A looming split between the two Shiite parties that dominate Iraq's government threatens efforts to win parliamentary approval for a security pact with the United States and could set the stage for a major struggle for power in the oil-rich Shiite southern heartland.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council led by Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim have been allies since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime. Now they are rapidly turning into bitter rivals, raising the specter of a weakened Shiite front ahead of two key elections next year.
The security agreement, reached after months of tortuous negotiations, would allow U.S. troops to remain after their U.N. mandate expires Dec. 31. It is critical to ensuring Iraq's security until government forces are capable of taking charge of the fight against insurgents.
A draft has been completed and Baghdad is preparing to submit it to parliament for final approval -- which U.S. officials believe is by no means certain.
Although passage would require only a majority of the 275-member parliament, Al-Maliki will submit the draft only if he is convinced it will receive two-thirds support.
To reach two-thirds, the draft would need the 30 votes from the Supreme Council.
AFGHAN POLICEMEN KILLS U.S. SOLDIER
An Afghan policeman hurled a grenade and opened fire on a U.S. military patrol in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday, killing an American soldier before he, in turn, was killed.
It was the second attack by a policeman on U.S. forces in less than a month.
Training of the police force and the Afghan army are key elements in the U.S. strategy of dealing with a vicious Taliban-led insurgency that has spread in many parts of the country.
Extremists in Afghanistan have in the past disguised themselves in police or army uniforms when attacking Afghan and foreign troops, but real policemen were responsible for the recent attacks.
U.S. MISSILE STRIKE KILLS 6 IN PAKISTAN
A suspected U.S. missile strike near the headquarters of a top Taliban leader in Pakistan's tribal areas Thursday killed six people and injured five, according to Pakistani intelligence officials and residents.
An unmanned U.S. Predator drone fired several missiles on two homes in the town of Ladha in the tribal area of South Waziristan. A Pakistani intelligence official said at least two extremist commanders who are believed to be of Arab origin were killed. "The others killed were most likely local militants, " the intelligence official said.
In the wake of faltering Pakistani efforts to control the flow of insurgents across the border into Afghanistan, U.S. missile attacks on insurgents sheltering in the mountainous tribal areas of Pakistan have become more frequent this year.
TURKISH MILITARY CLASHES WITH KURDS
The Turkish military clashed with Kurdish rebels near the Iraqi border in battles it said killed four soldiers and five rebels, while rebels claimed Thursday to have shot down a Turkish helicopter.
Another soldier was killed and 15 security personnel were slightly injured in the helicopter crash, the military said in a website statement. The military said mechanical failure was the cause of the crash.
IRANIAN AIR FORCE BEGINS EXERCISES
Iranian state-run television said Thursday that the army air force has begun a military exercise near Iran's northwestern border with Turkey. The report said jet fighters, including U.S.-made F-4s, F-5s and F-14s and Russian-made Sukhoi planes, are involved in the drill.
The exercise near the northwestern town of Tabriz also includes the new domestically manufactured jet fighter called the Saegheh, or Lightning.
The broadcast said the exercise is aimed at boosting defense capabilities, upgrading morale and displaying the might of the country's air force.
AL-QAIDA IMPERVIOUS TO FINANCIAL MESS
Al-Qaida, which gets its money from the drug trade in Afghanistan and sympathizers in the oil-rich Gulf states, is likely to escape the effects of the global financial crisis, financial analysts said. One reason is that Al-Qaida and other Islamic terrorists have been forced to avoid using banks, relying instead on less-efficient ways to move their cash around the world.
Those methods include hand-carrying money and using informal transfer networks called hawalas. While escaping official scrutiny, those networks also are slower and less efficient -- and thus could hamper efforts to finance attacks.
Al-Qaida and the Taliban have benefited from the drug trade's growth in Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, and the booming business likely will not be affected by the global slowdown, analysts said.
SANDSTORM DRAPES IRAQI CAPITAL IN PINK
A heavy sandstorm turned Iraq's capital into a pinkish haze Thursday, sending dozens of people to the hospital with respiratory problems and delaying international flights.
On the streets of Baghdad, people covered their mouths with masks, scarves and other bits of clothing. Sandstorms are a regular occurrence in Baghdad, which is shielded from the desert by a thin strip of arable land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.