Minggu, 18 Desember 2011

BT Files Patent Suit Against Google

British Telecommunications has filed a civil suit in a Delaware court alleging that some Google products and services including Android, and its search, music, map, and location-based advertising infringe on one or more of six of its patents.

The British company entered a prayer on Thursday before the United States District Court for the District of Delaware for an injunction against Google, as well as unspecified damages, which could be tripled if proven that Google's alleged infringement of the patents was willful and deliberate. BT has also asked for a trial by jury.

The BT patents said to have been infringed include service provision system for communication networks, navigation information system, storage and retrieval of location based information in a distributed network of data storage devices, telecommunications apparatus and method, and communications node for providing network based information services.

Google Music and Android were cited by BT as examples of Google's violation of U.S. Patent No. 6,151,309 for service provision system for communication networks, also referred to in the suit as the Busuioc patent. This patent is "directed to systems and methods for accessing content in a mobile environment where network constraints vary across networks".

Intellectual property analyst Florian Mueller wrote in his blog that with so many major patent holders asserting their rights, obligations to pay royalties may force Google to change its Android licensing model and pass royalties on to device makers. Android is at the center of a number of patent disputes involving large companies including Oracle and Apple.

Google was not immediately available for comment on the suit.

App makers rushing to beat Apple's holiday deadline

If you're an iOS app developer and you're hoping to get your new project in Apple's App Store in time for Christmas, you might want to stock up on Red Bull.

According to The New York Times, Apple's review team is quickly approaching its annual holiday shutdown. And that means that after Thursday, no one will be on hand to vet new iPhone or iPad apps until well after the holiday.

Christmas, writes Jenna Wortham in The Times,

is the biggest day of the year for app sales, which can mean big money for developers.

That is, if they manage to get their apps through Apple's review process and into the App Store before everyone at Apple goes on vacation.

Each year around Christmas, Apple stops accepting app submissions and updating its store for a while. This year the shutdown starts on Thursday and runs for eight days.

Anyone wanting to get a new app approved by Apple before Christmas has to finish by Thursday, when its reviewers go on an eight-day holiday. Christmas is the biggest day for app sales of the year, according to The New York Times

Unlike Android developers who can make apps available to the public any time--though those that appear in the official Android Marketplace have to be approved--anyone working on software for iOS devices must get Apple's approval. And that's what makes the Thursday deadline so crucial for those wanting to reap the potential rewards of a Christmas hit.

So if you have an unfinished app you just know is going to be the next Angry Birds, you'd better get cracking if you want to take advantage of the almost certain bonanza that could come by getting in the App Store before Santa arrives.

ECB's Draghi puts hopes on EFSF bailout fund, rules

FRANKFURT - Politicians have to move fast to make the European bailout fund operational, as any delay ends up jacking up the cost, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi was quoted as saying Sunday.

Draghi also told The Financial Times in an interview that the ECB could not start printing money, adding that any country leaving the euro would be worse off and would still have to go through the same reforms.

He said there was no long-term trade-off between growth and austerity.

To have a return of confidence in the euro zone, suffering from a sovereign debt crisis which has engulfed several countries, there is a need "to have a firewall in place which is fully equipped and operational. And that was meant to be provided by the EFSF," Draghi said.

"If one can show its usefulness in its present size, the argument for its enlargement would be much stronger," he said.

Draghi, who in November became the third ECB president in its 12-year history, said the longer it took to put together a firewall to stop market contagion, the more expensive it got.

"The delay in making the EFSF operational has increased the resources necessary to stabilizing markets," he said.

"A process that is fast, credible and robust needs less resources," Draghi said, adding that the ECB aims to provide the EFSF assistance from January.

The ECB has been tasked with aiding the EFSF in its market interventions once it is ready to start spending its funds.

Draghi declined to give a clear answer when asked whether the ECB would keep buying government bonds through its SMP bond-buying program once the EFSF entered the picture.

"We have not discussed a precise scenario for the SMP. As I often said, the SMP is neither eternal nor infinite," he said. So far, the ECB has spent more than 200 billion euros to buy sovereign bonds of countries mired in the debt crisis.

Draghi also said it was not the role of the ECB to install targets for government bond spreads, adding that those depended on rules governments put in place.

"Sovereign spreads have mostly to do with the sovereigns and with the nature of the compact between them. It is in this area that progress is ongoing. Monetary policy cannot do everything."


Draghi warned against putting expectations for the ECB to solve the debt crisis by becoming a lender of last resort to governments.

Asked if the ECB could engage in full-blown quantitative easing -- printing money -- to buy government bonds and ease their funding strains, he said that would be counterproductive.

"The important thing is to restore the trust of the people - citizens as well as investors - in our continent. We won't achieve that by destroying the credibility of the ECB."

Draghi tried to offer solace to indebted countries by saying that consolidation would not hurt growth in the long run. He said countries can reduce the short-term impact by reforming their economies, adding that consolidation can make funding cheaper as markets grow more confident.

But he said an effort must be made across the board and that improving governance in the common currency area is an important part of that package.

"Austerity by one single country and nothing else is not enough to regain confidence of the markets."

Neither was leaving the euro zone an answer to the problems, Draghi said, dismissing talk of Greece being better off were it to leave the euro.

"This wouldn't help. Leaving the euro area, devaluing your currency, you create a big inflation, and at the end of that road, the country would have to undertake the same reforms that were due to begin with, but in a much weaker position."

Draghi also told the newspaper that tight funding conditions in the interbank market were becoming a growth risk.

"These challenging funding conditions are now producing a credit tightening and have certainly increased the downside risks for the euro area economy," he said.

He pinned hopes on the ECB's recently announced 3-year liquidity operation to help improve banks' situation, and added it was up to the banks how they would spend the funds they are going to bid for -- with buying government bonds one option.

"Coming back to what banks are going to do with this money: we don't know exactly. The important thing was to relax the funding pressures. Banks will decide in total independence what they want to do," the ECB head told the newspaper.

"One of the things that they may do is to buy sovereign bonds. But it is just one."

