"Cliff" concerns give way to earnings focus

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Investors' "fiscal cliff" worries are likely to give way to more fundamental concerns, like earnings, as fourth-quarter reports get under way next week.

Financial results, which begin after the market closes on Tuesday with aluminum company Alcoa , are expected to be only slightly better than the third-quarter's lackluster results. As a warning sign, analyst current estimates are down sharply from what they were in October.

That could set stocks up for more volatility following a week of sharp gains that put the Standard & Poor's 500 index <.spx> on Friday at the highest close since December 31, 2007. The index also registered its biggest weekly percentage gain in more than a year.

Based on a Reuters analysis, Europe ranks among the chief concerns cited by companies that warned on fourth-quarter results. Uncertainty about the region and its weak economic outlook were cited by more than half of the 25 largest S&P 500 companies that issued warnings.

In the most recent earnings conference calls, macroeconomic worries were cited by 10 companies while the U.S. "fiscal cliff" was cited by at least nine as reasons for their earnings warnings.

"The number of things that could go wrong isn't so high, but the magnitude of how wrong they could go is what's worrisome," said Kurt Winters, senior portfolio manager for Whitebox Mutual Funds in Minneapolis.

Negative-to-positive guidance by S&P 500 companies for the fourth quarter was 3.6 to 1, the second worst since the third quarter of 2001, according to Thomson Reuters data.

U.S. lawmakers narrowly averted the "fiscal cliff" by coming to a last-minute agreement on a bill to avoid steep tax hikes this weeks -- driving the rally in stocks -- but the battle over further spending cuts is expected to resume in two months.

Investors also have seen a revival of worries about Europe's sovereign debt problems, with Moody's in November downgrading France's credit rating and debt crises looming for Spain and other countries.

"You have a recession in Europe as a base case. Europe is still the biggest trading partner with a lot of U.S. companies, and it's still a big chunk of global capital spending," said Adam Parker, chief U.S. equity strategist at Morgan Stanley in New York.

Among companies citing worries about Europe was eBay , whose chief financial officer, Bob Swan, spoke of "macro pressures from Europe" in the company's October earnings conference call.


One of the biggest worries voiced about earnings has been whether companies will be able to continue to boost profit growth despite relatively weak revenue growth.

S&P 500 revenue fell 0.8 percent in the third quarter for the first decline since the third quarter of 2009, Thomson Reuters data showed. Earnings growth for the quarter was a paltry 0.1 percent after briefly dipping into negative territory.

On top of that, just 40 percent of S&P 500 companies beat revenue expectations in the third quarter, while 64.2 percent beat earnings estimates, the Thomson Reuters data showed.

For the fourth quarter, estimates are slightly better but are well off estimates for the quarter from just a few months earlier. S&P 500 earnings are expected to have risen 2.8 percent while revenue is expected to have gone up 1.9 percent.

Back in October, earnings growth for the fourth quarter was forecast up 9.9 percent.

In spite of the cautious outlooks, some analysts still see a good chance for earnings beats this reporting period.

"The thinking is you need top line growth for earnings to continue to expand, and we've seen the market defy that," said Mike Jackson, founder of Denver-based investment firm T3 Equity Labs.

Based on his analysis, energy, industrials and consumer discretionary are the S&P sectors most likely to beat earnings expectations in the upcoming season, while consumer staples, materials and utilities are the least likely to beat, Jackson said.

Sounding a positive note on Friday, drugmaker Eli Lilly and Co said it expects profit in 2013 to increase by more than Wall Street had been forecasting, primarily due to cost controls and improved productivity.

(Reporting By Caroline Valetkevitch; Editing by Kenneth Barry)

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Texans lead Bengals 3-0 after 1st quarter

HOUSTON (AP) — Matt Schaub got Houston's offense out of its rut on Saturday, leading two long drives for a 3-0 lead over the Cincinnati Bengals after the first quarter of a wild-card playoff rerun from last season.

Shayne Graham kicked a 48-yard field goal, and Schaub had the Texans in scoring range again as the quarter ended, a vast improvement in how Houston's offense ended the season.

For the second season in a row, the Bengals opened the playoffs at Houston looking for their first playoff win since 1990. The main difference in this one: Schaub was back in charge for Houston.

The Texans beat the Bengals 31-10 last year behind rookie T.J. Yates, who filled in after Schaub hurt his foot during the season. Yates got the Texans through that first game — their franchise-first playoff appearance — but couldn't take them any farther.

Their Pro Bowl passer was back Saturday, starting a playoff game for the first time in his career. He came into the game in a slump, with the Texans losing three of their last four games while the offense sputtered.

The Texans won the coin toss and decided to take the ball rather than defer to the second half, giving them a chance to get off to a fast start. It backfired — three plays managed 5 yards, setting up a punt.

The second time they got the ball, they got going. Schaub completed an 18-yard pass, Arian Foster had a 17-yard run and Keshawn Martin went 16 yards on a reverse, setting up Graham's field goal. The Texans were in field goal range again as the quarter ended.

The Bengals also ended the season by hitting a wall on offense — one touchdown in the last two games, half as many as the defense scored.

A lot was on quarterback Andy Dalton, who grew up in suburban Katy and had a dreadful playoff debut as a rookie last year in his hometown. He threw three interceptions, including one that J.J. Watt returned for a game-turning touchdown just before halftime.

He had to be better if the Bengals were going to end their notable playoff drought.

The Bengals hadn't won a playoff game since 1990, the longest current drought and tied for ninth-longest in NFL history. During those two lost decades, they'd been through five coaches, had 21 different quarterbacks throw a pass, and lost all three of their first-round chances to advance.

It's been so long that the last playoff win game against a team that no longer exists, at a stadium that no longer stands. They beat the Houston Oilers 41-14 at Riverfront Stadium in a first-round game in 1990.

This represented their best chance to break through.

The Bengals finished the season by winning seven of eight, tying the best closing stretch in franchise history. The offense wasn't much — Dalton threw for only four touchdowns with five interceptions in the last five games — but the defense more than made up for it with a line that had started to dominate.

The defense scored two touchdowns in the last three games and set a club record with 51 sacks. With 6-foot-7 Michael Johnson rushing in from one end with those long arms, Carlos Dunlap muscling his way in from the other side and Pro Bowl starter Geno Atkins shoving his way up the middle, the Bengals had become expert at taking the other team apart.

Schaub managed to avoid the rush in the first quarter, getting rid of the ball before they could get to him. He was 7 of 8 for 58 yards without a sack. By contrast, Watt sacked Dalton and the Bengals wound up gaining only 19 yards on two possessions.


Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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Here, Bella! Top Pet Names for 2012

Move over, Rover, there’s a new top dog in town, and her name is Bella. For 2012, the “Twilight Saga”-inspired moniker was the most popular for dogs and second-most popular for cats, according to a survey by one veterinary organization. For dogs, Max took second place.

The survey gathered names of 2.5 million dogs and cats at the Banfield Pet Hospital, a veterinary network in Portland, Ore.

The top names resemble those from years past, said Laura Wattenberg, a baby-name expert and the creator of babynamewizard.com

“Max in particular has been the top name for male dogs for a number of years now,” Wattenberg told LiveScience. 

Cuddly fur babies

In general, pets have been given much more humanlike names over the past generation, Wattenberg said. That reflects a change in society, in which owners see their fur babies more as family members than animals, she said. [What Your Dog's Breed Says About You]

The names people choose for their pets also reflect a sweet, nostalgic innocence.

“There’s a particular slice of human names that have risen for baby names as well, but they’re particularly popular for pets. That’s the cute, cuddly names of the early 20th century.”

These names, such as Max and Lucy, tend to crop up frequently as heroes or heroines in kids’ picture books, Wattenberg said. For instance, the hero in “Where the Wild Things Are” was named Max. These names may reflect how people see their pets.

“They’re like children who never have to grow up,” she said.

Old and new

Pop-culture trends also influenced the popularity of pet names found in the survey. Aside from the top-ranked Bella, Katniss also saw wide use, becoming 18 times more popular for dogs and 14 times more popular for cats, compared with 2011, following the release of the “Hunger Games” in March.  Reality TV stars also got their due, with Honey Boo Boo (a 6-year-old beauty pageant star of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo“) and Purrfect (the name of Cee Lo Green’s cat on “The Voice”) rising in the ranks.

