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Jan. 13, 2010 at 12:00 PM
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U.N. fears staff casualties in Haiti quake

UNITED NATIONS, Jan. 13 (UPI) -- Officials at the United Nations say they fear their mission in Haiti may have been hit hard by this week's massive earthquake.

The Wall Street Journal said Wednesday that at least 150 U.N. staff members were unaccounted for following the destruction of their headquarters hotel Tuesday in Port au Prince.

The missing included Hedi Annabi, the special representative of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who was meeting with a Chinese delegation at the Christopher Hotel when the magnitude 7.0 quake hit.

While communications with the Christopher remained down Wednesday, officials were able to reach U.N. staff members in other parts of the capital. The Journal said the U.N. was coordinating with them on the deployment of reinforcements, including rescue teams from the United States, China and other nations.

Thus far, $10 million in U.N. relief funds have been committed, and Ban has called on former President Bill Clinton to assist with the coordination of relief activities in the United States his capacity as U.N. special envoy to Haiti.

"The U.N. will do whatever possible to help the Haitian people to overcome these difficulties," Ban said.

Healthcare topic of White House meeting

WASHINGTON, Jan. 13 (UPI) -- U.S. House and Senate leaders, facing disagreement on key issues in healthcare reform, head to the White House to discuss how to reconcile the differences.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other members of the Democratic leadership in the two chambers were to meet Wednesday with President Barack Obama, the White House said.

Obama is to address House Democrats Thursday and White House officials are pressing for a resolution between the chambers' bills, The Washington Post said.

However, lawmakers said they likely wouldn't finish their work on healthcare until early February, about the time Obama delivers his State of the Union address and budget request.

Because of the fragility of the Senate Democrat's passage of the legislation, House leaders have been pressured to adopt many of the Senate's provisions. House leadership already acknowledged defeat of a government-run public option, a key priority for House liberals that was rejected in the Senate. Many House members also were dealt a blow when Obama endorsed a Senate proposal that would tax high-cost insurance policies -- a position unpopular with unions -- as a way to contain costs.

While acknowledging Obama's desire for the tax, Pelosi said Tuesday she still hoped to include some version of the House's proposed surtax on the wealthy, calling it "the best pay-for that we've heard so far," the Post said.

House leaders also are advocating creation of a national marketplace for insurance, rather than a state-by-state marketplace sought by the Senate. Pelosi said a national exchange was "essential to having a workable plan."

U.S. troops serving longer than ever

WASHINGTON, Jan. 13 (UPI) -- U.S. soldiers since 2001 have served in combat longer than almost any of their counterparts throughout American history, military experts say.

Stephen Maxner, a military historian and director of the Vietnam Center and Archive in Lubbock, Texas, told Wednesday's USA Today that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have quietly become the longest military engagements in the nation's history, and with 30,000 fresh troops being sent to Afghanistan, the record streak is being extended.

"Undoubtedly this is unprecedented," Maxner told the newspaper, noting that while a few soldiers volunteered for multiple tours in Vietnam -- up until now the longest conflict in U.S. history -- vast majority of them served single, year-long deployments.

But in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly 13,000 soldiers now have spent three to four cumulative years at war, Army records indicate.

USA Today cited Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff, as acknowledging the increasing stress on the military. The newspaper noted that suicides are at record levels while divorces rate among enlisted soldiers has risen steadily during the war years.

Sri Lanka: Opposition supporter killed

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, Jan. 13 (UPI) -- Gunmen in Sri Lanka fired on a bus carrying supporters of the opposition presidential candidate two weeks ahead of elections, killing a woman, police said.

Four others were injured in the shooting incident Tuesday in Tangalle in the southern coast of the island nation, Lankapage.com reported.

Presidential elections are set for Jan. 26 pitting incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa against opposition candidate, former head of the armed forces, Gen. Sarath Fonseka.

The attackers of the bus carrying Fonseka supporters were reported to be riding a motorcycle.

Condemning the attack, the Rajapaksa government Wednesday said it "will not tolerate any such acts of violence, in the midst of this democratic electoral process," said a statement posted on the official government Web site. It said authorities have been told to tighten security at political events "to ensure that all Sri Lankans can participate safely in the electoral process."

Rajapaksa's government claimed victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels last may after a prolonged military campaign that ended the 26-year-old civil war for a separate homeland for the Tamil-speaking minority in the predominantly Buddhist island nation of nearly 21 million population. Tamils make up between 12 percent and 13 percent of the population.

Gen. Fonseka, who had become a public hero after the defeat of the Tamil rebels, resigned his post last November, raising speculation that he would contest against Rajapaksa.

Later, the government and Fonseka were involved in a dispute over the final battle against the rebels.

In the run up to the Jan. 26, both candidates seem to be running neck and neck among the majority Sinhalese voters. This has forced both of them to woo the Tamils, whose votes could prove decisive.

California pot bill clears first hurdle

SACRAMENTO, Jan. 13 (UPI) -- Backers of a measure to legalize and tax marijuana in California have won the approval of a key committee of the California Assembly, they say.

Stephen Gutwillig of the pot legalization group Drug Policy Alliance predicts the vote by the Assembly's Public Safety Committee "marks the formal beginning of the end of marijuana prohibition in the United States," the Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday.

The panel voted 4-3 Tuesday to approve a measure sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a San Francisco Democrat.

The legislation would allow those who are at least 21 years old to possess up to an ounce of marijuana for recreational use and tax pot at $50 an ounce.

Ammiano said his bill is not expected to get further consideration by the Legislature until next year.

Palin admits questions about 9/11 and Iraq

NEW YORK, Jan. 13 (UPI) -- Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, in her first paid TV appearance, admitted she had questions about the origins of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attackers.

Palin, appearing Fox News's "The O'Reilly Factor," told host Bill O'Reilly that she was uncertain about whether Iraq was involved in the planning of the terrorist attacks when she was prepping for the 2008 vice presidential debate against Democrat Joe Biden, Politico reported Wednesday.

Fox News announced Tuesday that it signed Palin as a paid contributor and as an occasional host.

Palin, 45, was discussing the new book "Game Change," written by journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, of which she said several sections were "a lie" or "made up."

One passage she didn't dispute, however, was her questioning the history of the attack, she said.

"I did talk a lot to (campaign strategist) Steve Schmidt about the history of the war and where the attackers could have come from," Palin said. "I do admit to asking questions about that."

Palin told O'Reilly she was excited about working with Fox News to present "the fair and balanced news that voters of America deserve," she said.

"Fair and balanced" is the conservative news network's tag line. Palin has ripped other media outlets and journalists as distorting her views or too liberal.

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