in 1948.

The two officials are Ambassador James B. Foley, senior coordinator for Iraqi Refugee Issues, and Lori Scialabba, senior adviser to the Secretary of Homeland Security for Iraqi Refugee Affairs.

Their appointments, announced on Wednesday, underscore the gravity of the population changes, the seriousness of security screening, and the challenges faced by governments across the world to accommodate the refugees and help the many internally displaced people within Iraq itself.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees "estimates that more than 4.2 million Iraqis have left their homes." (Posted 8:30 a.m.)

U.S. soldier dies in 'non-combat related incident'

BAGHDAD (CNN) -- The U.S. military on Thursday announced the death of an American soldier in Iraq's Anbar province.

The soldier, with the Multi-National Force-West, died on Wednesday "in a non-combat-related incident."

This brings the number of U.S. military deaths in the war to 3,792 and the number killed in September to 50. (Posted 8:30 a.m.)

Web sites: Osama bin Laden to release message, declaring war on Pakistani leader

(CNN) -- Jihadist Web sites on Thursday announced that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden will release a new taped message declaring war on Pakistani President, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Terrorism expert Laura Mansfield told CNN she expects the tape to be posted Thursday morning. She said it is unclear if it will be an audio or video message, or audio over a still image or video clips.

The message comes just over a week after al Qaeda released a 47-minute videotape featuring an introduction by bin Laden in which he praised one of the 9/11 hijackers. (Posted 7:11 a.m.)

7 dead, 8 detained in Iraq raids

BAGHDAD (CNN) -- Coalition raids in Iraq on Thursday result in the killings of seven insurgents and the detentions of eight others, the U.S. military said.

The raids were targeting the al Qaeda in Iraq network.

The seven were killed in fighting during one raid in Mahmoudiya, which is southwest of Baghdad. Three people were detained in that incident.

North of Baghdad in Samarra, five people were seized in another raid.

"Terrorists cannot hide from our operations against their leadership network," said Maj. Winfield Danielson, Multi-National Force-Iraq spokesperson. (Posted 6:44 a.m.)

Excited Youssif faces surgery with bravery

SHERMAN OAKS, California (CNN) -- Youssif excitedly somersaulted across his bed, his shrieks of joy bouncing off the sterile hospital walls. He raced around the room, crawled under his bed and ran circles.

It wasn't the mood one would expect for a boy just hours away from his first reconstructive facial surgery. But this isn't your ordinary kid.

Within minutes of entering the hospital, Youssif was right at home. Watching her once sullen and withdrawn son, his mother, Zainab, couldn't even put her emotions into words. She just broke down in tears. Across the room, her husband's shoulders began to shake as he cradled his head, trying to hide his emotions. (Posted 6:45 a.m.)

Election commission sets Oct. 6 for presidential elections

(CNN) -- Pakistan's election commission announced Thursday that presidential elections will be held Oct. 6, the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan reported.

"The Nomination papers will be received till September 27," Chief Election Commissioner Qazi Farooq said in Islamabad.

The run-up to the October ballot has been filled with controversy as Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf makes his re-election bid while also holding his military general's rank and post of army chief.

On Tuesday, a lawyer for Musharraf told the country's Supreme Court that Musharraf would give up his military career, if he is re-elected president next month. (Posted 5:35 a.m.)

Deadly Beirut blast sparks calls for 2- day protest

BEIRUT (CNN) -- Lebanon's Phalange Party called a two-day strike Thursday, a day after a powerful bomb blast in Beirut killed at least five people in the latest of a spate of attacks targeting prominent anti-Syrian figures.

The explosion, roundly blamed on Damascus, killed one of the party's own members, Antoine Ghanem -- a 64-year-old anti-Syrian Lebanese parliamentarian and Christian Maronite.

Along with the Phalange Party, which is known to take an anti-Syrian stance, the banker's union and the Ministry of Education backed the strike.

The move comes in the wake of Wednesday's bombing, which produced a huge fireball that ripped through an upscale Christian neighborhood during evening rush hour.

In addition to killing five people, Lebanese security sources said the attack wounded at least 70 others. (Posted 5:30 a.m.)

O.J. Simpson back in Florida after posting bond in Las Vegas

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (CNN) -- Former NFL star O.J. Simpson remained quiet and expressionless as he and his girlfriend walked briskly through a crush of reporters to a waiting SUV early Thursday, following a five-hour flight from Las Vegas.