Still, for dog and cat names alike, familiar can still win out over hip. Perennial favorites like Max and Buddy took the second and third slots for dogs, while the perhaps unimaginative Kitty was the most popular name for cats.

Cats vs. dogs

Interestingly, more humanlike names, such as Charlie or Lucy, were popular for dogs, while unisex monikers like Smokey, Shadow and Tigger describing physical traits like color ranked high for felines in 2012.

That may reflect how much people project a human role onto their pets. For instance, one study showed that animals kept in the house are more likely to get human names, Wattenberg said.

“You could infer from this that people feel a little bit more attached or feel like they have a more personal relationship with their dogs,” she said. “Obviously cat lovers will howl at that, but that’s what the names say.”

In general, pet names overlapped very little with baby names. While the trend toward nostalgic, 20th century names carried over from baby naming trends, formal names ruled for human tots. But cuddly, affectionate nicknames took precedence for pets. From the list of pet names, only Chloe made the list of most popular girl names in 2011.

For instance, pet names like Coco or Rocky are more intensely retro than Ava or Jacob (which are more likely to be given to babies). That suggests, as a society, “we’re more willing to push the style to the extreme with pets and maybe even live out the naming fantasies that we wouldn’t quite be able to give to our children,” Wattenberg said.

Here are the top ten names for dogs and cats in order of more to less popular:

Top Dog Names:

  1. Bella

  2. Max

  3. Buddy

  4. Daisy

  5. Bailey

  6. Coco

  7. Lucy

  8. Charlie

  9. Molly

  10. Rocky

Top Cat Names:

  1. Kitty

  2. Bella

  3. Tiger

  4. Max

  5. Smokey

  6. Shadow

  7. Tigger

  8. Lucy

  9. Chloe

  10. Charlie

Follow LiveScience on Twitter @livescience. We’re also on Facebook & Google+

Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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Storm over Depardieu's 'pathetic' move


  • Russian President Vladimir Putin has bestowed Russian citizenship on actor Gérard Depardieu

  • For Depardieu, a public war of words erupted, with many in France disgusted by his move

  • Depardieu more than anyone, represents the Gallic spirit, says Agnes Poirier

  • Majority of French people disapprove of his action but can't help loving him, she adds

Agnes Poirier is a French journalist and political analyst who contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and TV in the UK, U.S., France, Italy. Follow her on Twitter.

Paris (CNN) -- Since the revelation on the front page of daily newspaper Libération, on December 11, with a particularly vicious editorial talking about France's national treasure as a "former genius actor," Gérard Depardieu's departure to Belgium, where he bought a property just a mile from the French border, has deeply divided and saddened France. Even more so since, as we have learnt this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin has bestowed the actor Russian citizenship.

Back in mid-December, the French media operated along political lines: the left-wing press such as Libération couldn't find strong enough words to describe Depardieu's "desertion" while right-wing publications such as Le Figaro, slightly uneasy at the news, preferred to focus on President François Hollande's punishing taxes which allegedly drove throngs of millionaires to seek tax asylum in more fiscally lenient countries such as Belgium or Britain. Le Figaro stopped short of passing moral judgement though. Others like satirical weekly Charlie hebdo, preferred irony. Its cover featured a cartoon of the rather rotund-looking Depardieu in front of a Belgian flag with the headline: "Can Belgium take the world's entire load of cholesterol?" Ouch.

Quickly though, it became quite clear that Depardieu was not treated in the same way as other famous French tax exiles. French actor Alain Delon is a Swiss resident as is crooner-rocker Johnny Halliday, and many other French stars and sportsmen ensure they reside for under six months in France in order to escape being taxed here on their income and capital. Their move has hardly ever been commented on. And they certainly never had to suffer the same infamy.

Agnes Poirier

Agnes Poirier

For Depardieu, a public war of words erupted. It started with the French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, and many members of his government, showing their disdain, and talking of Depardieu's "pathetic move." In response the outraged actor penned an open letter to the French PM in which he threatened to give back his French passport.

The backlash was not over. Fellow thespian Phillipe Torreton fired the first salvo against Depardieu in an open letter published in Libération, insulting both Depardieu's protruding physique and lack of patriotism: "So you're leaving the ship France in the middle of a storm? What did you expect, Gérard? You thought we would approve? You expected a medal, an academy award from the economy ministry? (...)We'll get by without you." French actress Catherine Deneuve felt she had to step in to defend Depardieu. In another open letter published by Libération, she evoked the darkest hours of the French revolution. Before flying to Rome to celebrate the New Year, Depardieu gave an interview to Le Monde in which he seemed to be joking about having asked Putin for Russian citizenship. Except, it wasn't a joke.

In truth, French people have felt touched to their core by Depardieu's gesture. He, more than anyone, represents the Gallic spirit. He has been Cyrano, he has been Danton; he, better than most, on screen and off, stands for what it means to be French: passionate, sensitive, theatrical, and grandiose. Ambiguous too, and weak in front of temptations and pleasures.

In truth, French people have felt touched to their core by Depardieu's gesture. He, more than anyone, represents the Gallic spirit
Hugh Miles

For more than two weeks now, #Depardieu has been trending on French Twitter. Surveys have showed France's dilemma: half the French people understand him but there are as many who think that paying one's taxes is a national duty. In other words, a majority of French people disapprove of his action but can't help loving the man.

Putin's move in granting the actor Russian citizenship has exacerbated things. And first of all, it is a blow to Hollande who, it was revealed, had a phone conversation with Depardieu on New Year's Day. The Elysées Palace refused to communicate on the men's exchange. A friend of the actor declared that Depardieu complained about being so reviled by the press and that he was leaving, no matter what.

If, in their hearts, the French don't quite believe Depardieu might one day settle in Moscow and abandon them, they feel deeply saddened by the whole saga. However, with France's former sex symbol Brigitte Bardot declaring that she too might ask Putin for Russian citizenship to protest against the fate of zoo elephants in Lyon, it looks as if the French may prefer to laugh the whole thing off. Proof of this: the last trend on French Twitter is #IWantRussianCitizenship.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Agnes Poirier.

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Jail escapee appears in court, ordered held without bond

Chicago Tribune reporter Jason Meisner on the recent arrest of Kenneth Conley, a convicted bank robber who escaped from federal jail in December. (Posted on: Jan. 4, 2013.)

Kenneth Conley's formal return to federal custody this morning at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse was a far cry from the brazen way he left.

The second half of a daring escape duo who used bedsheets to scale down the façade of a downtown jail last month was pushed into a federal courtroom in a wheelchair, his legs extended and his feet swollen and shoeless. Shoulder bones pushed through his thin white T-shirt and one pinky was secured in a splint.

A short time later, U.S. District Judge Sheila Finnegan ordered Conley be held in custody without bail and set his preliminary hearing for Jan. 17.
Conley spoke only briefly to tell Finnegan he understood the charges against him.

"Yes, your honor," said Conley, who was wan and appeared thinner than in his booking photo.

Conley, a convicted bank robber, was on the lam 18 days before being arrested Friday afternoon in Palos Hills after police there received a call of a suspicious person. Police said Conley had attempted a disguise, wearing a an overcoat, beret and using a cane he didn't need.

Conley fought briefly with police, slugging one officer before he was tackled, authorities said. He was treated at a hospital before being transferred back to the Metropolitan Correctional Center, the jail he busted out of Dec. 18 with his cellmate and fellow convicted bank robber, Joseph "Jose" Banks. Banks was caught two days after the escape.

Conley's attorney, Gary Ravitz, asked Finnegan for permission to use his cell phone camera to document Conley's left foot, which he said was swollen.

Ravitz, who represents Conley on the underlying bank robbery charge, said he did not know the extent of his client's injuries and that he otherwise appeared calm.

"He seemed to be in relatively good spirits, given the situation," Ravitz said.

Conley, 38, allegedly escaped from the jail, located at 71 W. Van Buren Street, while awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty on Oct. 29, 2012, to a 2011 bank robbery of $4,000 in Homewood.

Deputy U.S. Marshals and FBI agents returned to Palos Hills Friday morning to canvass for Conley because of unconfirmed sightings there and his long-standing connections to the area. A 911 call from maintenance workers at a building where Conley is believed to have been sleeping in the basement came in around 3:30 p.m.