Private Investment Rounds Weaken I.P.O.’s

Facebook’s initial public offering will grab plenty of headlines in 2012. But as Zynga’s tepid debut last week shows, multiple private investment rounds and the ability to trade shares before going public mean slim pickings when public market investors finally get their chance to own Silicon Valley’s emerging heavyweights. That is one reason the average I.P.O. this year has wound up trading about 10 percent below its offer price.

Companies like Zynga and Facebook are increasingly availing themselves of so-called D round deals. These are very late-stage investments where companies, in addition to possibly selling some new stock to finance growth, allow existing shareholders to cash out. At the same time, emerging private exchanges like SecondMarket allow qualified investors to buy stock from insiders in private firms without conducting an I.P.O.

Consider Zynga. The online game company raised money in multiple rounds at rising valuations, allowing insiders, including its chief executive, Mark Pincus, to sell along the way. While it was valued about $4 billion in early 2010, its worth on gray markets had more than tripled by early 2011. More recent signs of slowing growth meant the company fetched just a $9 billion market value when it finally went public. And when Zynga shares made their debut on Friday, they closed below their offering price.

What is odd is that private market values have historically come at discounts to public prices, generally a reflection of less liquidity and disclosure. Yet for select companies, like Facebook or Zynga, this no longer seems to apply. Investors clamor for a few hot companies — about 80 percent of trading on gray markets is concentrated among five companies — and are willing to pay up, even with little financial information available.

For the companies and entrepreneurs involved, a private market in which they fetch robust prices for their stock may be great. But it is not clear how this trend benefits capital markets more broadly, particularly if it means that by the time companies go public their most rapid growth is behind them and their valuations are already full.

Doubts on Utility Deal

Imagine if Wal-Mart wanted to buy Target and PepsiCo tried to block the deal. That is sort of what is happening, albeit on a far smaller scale, in a corner of the American electricity market. NRG Energy, one of the largest independent power producers, has filed a petition with regulators that could derail plans by $6.1 billion Northeast Utilities to buy $4.7 billion Nstar and create the dominant utility in New England.

NRG last week requested that Connecticut’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority re-examine its right to intervene in the merger process. Earlier in the year, the state’s regulators decided it did not have jurisdiction to do so, leaving final approval to Massachusetts regulators.

That was before Hurricane Irene in August and a snowstorm before Halloween left millions of Connecticut residents, who pay the highest electricity rates in the continental United States, without power for weeks. Subsequent independent investigations revealed multiple failures on the part of Northeast Utilities’ Connecticut Light & Power unit. NRG’s filing liberally cites these findings in urging Connecticut regulators to act.

NRG’s arguments are politically savvy, in that many state legislators from each party are united in their displeasure with Northeast Utilities. The power group’s petition appears to give Gov. Dannel Malloy an opportunity belatedly to reassert his administration’s role in ensuring the interests of Connecticut residents are safeguarded as part of any merger.

Now, NRG’s interests are not necessarily aligned with those of electricity users. Going back to the Wal-Mart-buys-Target analogy, NRG appears worried — as Pepsi or other suppliers would be in that example — that an even larger customer’s market dominance would give it huge purchasing power. In Northeast Utilities-Nstar’s case, the combined company’s new heft could also enable it to generate more of its own power to compete with NRG’s facilities in New England.

If the state does decide it made a mistake in waiving its rights to intervene, there is a higher likelihood the merger will be derailed. Given the experience of Northeast Utilities’ captive customers this year, they might prefer that the company does not get even bigger, even if NRG’s motives for blocking the deal are entirely different from theirs.

Asian Stocks Fall as Euro Drops on Europe

Asian stocks (MXAP) fell, the dollar rose and the won headed for the biggest drop in two months after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died and as European finance ministers prepare to discuss the region’s debt crisis.

The MSCI Asia Pacific Index slid 2 percent at 1:29 p.m. in Tokyo, South Korea’s Kospi index slumped 3 percent, and the Shanghai Composite Index dropped 2.6 percent after data showed Chinese home prices declined last month. Standard & Poor’s 500 Index futures lost 0.5 percent. The dollar climbed 0.4 percent to $1.2993 against the 17-nation euro and rallied 1.6 percent against the South Korean won. Oil declined for a fourth day in New York and copper snapped a two-day gain.

Kim, 70, died on Dec. 17 of exhaustion brought on by a sudden illness, the official Korean Central News Agency said. Euro-area finance ministers are seeking to meet a self-imposed deadline for drawing additional aid to the debt crisis through the International Monetary Fund and put together new budget rules. France is set to sell as much as 7 billion euros ($9.1 billion) of bills after Fitch Ratings last week reduced its outlook for the nation’s credit grade to negative from stable.

“What investors don’t like most is uncertainty,” said Im Jeong Jae, a Seoul-based fund manager at Shinhan BNP Paribas Asset Management Co., which oversees about $28 billion. “Amid very limited information over his death, it’s very tricky to guess what will happen in the communist nation as well as the impact on regional security.”
Billabong, Developers

About eight shares declined for every one that gained on MSCI’s Asia Pacific Index, which dropped 4.4 percent in the past two weeks. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 Index sank 2.3 percent, Japan’s Nikkei 225 Stock Average retreated 1.1 percent and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index slipped 2.5 percent.

Billabong International Ltd. (BBG) tumbled 44 percent after the Australian surfwear maker said first-half profit may fall as much as 26 percent. Agile Property Holdings Ltd. (3383) dropped 4.9 percent in Hong Kong, pacing losses among developers after China’s new home prices dropped in November from the previous month in 49 of 70 cities.

Speco Co. (013810), a South Korean defense equipment maker, rallied 15 percent in Seoul. The won weakened to 1,176.88 per dollar, set for its largest daily decline since Oct. 3. A government statement called on North Koreans to “loyally follow” his son, Kim Jong Un.
France, Spain

The euro weakened before regional finance ministers hold a conference call at 3:30 p.m. Brussels time to discuss 200 billion euros of additional funding through the IMF. France is selling bills today after Fitch said on Dec. 16 that the country is more exposed to the region’s debt crisis than other top-rated euro-zone countries because of its budget deficit and government debt burden. Spain will auction government securities tomorrow maturing in three and six months.