Video from outside Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport showed Simpson -- dressed in a gray suit, white shirt and white visor -- getting into a Ford Excursion parked curbside, just after midnight.

Simpson, 60, was free to return to his home in Miami after paying a $125,000 bail, following a court hearing in a Las Vegas sports memorabilia robbery case. (Posted 2:30 a.m.)

Police issue warrant for man accused of killing wife, abandoning daughter

(CNN) -- New Zealand police Thursday issued a warrant for the arrest of a man accused of killing his wife and abandoning their young daughter.

Authorities said they believe Nai Yin Xue has fled to the United States and may be in Los Angeles.

"We have a warrant for Mr Xue's arrest in New Zealand for the murder of Anan Liu and the abduction of their daughter, Qian Xun Xue," said Detective Senior Sergeant Simon Scott with the Auckland City Police.

"We have good reason to believe he is in the United States of America and we have the correct processes in place to be able to detain him there if located." (Posted 2:30 a.m.)

Iranian-American released from Tehran prison

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Kian Tajbakhsh, an Iranian-American social scientist who has been held in Iran since May, has been released from Tehran's Evin Prison, according his employer.

"We are delighted that Dr. Kian Tajbakhsh is reunited with his family in Tehran and we hope that this ends the distinguished scholar's ordeal," said Laura Silber with George Soros' Open Society Institute.

In an interview with reporters allowed into the prison last week, he said he expected to be released soon.

Tajbakhsh, who lives in New York, was working as a consultant for Iranian government ministries on issues like HIV and Aids when he was arrested in May. He was picked up in mid-May along with his pregnant wife, who is due with the couple's first child at any time. She was released the next day. (Posted 12:30 a.m.)

Massive blast kills anti-Syrian Lebanese lawmaker, believed to be target of the attack

BEIRUT (CNN) -- A powerful bomb Wednesday killed at least six people in Beirut, including anti-Syrian Lebanese parliamentarian Antoine Ghanem, authorities said.

Ghanem, 64, was a Christian Maronite and a member of Lebanon's Phalange Party, which is known to take an anti-Syrian stance.

Fellow parliamentarian Walid Jumblatt, head of Lebanon's Progressive Socialist Party, called the killing "a bloody message" as it comes ahead of elections and reduces the parliamentary majority from 69 to 68, preventing them from electing "a free president for Lebanon."

Former Lebanese President Amine Gemayel called Ghanem a "very close friend of mine," and added that his assassination is "very, very dangerous for the future of democracy in Lebanon." (Posted 11:30 p.m.)

Hurricane Ivo forms off Pacific coast of Mexico

MIAMI (CNN) -- A storm off the Pacific coast of Mexico strengthened into a hurricane Wednesday evening, but forecasters said it likely would weaken before threatening land, although a forecast path shows it reaching the southern tip of Baja California next week.

Hurricane Ivo had winds of about 75 mph as of 11 p.m. ET Wednesday, and was moving northwest at about 9 mph, the National Hurricane Center said in a discussion of the storm. The NHC was not issuing public advisories on Ivo, as it was not threatening land within the next few days.

Ivo could strengthen in the next 24 to 36 hours, forecasters said, but is expected to weaken afterward. Some computer models show the storm dissipating after its third day, the NHC said. A forecast path shows Ivo reaching the Baja peninsula on Monday after weakening to a tropical storm. (Posted 11:25 p.m.)

Netanyahu confirms Israeli airstrike inside Syria

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday became the first Israeli official to publicly acknowledge that his country's military forces carried out an airstrike inside Syria earlier this month.

In an interview with Israel's Channel One television, Netanyahu, the opposition leader in the Knesset, said he supported the decision by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to carry out the operation, which threatened to escalate tensions in the already volatile region.

"When the prime minister takes action in important and necessary matters, and generally, when the government is doing things for the security of Israel, I give it my endorsement," he said.

Sources in the region and the United States said the Israeli airstrike in northern Syria may have targeted weapons destined for Hezbollah militants coming into Syria or transiting through the country from Iran, whose government supports Hezbollah, which fought a war with Israel in southern Lebanon last summer. (Posted 10:42 p.m.) E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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