The maximum penalty for Conley's escape is five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The maximum penalty for bank robbery is 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

According to court records, Conley has a long criminal history. He has been convicted in Cook County of offenses ranging from retail theft to weapons violations and was sentenced to eight years in prison for an armed robbery in 1996. He also was sentenced to six years in prison in San Diego County for petty theft with a prior conviction, according to California records.

asweeney@tribune.com, jmeisner@tribune.com, sschmadeke@tribune.com

Twitter: @ChicagoBreaking

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Venezuela lawmakers elect Chavez ally as Assembly chief

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan lawmakers re-elected a staunch ally of Hugo Chavez to head the National Assembly on Saturday, putting him in line to be caretaker president if the socialist leader does not recover from cancer surgery.

By choosing the incumbent, Diosdado Cabello, the "Chavista"-dominated legislature cemented the combative ex-soldier's position as the third most powerful figure in the government, after Chavez and Vice President Nicolas Maduro.

"As a patriot ... I swear to be supremely loyal in everything I do, to defend the fatherland, its institutions, and this beautiful revolution led by our Comandante Hugo Chavez," Cabello said as he took the oath, his hand on the constitution.

He had earlier warned opposition politicians against attempting to use the National Assembly to "conspire" against the people, saying they would be "destroyed" if they tried.

Thousands of the president's red-clad supporters gathered outside parliament hours before the vote, many chanting: "We are all Chavez! Our comandante will be well! He will return!"

If Chavez had to step down, or died, Cabello would take over the running of the country as Assembly president and a new election would be organized within 30 days. Chavez's heir apparent, Maduro, would be the ruling Socialist Party candidate.

Chavez, who was diagnosed with an undisclosed form of cancer in his pelvic area in mid-2011, has not been seen in public nor heard from in more than three weeks.

Officials say the 58-year-old is in delicate condition and has suffered multiple complications since the December 11 surgery, including unexpected bleeding and severe respiratory problems.

Late on Friday, Maduro gave the clearest indication yet that the government was preparing to delay Chavez's inauguration for a new six-year term, which is scheduled for Thursday.


Maduro said the ceremony was a "formality" and that Chavez could be sworn in by the Supreme Court at a later date.

The opposition says Chavez's absence would be just the latest sign that he is no longer fit to govern, and that new elections should be held in the South American OPEC nation.

Brandishing a copy of the constitution after his win in the Assembly, Cabello slammed opposition leaders for writing a letter to foreign embassies in which they accused the government of employing a "twisted reading" of the charter.

"Get this into your heads: Hugo Chavez was elected president and he will continue to be president beyond January 10. No one should have any doubt ... this is the constitutional route," he said as fellow Socialist Party lawmakers cheered.

The opposition sat stony-faced. One of their legislators had earlier told the session that it was not just the head of state who was ill, "the republic is sick."

Last year, Chavez staged what appeared to be a remarkable comeback from the disease to win re-election in October, despite being weakened by radiation therapy. He returned to Cuba for more treatment within weeks of his victory.

Should the president have to step down after 14 years in office, a new vote would probably pit Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver and union leader, against opposition leader Henrique Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda state.

Capriles lost to Chavez in October's presidential election.

"I don't think Maduro would last many rounds in a presidential race. He's not fit for the responsibility they have given him," Capriles said after the vice president's appearance on state television.

Chavez's condition is being watched closely by leftist allies around Latin American who have benefited from his oil-funded generosity, as well as investors attracted by Venezuela's lucrative and widely traded debt.

The country boasts the world's biggest crude reserves. Despite the huge political upheaval Chavez's exit would cause, the oil industry is not likely to be affected much in the short term, with an extension of "Chavismo" keeping projects on track, while a change in parties could usher in more foreign capital.

(Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago; Editing by Vicki Allen)

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S&P 500 finishes at 5-year high on economic data

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The benchmark Standard & Poor's 500 index ended at a five-year high on Friday, lifted by reports showing employers kept up a steady pace of hiring workers and the vast services sector expanded at a brisk rate.

The gains on the S&P 500 pushed the index to its highest close since December 2007 and its biggest weekly gain since December 2011.

Most of the gains came early in the holiday-shortened week, including the largest one-day rise for the index in more than a year on Wednesday after politicians struck a deal to avert the "fiscal cliff."

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> gained 43.85 points, or 0.33 percent, to 13,435.21. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> rose 7.10 points, or 0.49 percent, to 1,466.47. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> edged up 1.09 points, or 0.04 percent, to 3,101.66.

For the week, the S&P gained 4.6 percent, the Dow rose 3.8 percent and the Nasdaq jumped 4.8 percent to post their largest weekly percentage gains in more than a year.

The CBOE Volatility index <.vix>, a measure of investor anxiety, dropped for a fourth straight session, giving the index a weekly decline of nearly 40 percent, its biggest weekly fall ever. The close of 13.83 on the VIX marks its lowest level since August.

In Friday's economic reports, the Labor Department said non-farm payrolls grew by 155,000 jobs last month, slightly below November's level. Gains were distributed broadly throughout the economy, from manufacturing and construction to healthcare.

Also serving to boost equities was data from the Institute for Supply Management showing U.S. service sector activity expanding the most in 10 months.

With the S&P 500 index at a five-year closing high, analysts said any gains above the index's intraday high near 1,475 in September may be harder to come by.

"We are getting to a point where we need a strong catalyst, which could be earnings, it could be three months of good economic data, it could be a variety of things," said Adam Thurgood, managing director at HighTower Advisors in Las Vegas, Nevada.

"What is going on right now is this conflicting view of fundamentals look pretty good and improving, and then you've got these negative tail risks that could blow everything up," Thurgood said.

He referred to "a fiscal superstorm brewing" of issues still left unresolved in Washington, including tough federal budget cuts and the need to raise the government's debt ceiling all within a couple of months.

The rise in payrolls shown by the jobs data did not make a dent in the U.S. unemployment rate still at 7.8 percent.

A Reuters poll on Friday of economists at Wall Street's top financial institutions showed that most expect the Fed in 2013 to end the program with which it bought Treasury debt in an effort to stimulate the economy.

A drop in Apple Inc shares of 2.6 percent to $528.36 kept pressure on the Nasdaq.

Adding to concerns about Apple's ability to produce more innovative products, rival Samsung Electronics Co Ltd is expected to widen its lead over Apple in global smartphone sales this year with growth of 35 percent. Market researcher Strategy Analytics said Samsung had a broad product lineup.

Eli Lilly and Co was among the biggest boost's to the S&P, up 3.7 percent to $51.56 after the pharmaceuticals maker said it expects its 2013 earnings to increase to $3.75 to $3.90 per share, excluding items, from $3.30 to $3.40 per share in 2012.

Fellow drugmaker Johnson & Johnson rose 1.2 percent to $71.55 after Deutsche Bank upgraded the Dow component to a "Buy" from a "Hold" rating. The NYSEArca pharmaceutical index <.drg> climbed 0.6 percent.

Shares of Mosaic Co gained 3.3 percent to $58.62. Excluding items, the fertilizer producer's quarterly earnings beat analysts' expectations, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Volume was modest with about 6.07 billion shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange, NYSE MKT and Nasdaq, slightly below the 2012 daily average of 6.42 billion.

Advancing stocks outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 2,287 to 701, while on the Nasdaq, advancers beat decliners 1,599 to 866.

(Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Kenneth Barry)

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Reid arrives in KC, nears deal to become coach

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Andy Reid arrived in Kansas City on Friday, and the Chiefs are close to making an official announcement that he will become their next coach.

Reid and the Chiefs have reportedly agreed to a deal giving the longtime Eagles coach broad authority over football decisions. His deal came hours after the Chiefs announced they had parted with general manager Scott Pioli after four tumultuous seasons.

Reid inherits a team that went 2-14, matching the worst record in franchise history. But he'll also have the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, and with five players voted to the Pro Bowl, Kansas City has building blocks in place to make a quick turnaround.

While Reid will have authority in personnel decisions, it's expected that he will pursue longtime Packers personnel man John Dorsey to work with him as general manager.