“There’s not going to be any upside until this situation is fixed,” Nick Maroutsos, who oversees the equivalent of about $3 billion as co-founder of Sydney-based Kapstream Capital, said in a Bloomberg Television interview. “Given that France might get downgraded, or we could see further sovereign defaults in the coming months, ultimately it’s going to put more pressure on the banks in the European region and also more pressure on the global environment.”

The Australian dollar dropped 0.8 percent to 99.08 U.S. cents. The Reserve Bank of Australia releases minutes tomorrow of its Dec. 6 meeting when it cut interest rates for a second- straight month.
Oil, Copper

Crude for January delivery lost 0.8 percent to $92.77 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, extending a three- day, 6.6 percent decline. Three-month copper dropped 1.9 percent to $7,208.50 a metric ton in London and nickel slipped 2.3 percent to $18,130 a ton. Gold slid 0.7 percent to $1,587 an ounce, extending last week’s 6.6 percent slump.

The cost of insuring corporate bonds in Australia and Japan against non-payment increased, according to credit-default swap traders. The Markit iTraxx Australia index rose two basis points to 195 basis points, according to Westpac Banking Corp, while the Markit iTraxx Japan index climbed 2.5 basis points to 192, Deutsche Bank AG prices show.

S&P 500 futures expiring in March signal the U.S. stocks gauge may snap gains from Dec. 16, when it advanced 0.3 percent. Treasury 10-year yields slid one basis point to 1.84 percent.

U.S. online spending for the holiday season has jumped 15 percent to $30.9 billion from the year-earlier period, ComScore Inc. said. Consumer purchases probably rose 0.3 percent in November after increasing 0.1 percent in October, according to the median forecast of 62 economists surveyed by Bloomberg before Commerce Department figures Dec. 23.

Boehner backs off 2-month tax cut

WASHINGTON - A day after the Senate overwhelmingly approved legislation to extend a payroll-tax cut for two months, House Republicans made clear Sunday that they would not support the measure.

Speaker John Boehner, who had urged his members Saturday to support the legislation, did what appeared to be an about-face Sunday when he said he and other House Republicans were opposed to the temporary extension, part of a $33 billion package of bills that the Senate passed Saturday. In addition to extending the payroll-tax cut for millions of U.S. workers, the legislation extended unemployment benefits and avoided cuts in payments to doctors who accept Medicare. The measure would be effective through February.

In an interview with NBC's "Meet the Press," Boehner said the two-month extension would be "just kicking the can down the road."

"It's time to just stop, do our work, resolve the differences and extend this for one year," Boehner said. "How can you have tax policy for two months?"

He said Republicans wanted to extend the payroll cut for a year but that it would have to be financed with cuts in the existing budget. When congressional aides announced the deal on Friday, they said the items it contained were fully paid for.

But any thought that Congress will agree on a yearlong tax-cut extension or on the other provisions is extremely optimistic, given that its work will overlap with President Obama's State of the Union speech, the heat of the Republican primaries and a presidential campaign hitting full stride. Obama and Senate Democrats criticized Boehner's stance on the payroll-tax cut, saying he was renouncing the package negotiated last week by House and Senate leaders.

"The bipartisan compromise passed in the Senate yesterday received 89 votes, including 39 Republican votes, and Speaker Boehner himself just yesterday called it a 'good deal' and a 'victory,'" White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said in a statement.

"If House Republicans refuse to pass this bipartisan bill to extend the payroll-tax cut," Pfeiffer said, "there will be a significant tax increase on 160 million hard-working Americans in 13 days that would damage the economy and job growth."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Boehner had asked him and the minority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to work out a compromise on the tax cut and that it had been agreed to by both political parties.

"Neither side got everything they wanted, but we forged a middle ground that passed the Senate by an overwhelming bipartisan majority," Reid said in a statement. "If Speaker Boehner refuses to vote on the bipartisan compromise that passed the Senate with 89 votes, Republicans will be forcing a thousand-dollar tax increase on middle-class families on Jan. 1."

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Boehner's comments called into question his ability to lead. "This is a test of whether the House Republicans are fit to govern, and it is a make-or-break moment for John Boehner's speakership," he said in a statement. "You cannot let a small group at the extreme resort to brinksmanship every time there is a major national issue and try to dictate every move this nation makes."

Boehner's remarks on "Meet the Press" came less than 24 hours after a conference call in which, several participants said, he tried to sell the package of bills to his members, pointing to a provision that would speed Republican-supported construction of an oil pipeline, known as Keystone XL, from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

Many Republican lawmakers were not happy with the legislation, chiefly because they objected to the tax cut extension's cost.

Among them was the House majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia. A statement issued Sunday by Cantor's office said that on Monday, the House either would amend the Senate bill so that it met the "needs of hard-working taxpayers and middle-class families," or pass a motion to move the measure to a conference committee to accomplish the same goal.

Cantor said the House opposed the Senate bill "because -- to put it simply -- we owe the middle class, employers and doctors better than a two-month extension."

Boehner's decision to back away from a deal on the payroll-tax cut was similar to his actions during debt-reduction talks with Obama in July. After it appeared that both sides had agreed to a deal that would cut spending but raise taxes on the wealthy, Boehner pulled out of talks when it became clear that the more conservative members of his rank and file would not agree to the tax increase.

"We are witnessing a pattern of Speaker Boehner walking away from bipartisan compromises to kowtow to his extreme Tea Party wing of his caucus," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said in a statement.

Police Arrest Man in Burning Death of Woman

With her shopping bags in hand, she pushed open the door. There stood a man she knew, Jerome Isaac. He set upon her immediately, the authorities said, armed with a tank of fuel and a barbecue lighter, wearing white gloves and a surgical mask. He was angry, he would tell the police on Sunday, because he believed she owed him about $2,000 for odd jobs.

