Thursday, March 15, 2012

Published:

Seattle lawyer: Soldier accused in Afghanistan shooting was reluctant to go on 4th deployment

SEATTLE (AP) -- The U.S. soldier accused of slaughtering 16 Afghan civilians last weekend had twice been injured during tours in Iraq and was reluctant to leave on his fourth deployment, a Seattle lawyer said Thursday.

"He wasn't thrilled about going on another deployment," said the lawyer, John Henry Browne. "He was told he wasn't going back, and then he was told he was going."

Browne, a well-known Seattle defense attorney who recently represented a youthful thief known as the "Barefoot Bandit," said he has been asked to represent the soldier, a 38-year-old staff sergeant from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma.

The soldier is from the Seattle area and asked to be represented by Browne when he was taken into custody, the lawyer said. Browne said he has met with the staff sergeant's family, and unless the soldier is returned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord in the next few days, he will travel to meet the soldier wherever he is in custody.

Browne declined to release the soldier's name, which the Army has withheld.

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Taliban nixes US talks, Karzai demands NATO pull out of rural areas after civilian killings

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- The American campaign in Afghanistan suffered a double blow Thursday: The Taliban broke off talks with the U.S., and President Hamid Karzai said NATO should pull out of rural areas and speed up the transfer of security responsibilities to Afghan forces nationwide in the wake of the killing of 16 civilians.

The moves represent new setbacks to America's strategy for ending the 10-year-old war at a time when support for the conflict is plummeting. Part of the U.S. exit strategy is to transfer authority gradually to Afghan forces. Another tack is to pull the Taliban into political discussions with the Afghan government, though it's unclear that there has been any progress since January.

Although Karzai has previously said that he wanted international troops to transition out of rural areas, the apparent call for an immediate exit is new. Karzai also said he now wants Afghan forces take the lead for countrywide security in 2013, in what appeared to be a move to push the U.S. toward an earlier drawdown.

A statement released by Karzai's office said that during his meeting with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the president "requested that the international forces come out of Afghan villages and stay in their bases."

Karzai also said that the "Afghan security forces have the ability to provide security in the villages of our country," the statement said.

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Signs of financial stress emerge for Mitt Romney as the long GOP campaign keeps getting longer

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO (AP) -- The long and increasingly messy Republican presidential contest is starting to hit Mitt Romney where it hurts most: his wallet.

New signs of financial stress are emerging in Romney's campaign, which has built a wide lead in delegates thanks in part to the might of his bank account and multistate operation. As rival Rick Santorum's surprising strength keeps extending the nomination battle, Romney has scaled back expenses, trimmed field staff in some cases and begun to count more on free media coverage to reach voters. And he's still relying on an allied super political action committee to supplement his spending on expensive TV ads.

This week, the former Massachusetts governor was forced to spend two days privately courting donors in the New York area, even as his Republican rivals were wooing voters ahead of pivotal elections in places like Illinois, where he hasn't been in four months, and as President Barack Obama was stockpiling cash for the fall general election fight.

On Wednesday, Romney had five finance events in New York, all packed, raising about $3 million, with more set for Thursday. So the news is hardly all bad. Wednesday "was the best day we've had so far," said New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, who accompanied Romney to multiple events, including a donor breakfast in New York City.

But it's less encouraging for the campaign that the money is badly needed to re-fill coffers that had sunk close to their lowest levels since Romney launched his presidential effort last year.

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30 Iranian banks cut off from most global commerce following European sanctions

BRUSSELS (AP) -- Dozens of Iranian banks were blocked from doing business with much of the world as the West tightens the financial screws on a country it wants to prevent from developing nuclear weapons.

The Belgium-based company that facilitates most international bank transfers on Thursday took the unprecedented step of blocking 30 Iranian banks from using its service. The move is likely to hurt Iran's all-important oil industry and make it difficult for citizens to receive money from relatives living abroad.

The move by the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT, is part of a broader effort by Western nations to isolate Iran financially and force it to demonstrate that it is not trying to develop nuclear weapons. Iran says that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only, but officials in many other countries believe otherwise.

SWIFT said it was forced by recent European Union sanctions to discontinue service to the Iranian banks beginning Saturday. SWIFT is a secure private network used by nearly every bank around the world to send payment messages that lead to the transfer of money across international borders.

The chief executive of SWIFT, Lazaro Campos, described the move as "extraordinary and unprecedented."

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On anniversary of Syrian uprising, no end in sight to regime crackdown that has killed 8,000

BEIRUT (AP) -- Thousands of Syrians rallied Thursday in Damascus in a display of loyalty to President Bashar Assad, waving flags under a slate gray sky to protest the anniversary of a rebellion that the government says is driven by terrorists, gangsters and extremists.

Outside the Syrian capital, however, tanks and snipers besieged opposition areas, including the southern city of Daraa where the uprising began a year ago, touched off by the arrest of a group of youths who scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall.

One year into the Syrian revolt, the fight to oust Assad is cascading toward civil war with more than 8,000 killed and no end in sight to the bloodshed. Worst-case scenarios are playing out in a country where many remain shackled by corruption, a suffocating security apparatus and a family dictatorship that rules over 22 million people.