Reid takes over for Romeo Crennel, who was fired Monday after one full season.

The Chiefs first interviewed Reid for about nine hours in Philadelphia on Wednesday, and then spent much of Thursday working out the details before coming to an agreement.

The addition of Reid and the departure of Pioli should help to stabilize a team that was expected to contend for the AFC West title but instead floundered all season.

Reid has experience turning around franchises, too.

He took over a team in Philadelphia that was just 3-13, but two years later went 11-5 and finished second in the NFC East. That began a stretch of five straight years in which Reid won at least 11 games and included a trip to the Super Bowl after the 2004 season.

During his tenure, the Eagles made nine playoff appearances, while Kansas City made three, and won 10 playoff games — something the Chiefs haven't done since 1993. Meanwhile, the Chiefs cycled through five head coaches and are now on their third in three years.

"Overall the job is still attractive," said Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt, who led the search for Crennel's replacement. "The franchise remains very well respected."

The fresh start afforded by the Chiefs should be welcomed by Reid.

Despite a 130-93-1 record and the most wins in Eagles history, he was just 12-20 the past two seasons. Reid also dealt with personal tragedy when his oldest son, Garrett, died during training camp after a long battle with drug addiction.

Reid will have more authority in Kansas City than any previous coach.

Hunt told The Associated Press this week that he was changing the Chiefs' organizational structure so that the coach and general manager report directly to him. Since his late father Lamar founded the team 53 years ago, the coach typically reported to the general manager.

The Chiefs issued a statement Friday that said they had "mutually parted ways" with Pioli after a four-year tenure marked by poor draft choices, ineffective free-agent moves, his own failed coaching hires and a growing fan rebellion.

"The bottom line is that I did not accomplish all of what I set out to do," Pioli said. "To the Hunt family — to the great fans of the Kansas City Chiefs — to the players, all employees and alumni, I truly apologize for not getting the job done."

Most of the Chiefs' top stars were drafted by Pioli's predecessor, Carl Peterson. The former Patriots executive struggled to find impact players, particularly at quarterback, while cycling through coaches and fostering a climate of dread within the entire organization.

Numerous longtime staff members were fired upon Pioli's arrival, and his inability to connect with fans resulted in unprecedented unrest. Some fans even paid for multiple banners to be towed behind planes before home games asking that he be fired.

On Dec. 1, linebacker Jovan Belcher shot the mother of his 3-month-old daughter, Kasandra Perkins, at a home not far from Arrowhead Stadium. Belcher then drove to the team's practice facility and shot himself in the head as Pioli and Crennel watched in the parking lot.

Pioli hasn't spoken publicly since the incident.

The three-time NFL executive of the year, all with New England, often spoke of putting together "the right 53," but he failed to do so, and now it falls on Reid and his staff to finish the job.

The most glaring position of need is quarterback.

Matt Cassel has two years left on a $63 million, six-year deal, but he played so poorly this season that he was benched in favor of Brady Quinn, who is now a free agent.

It's expected that the Chiefs will pursue a veteran quarterback while also choosing one in the draft, giving Reid options in training camp. Reid has had success working with young quarterbacks, including Brett Favre in Green Bay and Donovan McNabb in Philadelphia.

Decisions will also have to be made about left tackle Branden Albert, wide receiver Dwayne Bowe and even Pro Bowl punter Dustin Colquitt, all of whom can become free agents.


Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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Gore under fire from conservatives, Jewish leaders, for selling to Al-Jazeera

WASHINGTON – American conservatives and Jewish leaders are up in arms over former vice-president Al Gore‘s sale of Current TV to Al-Jazeera, accusing the noted climate change activist of everything from hypocrisy to lining his pockets with cash from anti-Americans.

Right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh has been at the forefront of the attacks, pointing out that Gore sold his pet cable network to an Arab news giant owned by the royal family of oil-rich Qatar, an OPEC regime.

He also asked if some of the female hosts on the left-leaning cable news network, including Joy Behar and Jennifer Granholme, will “now have to wear burkas and veils over their faces?”

Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly piled on, maligning Gore for selling to the “anti-American” Al-Jazeera before the Jan. 1 hike in the U.S. capital gains tax.

“This is really stunning,” O’Reilly said this week. “A former vice president selling his far-left cable network to anti-Americans, then trying to jam the deal to avoid higher taxes.”

O’Reilly called Gore a “hypocrite,” pointing to the one-time Democratic presidential nominee’s assertions in a November interview that people “like me should pay our fair share.”

Gore reportedly decided in December to sell Current to Al-Jazeera for US$ 500 million, pocketing an estimated $ 100 million personally in the sale. He had previously turned down an offer from the right-wing The Blaze network, rebuffing its owner, conservative pundit Glenn Beck, because of his politics.

American Jewish leaders are also expressing concern that Al-Jazeera could gain access to tens of millions of American homes via the Current TV deal. They accuse the network of anti-Israeli coverage and supporting extremist Islamic regimes.

“Al-Jazeera has a troubling record and history that is very disturbing, particularly in its Arabic language broadcasts,” said Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement from the organization on Friday.

“It has exploited and exaggerated the Arab-Israel conflict in a heavy-handed and propagandistic manner, and always at the expense of Israel, while giving all manner of virulent anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic extremists access to its airwaves.”

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, agreed.

“Their general coverage has served to destabilize regimes and favour some of the more extremist elements in the Arab world,” he said.

Al-Jazeera has fought to gain a foothold in the U.S. market because of the refusal of many American cable providers to carry it. Time Warner, the second-largest cable company in the U.S., dropped Current TV after the sale to Al-Jazeera was confirmed earlier this week.

The news network is readily available on most major Canadian cable providers, including Rogers and Bell, after Ottawa approved the channel for distribution three years ago.

Americans turned on Al-Jazeera following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when it gave al-Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden a broadcasting platform. But in recent years, it’s earned praise from some U.S. officials, in particular Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who lauded its coverage of the so-called Arab Spring.

The brouhaha about Gore’s sale to the network comes as the Republican party confronts anti-Muslim sentiment among some of its lawmakers. The soul-searching follows last November’s presidential election, when three of the party’s most vocal anti-Muslim legislators were defeated.

Even anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, a hard-right conservative on fiscal issues, has acknowledged the need for the party to evolve in terms of attitudes towards Muslims.

“They have gotten a bit of bad odour,” Norquist recently told Mother Jones magazine.

The tipping point appears to have come in July, when Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann and four colleagues suggested the State Department had been infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood thanks to Huma Abedin, a respected aide and longtime friend to Hillary Clinton.

John Boehner, speaker of the House of Representatives, and Sen. John McCain were among the prominent Republicans who assailed Bachmann for her allegations.

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Myanmar: Evolution, not revolution

Tourists walk around the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon in April. The tourism industry is set for expansion.


  • Myanmar is undergoing incremental change, welcomed by all, says Parag Khanna

  • But he says people still tread lightly, careful not to overstep or demand too much

  • Myanmar has survived succession of natural and man-made ravages, Khanna adds

  • With sanctions lifted, foreign investment is now pouring in from Western nations

Editor's note: Parag Khanna is a Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation and Senior Fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. His books include "The Second World," "How to Run the World," and "Hybrid Reality."

Yangon, Myanmar (CNN) -- Call it a case for evolution instead of revolution. While the Arab world continues in the throes of violence and uncertainty, Myanmar is undergoing incremental change -- and almost everyone seems to want it that way.

The government is lightening up: holding elections, freeing political prisoners, abolishing censorship, legalizing protests, opening to investment and tourists and welcoming back exiles. But the people still tread lightly, careful not to overstep or demand too much. Still, the consensus is clear: Change in Myanmar is "irreversible."

Read more: Aung San Suu Kyi and the power of unity

As the British Raj's jungle frontier, Burma was a key Asian battleground resisting the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia during World War II. As with many post-colonial countries, the euphoria of independence and democracy in 1948 gave way in just over a decade to the 1962 coup in which General Ne Win nationalized the economy and abolished most institutions except the army.

Parag Khanna

Parag Khanna

Non-alignment gave way to isolationism. Like Syria or Uzbekistan, Myanmar became an ancient Silk Road passageway that almost voluntarily choked itself off, choosing the unique path of a Buddhist state conducting genocide, slavery, and human trafficking.