But there was no way Ms. Gillespie, 73, could have been prepared for what happened.

Mr. Isaac, 47, methodically set the woman aflame, burning her alive in the elevator of her building in Brooklyn on Saturday, only a few feet from her apartment door, the police said. He sprayed the flammable liquid in the woman’s face and over her cowering body, and then lighted a Molotov cocktail to ignite the fire.

Within minutes, Ms. Gillespie was burning to death in the narrow cab, and her assailant had fled down the stairs. The attack lasted only a few minutes, all of it captured by surveillance cameras; the sheer, calculated brutality stunned even the most hardened of homicide detectives.

Several hours later, Mr. Isaac, “reeking of gasoline,” turned himself in Sunday morning at a transit police station, and by the afternoon, the police said, he had confessed to the attack. He faces charges of first-degree and second-degree murder and arson.

Ms. Gillespie and Mr. Isaac lived less than two blocks apart in the Prospect Heights neighborhood. She had a reputation for trying to help people who were down on their luck. She gave food and shelter to the homeless and welcomed strangers into her apartment, sometimes hiring them for small tasks and chores, according to friends and relatives. That was how she came to know Mr. Isaac, they said.

Mr. Isaac was less known to neighbors. Some described him as being intelligent, well dressed and well spoken. But Mr. Isaac was mostly known for his penchant for collecting cans and bottles in the neighborhood; he was called “the recyclist.”

He hails from a large family from Trinidad, with seven siblings, according to his sister Janet Isaac, who lives in Maryland.

Ms. Isaac had not heard about her brother’s arrest when contacted by a reporter on Sunday evening. “My Lord,” she exclaimed. She said that she had not been in touch with him lately and did not know how he supported himself.

To those who knew him, Mr. Isaac did not seem like a troublemaker; the police said he had no criminal record in New York.

Rickey Causey, a nephew of Ms. Gillespie’s who had been living with her since he arrived in June from Louisiana, where he said his home burned down, said that Mr. Isaac had posted a typewritten bill on her door for his work clearing clutter from her apartment months before. Total due: more than $300.

Despite Mr. Isaac’s insistence on the money, Mr. Causey said that his aunt had not feared Mr. Isaac. “She wasn’t scared of no one,” Mr. Causey said.

He said Ms. Gillespie, whose apartment was filled with items she had collected over the years, had caught Mr. Isaac stealing things, including a VCR and a cake pan. “He was taking the good stuff,” Mr. Causey said. So, he said, she dismissed him.

Whatever transpired between Ms. Gillespie and Mr. Isaac, the detached way in which he carried out the attack was extraordinary, according to police officials who watched the surveillance footage.

While Ms. Gillespie was out buying groceries, he rode the elevator to her floor and, outfitted like an amateur exterminator, waited for her to return, the police said. As soon as the elevator delivered her, Mr. Isaac was blocking her exit.

He sprayed her face with liquid from the hose that snaked around his torso. As she turned and shrank back into a corner of the narrow cab, he doused her with it. Then he went through with his plan: He lighted the fuse on the bottle bomb in his other hand and set Ms. Gillespie aflame. She dropped to the floor, engulfed and screaming.

But Mr. Isaac was not finished yet, the police said. To ensure that Ms. Gillespie did not survive, he tossed the long-necked bottle into the elevator with her. He sprayed more of the fuel on her. Only then did he run away.

Mr. Isaac told the police that he hid out on a rooftop near his apartment and fell asleep. After he woke and wandered the streets, he learned that he was wanted, so he went to a transit police station about two and a half miles from Ms. Gillespie’s apartment building.

Paul J. Browne, the chief spokesman for the New York Police Department, said that Mr. Isaac initially admitted to having set a fire, but later confessed to the immolation of Ms. Gillespie. They found some of the equipment he had used on the roof of 571 Lincoln Place, where he said he had hidden, Mr. Browne said.

He said that Mr. Isaac had also set a fire at his own apartment a few blocks away, at 315 Lincoln Place, on Saturday afternoon. Mr. Isaac suggested to the police that he may have suffered burn wounds to his face, hands and neck in that fire, which left the top and bottom of the door to Mr. Isaac’s second-floor apartment scorched and the hall smelling of gasoline.

A next-door neighbor, Eric Charles, 42, said Mr. Isaac had lived in the building for several years and often rode a bicycle around the neighborhood collecting cans and bottles. Mr. Charles said he was shocked when he learned his neighbor had been charged with murdering Ms. Gillespie.

“I would never think he was capable of that,” Mr. Charles said.

Vernon J. Geberth, a retired commander of the Bronx Homicide Task Force, said that the way Ms. Gillespie was killed was “extremely rare” and especially torturous.

“The worst way of dying is by fire, because every nerve ending is assaulted simultaneously in the most horrific way,” Mr. Geberth said. “You have someone with pent-up anger and rage that’s so intense they don’t only want to kill, they want to see the victim suffer.”

Egypt's revolution: no stability in sight

Entering Tahrir Square, a teenager holds up a steel gas bottle. He points towards soldiers moving against protesters across the square, mimes lighting then throwing his version of an IED.

'Boom,' he says laughing, before leading his crew of four, all wearing hardhats and one around 12 years old, into the melee.

Ten months after Egypt's revolution ended Hosni Mubarak's 30-year dictatorship, there is no sign of stable government arriving any time soon. After two days of pitch battles with the military in downtown Cairo, 10 protesters have been killed and over 300 injured.

Prior to the eruption of clashes on Friday, protesters had been 'occupying' the front of the Cabinet building, demanding the resignation of cabinet members appointed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Early on Friday morning, one protester climbed into the parliament grounds to retrieve a stray football. When he emerged bruised and beaten, the protesters outside were enraged, and began setting cars on fire in the street.

This relatively minor incident escalated quickly and dramatically, and by sunset on Friday, four people were dead, including the popular moderate Sheikh Emad Effat, who had joined the protesters.