"We know that this is a criminal regime, but we didn't expect it to reach this amount of killing," Amer Mattar, a 26-year-old activist, told The Associated Press from Jordan, where he fled to safety after being arrested twice in Syria.

Despite widening international condemnation and biting sanctions, Assad's regime has remained intact and intelligence analysts say the rebels have yet to pose a serious challenge to his powerful military.

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Ex-Ill. Gov. Rod Blagojevich walks into Colo. prison to begin 14-year sentence for corruption

LITTLETON, Colo. (AP) -- Convicted former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich walked into a federal prison in Colorado to begin a 14-year sentence for corruption on Thursday, the latest chapter in the downfall of a charismatic politician that seemed more like a bizarre reality TV show than a legal battle.

With helicopters and TV news crews broadcasting his every move, Blagojevich stepped out of a black SUV and walked into the Federal Correctional Institution Englewood in suburban Denver just before noon. Blagojevich -- Illinois' second ex-governor now in prison for corruption -- was convicted on 18 counts, including charges of trying to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat.

"I'm leaving with a heavy heart, a clear conscience and I have high, high hopes for the future," Blagojevich told reporters and well-wishers as he left his Chicago home early Thursday for his flight to Denver.

Along with his attorneys, the 55-year-old Democrat spent about an hour driving around the minimum-security facility once arriving in Littleton, near Denver, stopping for lunch and waving to onlookers before relinquishing his freedom.

"I think it's kind of surreal to him, but he seems in good spirits," said Brian Pyle, who owns the Freddy's Frozen Custard and Steakburgers in Littleton where Blagojevich had lunch. Pyle said he shook the former governor's hand as he left, telling him: "Stay strong." He said Blagojevich thanked him.

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USDA responds to social media opposition to 'pink slime' product; gives schools choice

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) -- School districts soon will be able to opt out of a common ammonia-treated ground beef filler critics have dubbed "pink slime."

Amid a growing social media storm over so-called "lean finely textured beef," the Agriculture Department announced Thursday that, starting next fall, schools involved in the national school lunch program will have the option of avoiding the product.

Under the change, schools will be able to choose between 95 percent lean beef patties made with the product or less lean bulk ground beef without it. The change won't kick in immediately because of existing contracts, according to a USDA official with knowledge of the decision.

Though the term "pink slime" has been used pejoratively for at least several years, it wasn't until last week that social media suddenly exploded with worry and an online petition seeking its ouster from schools. The petition quickly garnered hundreds of thousands of supporters.

The low-cost ingredient is made from fatty bits of meat left over from other cuts. The bits are heated to about 100 F and spun to remove most of the fat. The lean mix then is compressed into blocks for use in ground meat. The product, made by South Dakota-based Beef Products Inc., also is exposed to "a puff of ammonium hydroxide gas" to kill bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella.

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Sales begin Friday for iPad with faster processor, better screen; heavy demand, lines expected

NEW YORK (AP) -- Let the wild rumpus start.

The customary storefront crowds are expected to gather as Apple's latest iPad goes on sale Friday. Long lines are likely even though customers could have ordered the new tablet computer ahead of time for first-day home delivery.

The third version of Apple's iPad will be available in the U.S. and nine other countries beginning at 8 a.m. local time. The new model comes with a faster processor and a much sharper screen. It also boasts an improved camera, similar to that of the latest iPhone.

For many customers, visiting a store in person -- instead of having one shipped -- offers consumers a chance to mingle with die-hard Apple fans.

Two years after the debut of the first iPad, the device's launch has become the second-biggest "gadget event" of the year, after the annual iPhone release. A year ago, thousands lined up outside the flagship Apple store on New York's Fifth Avenue. The device sold out on launch day, even though it didn't go on sale until 5 p.m.

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New Orleans police issue arrest warrant for actor Russell Brand on property damage charge

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- New Orleans police have issued an arrest warrant for actor Russell Brand on a charge of simple criminal damage to property valued at $700..

Brand is in New Orleans to film an untitled movie.

Police spokeswoman Remi Braden on Thursday could not immediately release details of what happened Monday. Celebrity website TMZ said the charges stem from a confrontation with a photographer who was trying to take Brand's photo from a car.

In a Twitter posting on Wednesday, Brand wrote, "Since Steve Jobs died I cannot bear to see anyone use an iphone irreverently, what I did was a tribute to his memory."

Neither Brand nor his publicist could immediately be reached for comment.

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Portland Trail Blazers fire head coach Nate McMillan

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) -- The Portland Trail Blazers have fired coach Nate McMillan.

The Blazers announced the move on Thursday, one day after a 42-point loss to the Knicks in New York. Assistant coach Caleb Kanales will be the interim head coach.

The firing was first reported by Yahoo! Sports.

The Blazers have lost seven of their last 10 games to fall out of the Western Conference playoff race. The firing was part of an overhaul on Thursday that included trading veteran center Marcus Camby to the Houston Rockets and versatile forward Gerald Wallace to the New Jersey Nets.

Portland is 20-23 and in 12th place in the West. McMillan went 266-269 in over six seasons as coach of the Blazers and led them to the playoffs the previous three seasons.