Watch: Myanmar in grip of economic revolution

The military junta began its increasingly cozy rapproachment with Deng Xiaoping's China in the 1970s, just as China was opening to the world, and used cash from its Golden Triangle drug-running operations to pay for Chinese weapons.

Mass protests, crackdowns and another coup in 1988 led to a rebranding of the junta as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and the country's official renaming as the Union of Myanmar.

Terrorized, starving and homeless: Myanmar's Rohingya still forgotten

The 1990 elections, in which Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won a majority of the seats, were annulled by the SLORC, which continued to rule until 2011 when it was formally disbanded. Most international sanctions on Myanmar have now been lifted.

Read more: Myanmar: Is now a good time to go?

In just the past few years, Myanmar has survived a succession of natural and man-made ravages, from the brutal crackdown on the Saffron Revolution of 2007 (led by Buddhist monks but more widely supported in protest against rising fuel prices and economic mismanagement), to Cyclone Nargis (which killed an estimated 200,000 people in 2008) to civil wars between the government's army and ethnic groups such as the Kachin in the north and Shan and Karen in the east, and communal violence between the Muslim Rohingya (ethnic Bengalis) and Buddhist Rakhine in the west.

There are still approximately 150,000 Karen refugees in Thailand (and over 300,000 total refugees on the Thai-Burmese border) and more than 100,000 displaced Rohinya living in camps in Sittwe. So difficult is holding Myanmar together that even Aung San Suu Kyi, who helps lead the national reconciliation process, ironically advocated the use of the army (which kept her under house arrest for almost two decades) to pacify the rebellions.

Though sectarian conflict between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine underscores the Myanmar's tenuous search for national unity, the genuine efforts at religious pluralism are reminiscent of neighboring India: Every religion is officially recognized, and days are given off for observance. Surrounding Yangon's downtown City Hall is not only the giant Sule Pagoda but also a mosque, synagogue, church and Jain temple. The roundabout is therefore a symbol of the country's diversity -- but also the place where protesters flock when the government doesn't live up to promises.

Q&A: What's behind sectarian violence in Myanmar?

Scarred from decades of oppressive and ideological rule and still beset by conflict, it is therefore against all odds that Myanmar would become the most talked about frontier market of the moment, a top Christmas holiday destination and a case study in democratic transitions. Myanmar's political scene is now a vibrant but cacophonous discourse involving the still-powerful army; upstart parliament; repatriated civilian advisers; flourishing civil society, including human rights groups, ambitious business community, the Buddhist religious community, and a feisty media (especially online).

The parliament is pushing for accountability in telecom and energy contracts, and its speaker, Shwe Mann, is already maneuvering to challenge the chairman of his Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) -- current president Thein Sein -- in the 2015 elections.

In the meantime, however, the establishment in Yangon and the new capital of Napyidaw need to focus much more on building capacity. Thein Sein, who traded in his uniform for indigenous attire in 2011, has reshuffled the Cabinet to make room for functional experts in the energy and economic portfolios. He's even spearheaded an anti-corruption drive, admitting recently that Myanmar's "governance falls well below international standards." By many accounts he is also very open to advice on investment and other reforms.

He will need it, as Myanmar faces crucial tests of its international credibility in the coming years. In 2013, Myanmar will play host to the World Economic Forum (WEF) as well as the Southeast Asian Games. In 2014 it will chair the ASEAN regional group, and in 2015 it is expected to enter a new ASEAN Free Trade Area.

The military's power is still pervasive, placing it somewhere on the spectrum between Indonesia, where military influence has been rolled back, and Pakistan, where the military still dominates. On the streets, it's often difficult to know who is in charge.

One numerological fetish led to the driving side being unilaterally changed, making Myanmar the rare place where the steering wheel is (mostly) on the right, and cars drive (mostly) on the right. At least a dozen official and private newspapers (though private daily papers are not allowed yet) are on offer from meandering street hawkers, while you inch through Yangon's increasingly dense daily traffic jams.

At this time of year, visitors to Burma enjoy crisp, smoky morning air and dry, starry nights. Yangon is undergoing a construction boom, with faded colonial embassies turned into bustling banks, the national independence column being refurbished and redesigned with a park, and tycoons building columned mansions near downtown -- and seeking Buddhist blessings by pledging lavish donations for the construction of even more monasteries and pagodas.

By 2020, the population of Yangon could easily double from the current 5 million, at which point it may look like a mix of Calcutta and Kuala Lumpur.

Thant Myint-U, the grandson of former U.N. Secretary-General U Thant and noted historian of modern Burma, now wears several hats related to ethnic reconciliation, foreign donor trust funds and urban conservation. He says that as foreign aid flows grow from trickles into a flood, they have to be systematically focused on sustainable employment creation and infrastructure. USAID has pledged to spend more than $150 million in Myanmar in the next three years.

Myanmar's opening, however, is strongly motivated by an anti-Chinese sentiment that is part of a much wider global blowback against China's commercial and strategic encroachment
Parag Khanna

Outside of Yangon, the pace of Burmese society slows to a timeless pace -- as do Internet connections. On village roads, cycle rickshaws and monks with parasols amble by fruit vendors and car part stalls. Whether at the Dhammayazika Pagoda in Bagan or Mandalay Hill in that city, locals enjoy watching sunrises and sunsets as much as tourists.

Traveling around Myanmar, one observes the paradox of a country that has massive potential yet still needs just about everything. Yangon's vegetable market is a maze of tented alleys overflowing with cabbage, pineapples, eggplant and flowers, but they are still transported by wheelbarrows and bicycles. Ox-drawn ploughs still power farming in much of the country, meaning agricultural output of rice, beans and other staples could grow immensely through mechanization.

Similarly, the British-era light-rail loop circling Yangon takes about three hours to ride once around, with no linking bus services into downtown. But with cars already clogging the city, a major transport overhaul is essential. The communications sector actually needs to be re-invented. At present, the country's Internet and mobile phone penetration are only just growing; both are still governed by India's 1886 Telegraph Act. Mobile penetration is only 3 million but could easily grow to 30 million (half the population) within the next couple of years, as the price of SIM cards come down (so far from $2,000 to about $200), and foreign telecoms are allowed in to provide data coverage.

With sanctions lifted, foreign investment is now pouring in from Western nations, in addition to the players who have been making inroads for years such as China, Thailand and Singapore. The paradox, however, is that Myanmar lacks the infrastructure (physical and institutional) to absorb all the investor interest.

Major nations have thus focused on special economic zones that they themselves effectively run. The way Japan has moved into Myanmar, one would think that its World War II imperialism has been forgotten. After their major bet on the Thilawa special economic zone south of Yangon, Japanese contractors have plans to deepen the Yangon River's estuary so that cargo ships can sail directly up to the city's shores and offload more containers of cars that are already being briskly snapped up at busy dealerships.

Besides natural gas and agriculture, everyone agrees that tourism will comprise an ever-larger share of the country's GDP. Especially with much of the country off-limits to foreigners due to security restrictions and the military's economic operations, tourists already clog all existing suitable hotels in Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay, meaning a massive upgrade is needed in the hospitality sector.

Annual tourist visits are climbing 25% annually to an estimated 400,000 for 2012. Daily flights arrive packed from around the region, with longer-haul routes beginning from as far afield as Istanbul and Doha.

Still, Myanmar is a traveler's dream come true. In Bagan, you can walk or take a sunrise jog around countless pagodas that feel like they haven't been touched in 800 years -- some actually haven't. There is also the sacred and enchanting Golden Rock; the pristine beaches of Ngwe Saung, which rival the best of Thailand and the Philippines; the temperate climate of Inle Lake; the Himalayan foothills near Putao in far northern Kachin state where one can trek; the rich dynastic history of Mandalay; and the languorous Irrawaddy River cruises that harken to George Orwell's "Burmese Days."

Yangon has a pleasant charm and gentle energy, with vast gardens and riverside walks, the grandeur of centuries-old monuments such as the Shwedegon Pagoda, a fast-growing cultural scene of art galleries and music performances, and a melting pot population of all Myanmar's tribes as well as industrious overseas Indians and Chinese, who make up 5% of the nation's population.