On Saturday, as street warfare surged from Tahrir Square into the streets of downtown Cairo, thousands attended the sheik's funeral. At the cemetery, they chanted for the execution of SCAF leader Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.

Meanwhile in Tahrir Square, Tantawi's military was unleashing deadly force against a movement united primarily by demands for SCAF to transfer power to a civilian authority.

Not trained for crowd control, the soldiers appeared erratic, charging, hesitating, dispersing, regrouping then retreating before charging again. Protesters hurled rocks and pieces of concrete lifted from footpaths and soldiers hurled them back. Buildings around the square blazed, including the historic science ministry building where thousands of centuries-old documents perished. Running battles continued until 10.00pm; the army had by then erected a concrete wall near the cabinet building and retreated behind it and onto surrounding rooftops.

The death of the sheik, along with the killing and injuring of protesters - many shocking instances of which have appeared in graphic detail on Al Jazeera and YouTube - are a serious blow to SCAF, which had positioned itself as steward of the revolution since January 25.

From the beginning of the revolution, demonstrators were mostly targeted by the widely-hated police and security forces. In the eyes of most Egyptians, SCAF remained a neutral, securing influence. But in November, the SCAF's draft constitution was leaked, revealing its plan to place itself outside government authority. Such a flagrant attempt to maintain power ignited six days of intense conflict between police and demonstrators that left 45 dead.

Crucially, SCAF's attempt to entrench its own power ended the Muslim Brotherhood's tacit acceptance of the army's role as transitional authority. Last week, the Brotherhood withdrew representatives from SCAF's advisory council on the constitution. And now, the death of Sheikh Emad Effat at the hands of the army has brought the Brotherhood into open opposition with SCAF.

In a statement released on its website today, the Brotherhood called for an 'immediate apology by SCAF for the crimes committed on Friday Dec 16' and an investigation into the deaths. It also demanded confirmation that presidential elections would transfer power to civilian rule 'before the end of June 2012'.

The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) has already gained the lion's share of the first two rounds of voting and is expected to do at least as well in the third round, to be held in January. After two more days of violence and chaos, Muslim Brotherhood stands yet more secure as the most likely way to stability.

Almost a year into their revolution, Egyptians are suffering economically. The value of its pound is at a seven-year low and foreign reserves are down 44 per cent since January 25. Growth and foreign investment have all but stalled, and tourism is down by one third.

After the latest round of clashes, a concrete barrier now divides the army and the protesters. Such a clear-cut division is, however, illusory. Many protesters understand and sympathise with the soldiers' predicament; separating the average soldier from thugs from SCAF's powerbrokers is difficult. The army itself is riven over its role fighting a revolution they once defended.

Secular Egyptians are deeply frustrated that after so much sacrifice, their views will take second place behind a dominant Muslim Brotherhood, and fear what the more fundamental Salafi's will do with their significant share of the vote - around 15 per cent so far. Presidential elections don't occur until July 2012, and few would confidently predict their outcome.

As an older, more seasoned campaigner for change told me, 'That's democracy - if we don't like them, we can vote them out in four years, and if they won't go, well, now we know the way to Tahrir.'

Philippines mulls mass graves after typhoon kills hundreds

CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines, Dec 19 - Disaster agencies on Monday rushed to deliver body bags, food, water, and medicine to crowded evacuation centres in the southern Philippines as officials considered digging mass graves for hundreds killed in weekend flash floods.

The national disaster agency said 533 died and 309 remain missing, while the local Red Cross put the toll at 652 killed and more than 800 missing.

Casualties from the flashfloods exceeded the more than 450 people killed in 2009 when a tropical storm dumped heavy rains on the main Luzon island, inundating nearly the entire capital Manila.

Typhoon Washi slammed ashore in the Mindanao region of the Philippines while residents slept at the weekend, sending torrents of water and mud through riverside villages and sweeping houses out to sea.

In the aftermath, radio stations and local governments have been deluged by calls and appeals from survivors asking for help to bury the dead or find missing relatives.

"My suggestion is, so that illnesses won't spread, let's have mass graves," Benito Ramos, head of the national disaster agency, said in a radio interview. "This will be the discretion of local governments and the DOH (Department of Health)."

"From the helicopter, we saw four major river systems, all houses along the riverbanks were totally destroyed."

Josephine Dalangin, a resident of Cagayan de Oro, said she and three other residents, including a boy, survived by clinging on a tree trunk for 11 to 12 hours while floating in the sea before they were rescued by a passing boat.

"I did not feel hunger, I did not feel any thirst," Dalangin told a local radio station. "I just prayed to the Lord that the rains, winds and waves would stop."

The cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan, worst hit by the disaster, are running out of evacuations centres and coffins for the dead, with churches also converted into temporary evacuation.

Brigadier General Roland Amarille, head of an army task force in Iligan, said on Sunday soldiers had been mobilized to recover bodies and build coffins.

"We need body bags and lime to deal with too many cadavers," Amarille said, fearing an outbreak of disease.

"Local mortuaries are no longer accepting cadavers and they are even asking people to bury the dead at once because there are too many bodies even in hallways."

Mindanao island, the southernmost in the Philippines, is a mineral-rich region that also produces rice and corn but is not normally in the path of an average 20 typhoons that hit the Southeast Asian country each year.

AP photographer travels with the last US troops to leave Iraq, crossing the border into Kuwait

Under the cover of night, America’s war in Iraq ended. It was called a “Tactical Road March” and consisted of five separate movements, all aimed at getting America’s last soldiers out of Iraq safely. First a team left to clear the route of any roadside bombs. Then the troops left in four different groups. In all, the movement had about 110 vehicles and 500 troops.

The destination was Kuwait. When the roughly five-hour drive was over, it marked the end of America’s nearly nine-year war in Iraq.

550 Palestinian prisoners released

Israel has released hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in the second and final phase of a swap with Hamas militants that brought home an Israeli soldier after five years in captivity.

Under the Egypt-brokered deal, Israel agreed to exchange 1,027 prisoners for Sergeant Gilad Schalit, who was captured by Gaza militants in June 2006.

