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Feb. 22, 2013 at 10:01 PM
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Sequester not inevitable, Obama says

WASHINGTON, Feb. 22 (UPI) -- U.S. President Obama said he and Congress have an opportunity to get something done before $85 billion in federal spending cuts go into effect next week.

"Hope springs eternal," Obama said about whether the White House and Congress can act to avoid the sequester before it goes into effect March 1.

"I will just keep on making my case, not only to Congress, but more importantly to the American people, to take a smart approach to deficit reduction and do it in a way that doesn't endanger our economy and endanger jobs," Obama said during a media availability with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Obama said he's been clear about an alternative that would be a balanced approach of spending cuts and revenue producers, such as closing tax loopholes.

Obama has spoken by telephone with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

"So I will continue to have conversations with members of Congress both while they're gone [this week in recess] and when they get back next week," Obama said. "My hope is that we could see a different course taken by Congress. This should be a no-brainer."

Unlike the debt ceiling crisis, the sequester going into effect won't threaten the world financial system, Obama said.

"It's not like the equivalent of the U.S. defaulting on its obligations," he said. "What it does mean, though, is that if the U.S. is growing slower, then other countries grow slower because we continue to be a central engine in world economic growth."

Panetta reviews next steps in Afghanistan

BRUSSELS, Feb. 22 (UPI) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says reports that America would have as many as 12,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014 are incorrect.

Speaking at a news conference while in Brussels for a NATO meeting on, among other things, Afghanistan, Panetta declared as inaccurate media reports that the German defense minister indicated Panetta said the United States would keep 8,000-12,000 troops in Afghanistan after the military mission ends at the end of next year.

"We did discuss a range of options," Panetta said. "And what we discussed was a range of options that would be directed to the NATO force overall, which includes both the U.S. force contribution that we would make, plus what other NATO countries would contribute, as well. ... And we didn't define specifics on that. Frankly, that remains to be determined as we go forward with the planning process."

U.S. President Barack Obama has said the last combat troops will leave Afghanistan by Dec. 31, 2014, leaving the bulk of the country's security in the hands of the Afghans.

Afghan security forces are in the lead for "nearly 90 percent of combat operations," Panetta said. "And they are on track to step into the lead for all of these operations by this spring."

The United States will maintain a "strong presence" throughout the fighting season of 2013, he said.

"What we're looking at is probably a presence in excess of 60,000 during the fighting season through the final transition of tranche five, which would take place in August of 2013," Panetta said.

This fall, the number of combat troops would decrease to about 50,000 by November, and then to 34,000 by February of 2014, he said.

Obama thanks James Carter for Romney tape

ATLANTA, Feb. 22 (UPI) -- President Barack Obama expressed gratitude to Jimmy Carter's grandson who had a role in leaking the video of Mitt Romney's "47 percent" comments.

Obama met former President Carter's grandson James Carter and his cousin, Georgia state Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur, last week at a post-State of the Union stop in Atlanta, CNN reported.

"After [Jason] got his picture taken, he told Obama that I was the one that had found the 47 percent tape," James Carter told CNN Thursday.

"Then Obama said, 'Hey, great, get over here.' And then he kind of half-embraced me, I want to say, put his arm around me, and we shook hands. He thanked me for my support, several times," he said.

In the secretly recorded video, leaked in September, Romney is heard saying: "There are 47 percent of people who are with him, who are dependent on government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, you-name-it."

The video, recorded May 17 during a fundraiser in Florida, has been cited as a main reason Romney lost the election.

Larayedh is Tunisia's new prime minister

TUNIS, Tunisia, Feb. 22 (UPI) -- Tunisian Interior Minister Ali Larayedh was chosen as the country's new prime minister and asked by the president to form a new government within two weeks.

A spokesman for embattled President Moncef Marzouki told a news conference Friday Larayedh was nominated by his Ennahda Party leader Rached Ghannouchi, and will replace Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, who resigned last week.

Ennahda is the largest party in Tunisia's National Constituent Assembly, with 89 of the legislative body's 217 seats, the Middle Eastern news agency SyndiGate.com said.

The appointment of Larayedh, regarded as a hard-liner, is likely to anger liberal Tunisians, some of whom accuse him of failing to curb violence by Islamists against advocates of secularism, including journalists and artists but credit him with firm action against Islamist militants with ties to al-Qaida, SyndiGate said.

Protests against Morsi held in Egypt

CAIRO, Feb. 22 (UPI) -- Opponents of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi staged "Trial of the Regime" protests across the country Friday.

Hundreds of people gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square, site of the protests that brought down Hosni Mubarak, al-Masry al-Youm reported.

In Alexandria, the country's second-largest city, protesters took part in four marches, agreeing only in their opposition to Morsi. One group called on the military to launch an anti-Morsi coup, while another chanted "No military, no Brothers, Egyptian people are in the square." Another urged nationwide civil disobedience to topple Morsi.

Demonstrators gathered in smaller cities as well.

Thousands of people participated in demonstrations in Port Said, site of recent violent clashes. Several state agencies suspended work this week because of protests.

Those gathered outside the government headquarters urged protesters to remain peaceful. They set up committees to police the crowds.

In Desouk, about 50 miles east of Alexandria, protesters gathered outside the City Council in the early evening, al-Masry al-Youm said. They marched to the building after Friday prayers and launched a sit-in.

Demonstrators also blockaded a major bridge.

In Tanta, the country's fifth-largest metropolitan area, 60 miles north of Cairo, hundreds of people attacked the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party. They ripped down party banners, setting them on fire.

Some in the group marched on to the court building, where they threw stones.

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