Mandalay in particular is where one feels the depth of China's demographic penetration into Myanmar, owing not only to recent decades of commercial expansion from gems trading to real estate but also centuries of seasonal migrations across the rugged natural border with Yunnan province. Some have begun to call the Shan region "Yunnan South."

The combination of the Saffron Revolution, civil strife, sanctions, its economic lag behind the rest of ASEAN, and the status of becoming a captive resource supplier to China all played crucial roles in Myanmar's opening. China has traditionally been a kingmaker in isolated and sanctioned countries and well-placed to capitalize on the infrastructural and extractive needs of emerging economies as well.

For China, Myanmar represents a crucial artery to evade the "Malacca trap" represented by its dependence on shipping transit through the Straits of Malacca. In 2011 China was still far and away the largest foreign investor in Myanmar, bringing in $5 billion (of a total of $9 billion) across their 2,000-kilometer (1250-mile)-long border. The massive ongoing investments include 63 hydropower projects, a 2,400-kilometer (1500-mile) Sittwe-to-Kunming oil pipeline from the Bay of Bengal and a proposed gas pipeline to China's Yunnan beginning at Myanmar's Ramree Island -- not to mention an entire military outfitted with Chinese tanks, helicopters, boats and planes.

Myanmar's opening, however, is strongly motivated by an anti-Chinese sentiment that is part of a much wider global blowback against its commercial and strategic encroachment. Even well-kept generals are fundamentally Burmese nationalists and awoke to the predicament of total economic and strategic dependence on China. The government has taken major steps to correct this excessive tilt, suspending a major hydroelectric dam project at Myitsone and re-evaluating Wanbao Mining company's giant copper mine concession near Monywa.

Myanmar is now deftly playing the same multi-alignment game mastered by countries such as Kazakhstan in trying to escape the Soviet-Russian sphere of influence: courting all sides and gaining whatever one can from multiple great powers and neighbors while giving up as little autonomy as possible.

India sees Myanmar as the crucial gateway for its "Look East" policy and is offering substantial investments in oil and gas as well as port construction and information technology; Europe has become a larger investor, especially Great Britain; Russia is being courted as a new arms supplier; Japan is viewing Myanmar as its new Thailand for automobile production; and of course, U.S. President Barack Obama visited in December, paving the way not only for greater U.S. investment but even for Myanmar to potentially participate in the Cobra Gold military exercises held annually with America's regional allies.

Obama was not only the first U.S. president to visit Myanmar but also the first to call it by that name, conceding ground in a long-running dispute. The administration hopes that North Korea, Asia's still frozen outcast, will learn the lessons from Myanmar's steady but determined opening.

But countries that are playing multi-alignment don't have to thaw domestically -- witness Saudi Arabia and Kazakhstan. Myanmar is simultaneously undergoing political liberalization and international rehabilitation -- a tricky and laudable feat for sure but not one North Korea is likely to emulate entirely. What the two do have in common, however, is the growing realization that having China as a neighbor is both a blessing and a curse.

During my visit to the "Genius Language School," where university students go for professional English tutoring, I asked the assembled round table whether they were happy that Obama came to visit and whether they considered America a friend. All giggled and chanted: "Yes."

Then I asked, "Are you afraid of China?" And the answer came in immediate, resounding unison: "Yes!"

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Parag Khanna.

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FBI: 2nd escaped bank robber caught in Palos Hills

The second inmate who made a daring escape last month from a high-rise federal jail in the South Loop was captured today in South Suburban Palos Hills, according to FBI officials.

Kenneth Conley, a convicted bank robber, was awaiting sentencing when he and cellmate Joseph “Jose” Banks scaled down the Metropolitan Correctional Center on Dec. 18 with a rope fashioned from bedsheets.

FBI Spokeswoman Joan Hyde said Conley was apprehended at an apartment complex at about 4 p.m. by Palos Hills police.

A law enforcement source said FBI agents and deputy U.S. Marshals returned to the area around Palos Hills this morning to canvass and talk to residents because Conley had been spotted there since his escape and was known to have contacts in the south suburbs.

By late afternoon a 911 call was placed to Palos Hills police reporting a sighting of Conley, possibly a result of the canvass, the source said.

Banks was apprehended late at night on Dec. 20 less than five miles from the jail in the home of a boyhood friend on the North Side.

Banks and Conley were last accounted for during a routine bed check, authorities said. About 7 a.m. the next day, jail employees arriving for work saw ropes made from bedsheets dangling from a hole in the wall near the 15th floor and down the south side of the facade.

The two had put clothing and sheets under blankets in their beds to throw off guards making nighttime checks and removed a cinder block to create an opening wide enough to slide through, authorities said.

The FBI said a surveillance camera a few blocks from the jail showed the two, wearing light-colored clothing, hailing a taxi at Congress Parkway and Michigan Avenue. They also appeared to be wearing backpacks, according to the FBI.

The daring escape was an embarrassment for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and a rarity for the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where the only previous successful escape took place in 1985.

A high-ranking employee in the facility told the Tribune that video surveillance had captured the men making their descent, but that the guard who was supposed to be watching the video monitors for suspicious activity may have been called away on other duties.



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Abbas sees Palestinian unity as Fatah rallies in Gaza

GAZA (Reuters) - President Mahmoud Abbas predicted the end of a five-year split between the two big Palestinian factions as his Fatah movement staged its first mass rally in Gaza with the blessing of Hamas Islamists who rule the enclave.

"Soon we will regain our unity," Abbas, whose authority has been limited to the Israeli-occupied West Bank since the 2007 civil war between the two factions, said in a televised address to hundreds of thousands of followers marching in Gaza on Friday, with yellow Fatah flags instead of the green of Hamas.

The hardline Hamas movement, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist, expelled secular Fatah from Gaza during the war. It gave permission for the rally after the deadlock in peace talks between Abbas's administration and Israel narrowed the two factions' ideological differences.

The Palestinian rivals have drawn closer since Israel's assault on Gaza assault in November, in which Hamas, though battered, claimed victory.

Egypt has long tried to broker Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, but past efforts have foundered over questions of power-sharing, control of weaponry, and to what extent Israel and other powers would accept a Palestinian administration including Hamas.

An Egyptian official told Reuters Cairo was preparing to invite the factions for new negotiations within two weeks.

Israel fears grassroots support for Hamas could eventually topple Abbas's Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank.

"Hamas could seize control of the PA any day," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday.

The demonstration marked 48 years since Fatah's founding as the spearhead of the Palestinians' fight against Israel. Its longtime leader Yasser Arafat signed an interim 1993 peace accord that won Palestinians a measure of self rule.

Hamas, which rejected the 1993 deal, fought and won a Palestinian parliamentary election in 2006. It formed an uneasy coalition with Fatah until their violent split a year later.

Though shunned by the West, Hamas feels bolstered by electoral gains for Islamist movements in neighboring Egypt and elsewhere in the region - a confidence reflected in the fact Friday's Fatah demonstration was allowed to take place.

"The success of the rally is a success for Fatah, and for Hamas too," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. "The positive atmosphere is a step on the way to regain national unity."

Fatah, meanwhile, has been riven by dissent about the credibility of Abbas's statesmanship, especially given Israel's continued settlement-building on West Bank land. The Israelis quit Gaza unilaterally in 2005 after 38 years of occupation.

"The message today is that Fatah cannot be wiped out," said Amal Hamad, a member of the group's ruling body, referring to the demonstration attended by several Abbas advisers. "Fatah lives, no one can exclude it and it seeks to end the division."

In his speech, Abbas promised to return to Gaza soon and said Palestinian unification would be "a step on the way to ending the (Israeli) occupation".

(Editing by Dan Williams, Alistair Lyon and Jason Webb)

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Fed minutes short-circuit Wall Street rally

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks dipped on Thursday after signs the Federal Reserve has growing concern about its highly stimulative monetary policy, giving investors reason to pull back after a two-day rally.

The minutes from the Fed's December policy meeting, released on Thursday, showed increasing reticence about adding to the central bank's $2.9 trillion balance sheet, which it expanded sharply in response to the financial crisis and recession of 2007-2009.

Some policymakers thought asset buying should be slowed or stopped before the end of 2013 while others highlighted the need for further stimulus. The Fed's policy of easy credit has helped push the S&P 500 to a 13.4 percent gain in 2012. Ending that policy would remove an incentive for investors to purchase riskier assets like stocks.