Sgt Schalit returned home in October when Israel freed the first batch of 477 prisoners. Sunday's release of 550 more completed the swap, the most lopsided in Israel's history.

The release on Sunday night was not infused with the same drama as the first phase, since the most significant players in the trade had already been freed.

The October 18 return of Sgt Schalit, who appeared pale and thin but otherwise healthy, was the first public sighting of him since his capture, and the plight of the young man had captured Israel's attention for years. He has mostly stayed out of the public eye since returning home.

The prisoners freed in the first round included dozens of militants serving life sentences for involvement in bus bombings and other deadly attacks on Israeli civilians that killed hundreds. Their release set off celebrations in the Palestinian territories, particularly Hamas's Gaza stronghold.

The release took place quietly under the cover of darkness, as most of the prisoners descended from buses and made their way into the West Bank and Gaza. In Gaza, hundreds of well-wishers greeted the freed prisoners by waving Palestinian flags and shooting guns in the air. "I am so glad that I am back, this is a real victory," said released prisoner Kamal Madheem, 40.

In Ramallah, large crowds greeted the prisoners with cheers. Relatives hugged their loved ones and waved Palestinian flags. Some called for militants to abduct more Israelis.

Under the terms of the deal, Israel chose the prisoners to be freed on Sunday. Prison officials said most were serving light sentences or near the end of their terms, and only 41 were returning to Gaza. More than 500 were sent to the West Bank, which is ruled by Hamas's rival, President Mahmoud Abbas, and most of them were believed to be linked to Mr Abbas's Fatah movement.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been frozen for three years, in part because of continued Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians claim both territories, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, as parts of a future state. On Sunday, Israel's housing ministry published advertisements seeking contractors to build 1,000 apartments in both areas. The apartments were approved long ago.

North Korea's longtime leader Kim Jong Il dead at 69

North Korea's longtime leader Kim Jong Il, the embodiment of the reclusive state where his cult of personality is deeply entrenched, has died, state TV reported.

He was believed to be 69.

Regarded as one of the world's most-repressive leaders, Kim Jong Il always cut a slightly bizarre figure. His diminutive stature and characteristically bouffant hair have been parodied by some in the West.

"He's a mysterious person -- I think by design," said Han S. Park, director of the Center for the Study of Global Issues at the University of Georgia and a frequent visitor to North Korea. "Mystery is a source of leverage and power. It's maintaining uncertainty."

But for the citizens of his Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Kim was the embodiment of the reclusive state, and well regarded.

The latest information on the death of Kim Jong Il

His father, Kim Il Sung, founded North Korea with Soviet backing after World War II.

Kim Jong Il was just a little boy when the Korean War broke out in 1950 when the Communist North invaded the American-backed South. After the fighting ended, Kim became steeped in his father's philosophy of "juche" or self-reliance -- the basis of North Korea's reclusive nature. North and South Korea never formally signed a peace treaty and remain technically at war -- separated by a tense demilitarized zone.

Gradually Kim Jong Il was groomed for the top position, making public appearances in front of cheering crowds.

In 1980, Kim Il Sung formally designated his son as his successor. Kim Jong Il was given senior posts in the Politburo, the Military Commission and the Party Secretariat. He took on the title "Dear Leader" and the government began spinning a personality cult around him patterned after that of his father, the "Great Leader."

In 1991, Kim Jong Il became commander-in-chief of North Korea's powerful armed forces, the final step in the long grooming process.

Three years later, when Kim Il Sung died suddenly from a heart attack at 82, most outsiders predicted the imminent collapse of North Korea. The nation had lost its venerated founding father.

Just a few years earlier, its powerful alliances had evaporated with the fall of the Soviet bloc and China's move toward a market-based system. The economy was on the rocks and energy and food were in short supply. A series of weather disasters, combined with an inefficient state-run agricultural system, further eroded the food supply, leading to mass starvation.

The timing could not have been worse for replacing the only leader North Korea had known.

"Heaven didn't smile on Kim Jong Il," said the University of Hawaii's Dae-sook Suh.

After his father's elaborate public funeral Kim Jong Il dropped out of sight, fueling rumors, but he soon managed to consolidate power.

Under his newly organized government, his father's presidential post was left vacant and Kim took the titles of general secretary of the Workers Party and chairman of the National Defense Commission -- a group of 10 men that includes the heads of the air force, army and navy, who are now considered the most powerful in the country.

"It's a peculiar government to say the least," Dae-sook Suh said. "He honors the legacy of his father, but the new government is a Kim Jong Il government. It's quite different from his father's."

Kim Il Sung's unique style of Stalinism, suffused with the Korean juche philosophy, was subordinated to the more militant theme of Kim Jong Il's "Red Banner" policy, introduced in 1996.

The changes afoot were dramatically illustrated in 1997 by the defection of Hwang Jang Yop -- the architect of the juche philosophy and the first high-level official to seek asylum in South Korea.

In a news conference after his defection, Hwang warned of a growing possibility that his homeland might launch an attack. "The preparation for war exceeds your imagination," he said.

Many outsiders viewed the flight of Hwang as another sign that the North Korean regime was on its last legs, but once again it weathered the storm, perhaps even benefiting from the fears of war heightened by Hwang's warning.

Despite sending a test missile over Japan in June 1999 and other such incidents, North Korea under Kim Jong Il also sent signals that it is open to new alliances after decades of isolation. Billions of dollars in international aid poured into North Korea during the 1990s, which did little in return.

Many analysts conclude that Kim Jong Il has played a poor hand of cards skillfully.

"I tend to disregard rumors that he's irrational, a man that nobody can do business with," said Alexander Mansourov, a longtime Korea scholar and a former Russian diplomat who was posted in Pyongyang in the late 1980s. "I believe that he is smart. He's pragmatic. And I think he can be ruthless. He's a man who will not loosen his grip in any way on the people around him."

His obsession for movies led to one of the strangest incidents associated with him: The 1978 kidnappings of South Korean actress Choi En-hui and her director husband Shin Sang-ok. The couple's account of their ordeal, given after they escaped North Korea in 1986, sounds like a B-movie script.