"The surprise was the changes to duration and extent of that program in 2013, but given the tone in previous Fed meeting minutes, it should not have been an entire surprise," said Fred Dickson, chief market strategist at D.A. Davidson & Co. in Lake Oswego, Oregon.

Despite the concerns about the effects of its asset purchases, the Fed look set to continue its open-ended stimulus program for now.

Stocks pushed the S&P 500 index 4.3 percent higher in the previous two sessions. On Thursday investors turned their focus to coming battles in Congress, including the likelihood of bitter fights over budget cuts and raising the federal debt ceiling.

"We were definitely technically extended and ripe for a little bit of a consolidation and today is very orderly - traders and investors are still trying to digest the language and the details from the 2012 taxpayer act," Dickson said.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> dropped 21.19 points, or 0.16 percent, to 13,391.36. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> shed 3.05 points, or 0.21 percent, to 1,459.37. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> lost 11.70 points, or 0.38 percent, to 3,100.57.

Economic data showed U.S. private-sector employers shrugged off a looming budget crisis and stepped up hiring in December, offering further evidence of underlying strength in the economy as 2012 ended.

The government's broader monthly payrolls report, due on Friday, is expected to show the economy created 150,000 jobs compared with 146,000 in November, according to a Reuters poll. The U.S. unemployment rate is seen holding steady at 7.7 percent.

Retailers advanced after several major companies in the sector beat expectations of modest sales increases in December, with the S&P retail index <.spxrt> up 0.4 percent.

Shares in Costco Wholesale Corp rose 1 percent to $102.49 after the company reported a better-than-expected 9 percent rise in December sales at stores open at least a year.

Gap Inc stock climbed 2.3 percent to $32.09 following news that the retailer will buy women's fashion boutique Intermix Inc, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Family Dollar Stores Inc stumbled 13 percent to $55.74 on the company's report of lower-than-expected quarterly profit.

Volume was relatively strong, with about 6.68 billion shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange, NYSE MKT and Nasdaq, slightly above the 2012 daily average of 6.42 billion.

Advancing stocks outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 1,692 to 1,321, while on the Nasdaq, decliners beat advancers 1,287 to 1,187.

(Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Kenneth Barry)

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NHL, union briefly resume labor talks

NEW YORK (AP) — After a long night of talks, the NHL and the union returned to the bargaining table, but not for long.

The sides met at the league office Thursday about three hours later than scheduled. The players' association said it had been updating members on negotiations.

Players and union staff began arriving at NHL headquarters a little before 1 p.m. EST, although executive director Donald Fehr wasn't with them. The group left the building about an hour later but expected to return later in the day.

With the lockout in its 110th day, both sides understand the urgency to save a shortened season. They have several key issues to work out — pensions and salary cap limits, among them.

Commissioner Gary Bettman has said a deal needs to be in place by next week so a 48-game season can begin Jan. 19. All games through Jan. 14 along with the All-Star game have been canceled, claiming more than 50 percent of the original schedule.

The sides met in small groups throughout the day Wednesday. They held a full bargaining session with a federal mediator at night that lasted nearly five hours and ended about 1 a.m. Thursday.

The biggest detail to emerge was that Fehr remains executive director of the players' association, which passed on its first chance to declare a disclaimer that would dissolve the union and turn it into a trade association.

Last month, players voted overwhelmingly to give its executive board the right to declare the disclaimer, but that permission expired at midnight Wednesday. The disclaimer would allow individual players to file antitrust lawsuits against the NHL. Fehr wouldn't address the issue, calling it an "internal matter."

"The word disclaimer has yet to be uttered to us by the players' association," Bettman said. "It's not that it gets filed anywhere with a court or the NLRB. When you disclaim interest as a union, you notify the other side. We have not been notified and it's never been discussed, so there has been no disclaimer."

It was believed the union wouldn't take action Wednesday if it saw progress. Neither side would characterize the talks or say if there was any movement toward common ground.

"There's been some progress but we're still apart on a number of issues," Bettman said. "As long as the process continues I am hopeful."

In a related move, the NHLPA filed a motion in federal court in New York on Thursday seeking to dismiss the league's suit to have the lockout declared legal. The NHL sued the union in mid-December, figuring the players were about to submit their own complaint against the league and possibly break up their union to gain an upper hand.

But the union argued that the NHL is using this suit "to force the players to remain in a union. Not only is it virtually unheard of for an employer to insist on the unionization of its employees, it is also directly contradicted by the rights guaranteed to employees under ... the National Labor Relations Act."

A deal can't be done without a resolution on pensions. Bettman called the pension plan a "very complicated issue." A small group meeting on the pension issue was held Wednesday morning before the players' association presented its offer.

"The number of variables and the number of issues that have to be addressed by people who carry the title actuary or pension lawyer are pretty numerous and it's pretty easy to get off track. That is something we understand is important to the players."

The union's proposal Wednesday makes four offers between the sides since the NHL restarted negotiations Thursday with a proposal. The league presented the players with a counteroffer Tuesday night in response to one the union made Monday.

Fehr believed an agreement on a players-funded pension had been reached before talks blew up in early December. That apparently wasn't the case, or the NHL has changed its offer regarding the pension in exchange for agreeing to other things the union wanted.

The salary-cap number for the second year of the deal — the 2013-14 season — hasn't been established, and it is another point of contention. The league is pushing for a $60 million cap, while the union wants it to be $65 million.

In return for the higher cap number players would be willing to forgo a cap on escrow.

"We talk about lots of things and we even had some philosophical discussions about why particular issues were important to each of us," Bettman said. "That is part of the process."

The NHL proposed in its first offer Thursday that pension contributions come out of the players' share of revenues, and $50 million of the league's make-whole payment of $300 million will be allocated and set aside to fund potential underfunding liabilities of the plan at the end of the collective bargaining agreement.

Last month, the NHL agreed to raise its make-whole offer of deferred payments from $211 million to $300 million as part of a proposed package that required the union to agree on three nonnegotiable points. Instead, the union accepted the raise in funds, but then made counterproposals on the issues the league stated had no wiggle room.

"As you might expect, the differences between us relate to the core economic issues which don't involve the share," Fehr said of hockey-related revenue, which likely will be split 50-50.

The NHL is the only North American professional sports league to cancel a season because of a labor dispute, losing the 2004-05 campaign to a lockout. A 48-game season was played in 1995 after a lockout stretched into January.

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Lawsuit alleges horses mistreated on HBO’s ‘Luck’

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Several of the horses used on HBO‘s canceled series “Luck” were drugged, underweight and sick during production, an animal rights worker who oversaw conditions on the show alleges in a lawsuit.

Barbara Casey‘s suit filed Monday says she was wrongfully fired from her post at the American Humane Association after complaining about the conditions horses faced on the show, which was canceled after a series of high-profile animal deaths.

The suit claims four horses died during the show’s production, not three as previously reported. Horses were “often drugged to perform,” and “underweight and sick horses unsuited for work were routinely used” by producers, her lawsuit alleges.

Casey is suing HBO, which has repeatedly denied abusing horses on the show, and the humane association. The association declined to comment, citing the pending lawsuit.

“We took every precaution to ensure that our horses were treated humanely and with the utmost care, exceeding every safeguard of all protocols and guidelines required of the production,” HBO wrote in a statement.

Casey’s suit states she urged the humane association to report HBO and producers to authorities for possible animal-cruelty criminal charges.

The association “bowed to political and financial pressure and refused to report the production defendants’ conduct to the authorities,” the lawsuit states.

Casey served as director of the association’s Film and Television Unit, which oversees animal welfare and often allows a notice to be attached to the end of films and television shows that says no animals were harmed during production. The nonprofit association‘s film- and TV-monitoring efforts are paid for through entertainment industry grants, according to the lawsuit.

HBO canceled “Luck,” starring Dustin Hoffman, in March 2012 after three horse deaths were reported during production. Casey claims a fourth horse, named Hometrader, was killed in summer 2011 but its demise wasn’t documented because it occurred during a hiatus in filming.

The final horse that died during the series’ production had been examined by a California Horse Racing Board veterinarian shortly before it suffered a head injury while being led by a groomer to a stable.

By that point, the humane association and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had both been critical of the show’s safety record and praised its cancellation.

Casey’s lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.

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Why U.S. lives under the shadow of 'W'

Julian Zelizer says former President George W. Bush's key tax and homeland security policies survive in the age of Obama


  • Julian Zelizer: For all the criticism Bush got, two key policies have survived

  • He says fiscal cliff pact perpetuates nearly all of Bush's tax cuts

  • Obama administration has largely followed Bush's homeland security policy, he says

  • Zelizer: By squeezing revenues, Bush tax cuts will put pressure on spending

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and of "Governing America."

Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- Somewhere in Texas, former President George W. Bush is smiling.

Although some Democrats are pleased that taxes will now go up on the wealthiest Americans, the recent deal to avert the fiscal cliff entrenches, rather than dismantles, one of Bush's signature legacies -- income tax cuts. Ninety-nine percent of American households were protected from tax increases, aside from the expiration of the reduced rate for the payroll tax.

Julian Zelizer

Julian Zelizer

In the final deal, Congress and President Barack Obama agreed to preserve most of the Bush tax cuts, including exemptions on the estate tax.

When Bush started his term in 2001, many of his critics dismissed him as a lightweight, the son of a former president who won office as result of his family's political fortune and a controversial decision by the Supreme Court on the 2000 election.

But what has become clear in hindsight, regardless of what one thinks of Bush and his politics, is that his administration left behind a record that has had a huge impact on American politics, a record that will not easily be dismantled by future presidents.

The twin pillars of Bush's record were counterterrorism policies and tax cuts. During his first term, it became clear that Obama would not dismantle most of the homeland security apparatus put into place by his predecessor. Despite a campaign in 2008 that focused on flaws with the nation's response to 9/11, Obama has kept most of the counterterrorism program intact.

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In some cases, the administration continues to aggressively use tactics his supporters once decried, such as relying on renditions to detain terrorist suspects who are overseas, as The Washington Post reported this week. In other areas, the administration has expanded the war on terrorism, including the broader use of drone strikes to kill terrorists.

Now come taxes and spending.

With regard to the Bush tax cuts, Obama had promised to overturn a policy that he saw as regressive. Although he always said that he would protect the middle class from tax increases, Obama criticized Bush for pushing through Congress policies that bled the federal government of needed revenue and benefited the wealthy.

In 2010, Obama agreed to temporarily extend all the tax cuts. Though many Democrats were furious, Obama concluded that he had little political chance to overturn them and he seemed to agree with Republicans that reversing them would hurt an economy limping along after a terrible recession.

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With the fiscal cliff deal, Obama could certainly claim more victories than in 2010. Taxes for the wealthiest Americans will go up. Congress also agreed to extend unemployment compensation and continue higher payments to Medicare providers.

But beneath all the sound and fury is the fact that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, for most Americans, are now a permanent part of the legislative landscape. (In addition, middle class Americans will breathe a sigh of relief that Congress has permanently fixed the Alternative Minimum Tax, which would have hit many of them with a provision once designed to make sure that the wealthy paid their fair share.)

As Michigan Republican Rep. Dave Camp remarked, "After more than a decade of criticizing these tax cuts, Democrats are finally joining Republicans in making them permanent." Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the new legislation will increase the deficit by $4 trillion over the next 10 years.

The tax cuts have significant consequences on all of American policy.

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Most important, the fact that a Democratic president has now legitimated the moves of a Republican administration gives a bipartisan imprimatur to the legitimacy of the current tax rates.

Although some Republicans signed on to raising taxes for the first time in two decades, the fact is that Democrats have agreed to tax rates which, compared to much of the 20th century, are extraordinarily low. Public perception of a new status quo makes it harder for presidents to ever raise taxes on most Americans to satisfy the revenue needs for the federal government.

At the same time, the continuation of reduced taxes keeps the federal government in a fiscal straitjacket. As a result, politicians are left to focus on finding the money to pay for existing programs or making cuts wherever possible.

New innovations in federal policy that require substantial revenue are just about impossible. To be sure, there have been significant exceptions, such as the Affordable Care Act. But overall, bold policy departures that require significant amounts of general revenue are harder to come by than in the 1930s or 1960s.

Republicans thus succeed with what some have called the "starve the beast" strategy of cutting government by taking away its resources. Since the long-term deficit only becomes worse, Republicans will continue to have ample opportunity to pressure Democrats into accepting spending cuts and keep them on the defense with regards to new government programs.

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With his income tax cuts enshrined, Bush can rest comfortably that much of the policy world he designed will remain intact and continue to define American politics. Obama has struggled to work within the world that Bush created, and with this legislation, even with his victories, he has demonstrated that the possibilities for change have been much more limited than he imagined when he ran in 2008 or even in 2012.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

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House chooses Boehner as speaker

The House has re-elected embattled Republican John Boehner speaker. The Ohio lawmaker won a second, two-year term as leader with 220 votes, losing just a handful of votes in the Republican-controlled chamber. (Jan. 3)

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Despite a rocky few weeks during the "fiscal cliff" fight, John Boehner won re-election as speaker of the House of Representatives on Thursday and will again lead Republicans as they take on the White House over federal spending.

Boehner defeated House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi 220-192 in a vote on the opening day of the 113th Congress and vowed to use his second term to shrink the national debt of $16 trillion to prevent it from "draining free enterprise."

The Ohio congressman narrowly avoided the embarrassment of having to go to a second-round of voting, as a small group of conservatives held back their support for him.

But without a challenger from inside his party, Boehner's re-election was never in doubt even though he has struggled to control an unruly group of fiscal conservatives in his caucus.

True to form, the often emotional Boehner shed a tear or two as took the gavel and spelled out the challenges ahead.

"Our government has built up too much debt. Our economy is not producing enough jobs. These are not separate problems," Boehner said.

"At $16 trillion and rising, our national debt is draining free enterprise and weakening the ship of state."

Questions were asked about Boehner's speakership when conservative Tea Party-backed lawmakers delivered him a stinging defeat in December by rejecting a proposal of his during talks with President Barack Obama to raise taxes on millionaires.

Boehner also came under fire for voting on Tuesday for a compromise deal to prevent the U.S. economy from falling off the so-called fiscal cliff and for being slow to approve aid for victims of Superstorm Sandy in the Northeast.


"Being speaker today is no bargain, I tell you," Republican Representative Peter King of New York told MSNBC's "Morning Joe."

Widely seen as having lost the "fiscal cliff" fight with Obama by accepting tax increases, congressional Republicans are keen for a rematch and they will get the chance soon.

Debate is likely to be fierce when lawmakers deal with planned spending cuts for military and domestic programs that are due to start in February. Around that time, Congress is likely to take up the thorny issue of extending the "debt ceiling" - the limit of how much the federal government can borrow.

Boehner was the Republicans' front man in fiscal talks with Obama but stepped aside for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who struck a dramatic New Year's Eve deal with Vice President Joe Biden.

The stress of recent weeks seems to have got to Boehner, who cursed at Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at the White House twice after a meeting last week, according to Senate aides.

Reid had accused the Republican of running a "dictatorship" in the House and being more interested in keeping his speakership than in cutting a fiscal deal.

The son of a bar owner, Boehner had a tough upbringing. He shared one bathroom with his 11 siblings and worked in the family business while still a child.

He was elected speaker after the 2010 midterm elections when a Tea Party surge helped Republicans take the House from the Democrats.

Nancy Pelosi, his predecessor and now Democratic minority leader, presented the gavel again to Boehner on Thursday just after he won re-election.

"I know all too well that we will not always agree," Pelosi said. "But I hope, with all my heart that we find common ground that is a higher, better place for our country."

Fellow Republicans, not Democrats, have been landing some of the toughest blows on Boehner, notably New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who launched a tirade against the speaker for postponing an anticipated vote on a $60 billion storm aid package for the victims of Sandy.

King, who was among Boehner's critics, was more forgiving on Thursday after the speaker agreed to abruptly reverse course and set a timetable to approve the storm relief.

"John is really a voice of reason in our conference, despite some of the things I said yesterday," King told NBC's "Today."

(Additional reporting by David Lawder and Susan Heavey. Writing by Alistair Bell. Editing by Christopher Wilson)

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