They said Kim Jong Il held Choi under house arrest and imprisoned Shin for four years for a failed escape attempt. Kim then forced them to work in the North Korean film industry, paying them handsomely while keeping them in the gilded cage of his artistic and social circles. Although the country was having problems paying its debts, Kim lived extravagantly and spent tens of millions of dollars on their film productions, according to Choi and Shin.

The couple told Washington Post reporter Don Oberdorfer that Kim was a "micro-manager" who made all the major decisions in North Korea because of his father's ailing condition. Shin described Kim as "very bright," but said that he had no sense of guilt about his misdeeds "due to his background and upbringing."

While the Dear Leader is said to have indulged his appetite for the finer things, his people were literally starving to death. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s hit North Korea hard when guaranteed trade deals with Moscow came to an end.

And then devastating floods compounded the famine. The North Korean regime admitted almost 250,000 people perished between 1995 and 1998, but some outside groups believe it was more like ten times that figure.

Nevertheless, an artifice of a successful state was maintained in the capital, Pyongyang, including an opulent subway -- proof that Kim would say reflected North Korea's progress under his and his father's leadership.

In 2000, there appeared to be a thaw in North-South relations leading to the first-ever summit meeting between Kim Jong Il and his then counterpart from the South President Kim Dae Jung. South Korea's so-called "sunshine policy" of engagement seemed to be bearing fruit.

But Kim Jong Il pressed ahead with his nuclear weapons program and then-U.S. President George W. Bush labeled North Korea as part of the "axis of evil" in his 2002 State of the Union address. A year later, North Korea withdrew from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

In 2006 the North conducted a nuclear test and test fired missiles adding extra urgency to the six-party talks designed to deal with North Korea's nuclear program.

A breakthrough came in 2007, when Kim Jong il finally agreed to disable the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon in return for fuel and better relations with the U.S.

But despite dramatically blowing up Yongbyon's cooling tower, North Korea seemed to backtrack afterwards and the deal appeared to be jeopardy. In August 2008, Pyongyang halted the disabling of the plutonium-producing plants in after a stalemate over verification measures.

Months later -- as Bush wrapped up his final term in office -- the U.S. government agreed to take North Korea off its list of countries that sponsor terrorism. The move was a turnaround from the Bush administration's previous refusal to drop North Korea from the list until Pyongyang agreed to set up an internationally recognizable mechanism to verify it was revealing all its nuclear secrets.

Analysts say it is easy for outsiders to demonize Kim Jong Il, a dictator who spent an estimated 25% or more of his country's gross national product on the military while many in his country went hungry.

But in North Korea, closed off from outside influences, fearful of threats from its neighbors, and subjected to decades of political socialization on top of a long tradition of a strict hierarchical system, Kim Jong Il is viewed positively by most people, said Han Park of the Center for Study of Global Issues.

"The level of reverence for Kim Jong Il in North Korea is quite underestimated by the outside," Park said. "He is regarded by many as not only a superior leader but a decent person, a man of high morality. Whether that's accurate is not important if you want to deal with North Korea. You have to understand their belief system. Perception is reality."

But to the outside world, Kim Jong Il will be remembered as one of the worst despots in history, according to Andre Lankov, an author on Korea's history.

"He will be remembered as a person who was responsible for awful things: for the existence of one of the worst dictatorships in not only Korean history but the world history at least in the 20th and 21st centuries," Lankov said.

"Yet he did not create this dictatorship -- it was his father's but he took responsibility, and he made sure it continued for many more years."

Barcelona thrash Santos 4-0 to win Club World Cup

YOKOHAMA (Japan): Lionel Messi grabbed a brace as a rampant Barcelona out-classed the Brazilians Santos 4-0 to lift the Club World Cup on Sunday and confirm their status as the best team on the planet.

The clash between the European and South American champions in Japan had been billed as a showdown between Messi, widely acknowledged as the best player in the world, and 19-year-old Brazilian sensation Neymar.

In the event, it was no contest -- either between the two supreme talents or their teams -- as Barcelona picked up their second world crown after winning the competition in 2009.

Messi, set up by Xavi, got the first after 17 minutes, before Xavi put Barcelona 2-0 up just seven minutes later to put them firmly in control, as prodigious forward Neymar struggled to get a sniff of the ball.

Cesc Fabregas, who pulled the strings in midfield, got the third on the stroke of half-time as the Spanish champions, who were at full-strength, threatened to run riot for the full house of 68,166.

Messi got his second eight minutes from time as he rounded the keeper to roll the ball in after the influential Dani Alves threaded the ball through to him.

Barca, who lost striker David Villa to a fractured shin in Thursday's semifinal, had the better of an open first 15 minutes, Messi forcing a save out of Rafael Cabral after skipping a couple of half-hearted Santos challenges.

Shortly after that the Argentine was at it again, taking a dinked pass from Xavi and lifting the ball delicately over Cabral from just a few yards out to put the Catalans into an early lead at the International Stadium in Yokohama.

It was all Barca, so it was no surprise when they went further ahead on 24 minutes, full-back Alves driving down the right wing and cutting inside to set up Xavi, who rifled the ball past a horribly exposed Cabral.

Television cameras quickly focused on a glum-looking Neymar.

Still Barca and Messi kept coming. On 26 minutes he was denied by a terrific last-gasp tackle when through on goal, and three minutes later Fabregas struck Cabral's near post after he was set up by Xavi.

But Fabregas and Barca would not be denied, as the former Arsenal man grabbed the third just before half-time after more good link-up play -- including an audacious back-heel -- from the irrepressible Messi.

Less than a minute after the restart they should have gone 4-0 up when Fabregas, set up by Messi, saw his prodded effort on the run saved by Cabral, then Neymar went up the other end and headed over when he should have scored.

Belatedly, the Brazilian side were up for it after their coach Muricy Ramalho had sent them out onto the frigid pitch well ahead of their opponents.

Neymar should have found the net when clean through on goal just before the hour, but Victor Valdes saved well with his legs. It summed up the teenager's night.

Earlier, Al Sadd, who lost 4-0 to Barcelona in the semi-finals, beat Japanese champions Kashiwa Reysol 5-3 on penalties to take third place at the annual intercontinental tournament.

Payroll tax-cut extension adds $17 a month to typical mortgage

WASHINGTON — Who is paying for the two-month extension of the payroll tax cut working its way through Congress? The cost is being dropped in the laps of most people who buy homes or refinance beginning next year.

The typical person who buys a $200,000 home or refinances that amount starting on Jan. 1 would have to pay roughly $17 more a month for their mortgage, thanks to a fee increase included in the payroll tax cut bill that the Senate passed Saturday. The White House said the fee increases would be phased in gradually.

The legislation provides a two-month extension of a payroll tax cut and long-term unemployment benefits that would otherwise expire on Jan. 1. It would also delay for two months a cut in Medicare reimbursements for doctors that is scheduled to take effect on New Year’s Day. The House is expected to act on the bill early next week. Two more months of the Social Security tax cut amounts to a savings of about $165 for a worker making $50,000 a year.

To cover its $33 billion price tag, the measure increases the fee that the government-backed mortgage giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, charge to insure home mortgages. That fee, which Senate aides said currently averages around 0.3 percentage point, would rise by 0.1 percentage point under the bill. The increase will also apply to people whose mortgages are backed by the Federal Housing Administration, which typically serves lower-income and first-time buyers.

The higher fee would not apply to people who currently have mortgages unless they refinance beginning next year.

Because of the weak housing market and the huge numbers of foreclosures in the last few years, private insurers have not competed strongly for business with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which have the backing of the federal government. As a result, about 9 in 10 new home mortgages are backed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the FHA.

President Barack Obama and many congressional Democrats and Republicans want to curb Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s dominance in the mortgage market. Obama earlier this year proposed raising the mortgage guarantee fees they charge as one way to do that.

Philippines floods death toll climbs to over 650

Rescuers are searching for more than 800 people missing in the southern Philippines on Sunday after flash floods and landslides swept houses into rivers and out to sea, killing more than 650 people in areas ill-prepared to cope with storms.

The cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan on Mindanao Island were worst hit when Typhoon Washi slammed ashore late on Friday and early on Saturday, sending torrents of water and mud through villages and stripping mountainsides bare.

The Philippine National Red Cross (PNRC) said 652 people were killed in eight provinces in the southern Mindanao region.

"Our office was swamped with hundreds of requests to help find their missing parents, children and relatives," Gwendolyn Pang, secretary-general of the PNRC, told reporters. "We're helping coordinate the search with local government, army, police and even other aid agencies."

Floods washed away entire houses with families inside in dozens of coastal villages around Cagayan de Oro and Iligan.

"This is the first time this has happened in our city," Vicente Emano, mayor of Cagayan de Oro, said in a radio interview. He said officials in the area did not receive adequate warning before the typhoon struck.

The state disaster agency said adequate warnings had been given to officials and residents three days before the typhoon made landfall on Friday.

Disaster and health officials were struggling to deal with the scores of bodies that have been recovered. Some were stacked one on top of each other in under-staffed mortuaries that were unable to cope with the numbers of dead.

"I saw for myself bloated bodies of women and children, not less than 100," Vice President Jejomar Binay told Philippines radio as he toured the worst-hit areas in Cagayan de Oro.

Binay distributed food packs and ordered the relocation of families living near waterways and other hazards.

Brigadier General Roland Amarille, head of an army task force in Iligan, said soldiers had been mobilised to recover bodies and build coffins.

"We need body bags and lime to deal with too many cadavers," Amarille said, fearing an outbreak of disease.

"Local mortuaries are no longer accepting cadavers and they are even asking people to bury the dead at once because there are too many bodies even in hallways," he said.

Most of the fatalities were from a slum area on an island sandwiched by two rivers in Iligan. "About 70% of the houses on the island were washed into the sea," Amarille said.

Mindanao Island, the southern-most in the Philippines, is a mineral-rich region that also produces rice and corn but is not normally in the path of an average 20 typhoons that hit the south-east Asian country each year.

"This poses challenges to us … We need to educate people with this kind of change in climate," Pang said. "The volume of rainfall for one month fell in just one day."

Typhoons normally strike the central Visayas region and the south and east of Luzon, the main island in the north.

Carmelita Pulosan, 42, said she and eight family members and neighbours survived by sitting on top of the tin roof of their house as it drifted miles into the open sea after floodwater swept through their village.

They were rescued by a cargo ship.

"There was a deafening sound followed by a rush of water. We found ourselves in the river and the current took us out to the sea," Pulosan, from Cagayan de Oro, told Reuters.

"The current was very strong. God is really good to us. He saved my family," she said. Only one three-storey building was left standing in their village, Pulosan said.

Red Cross official Pang said officials and residents did not expect such a huge volume of water cascading down mountains into river systems because the area was not in the typhoon belt.

She said Cagayan de Oro last experienced floods in 2009 but there was only minimal damage and no deaths.

Many people found their homes destroyed after returning to shattered villages, Pang said.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said the United States, a major ally of the Philippines, was ready to help. The Chinese embassy would donate $10,000 to help in the relief efforts, an embassy official said.

Washi, downgraded to a tropical storm with gusts of up to 80km per hour (50 miles per hour), was hovering about 60km (40 miles) west of the south-western city of Puerto Princesa and was expected to move out of Philippine waters late on Sunday.

U.S. pullout leaves Iraq fragile, divided

BAGHDAD - "Baghdad was built by al-Mansour and cherished by Saddam," was a slogan that adorned many buildings in the Iraqi capital before the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Nearly nine years later, as the last American troops leave, a new slogan has taken its place: "Baghdad was built by al-Mansour, humiliated by Saddam and destroyed by the Americans."

Washington pulled its last remaining troops out of Iraq on Sunday.

They are leaving a nation divided across sectarian and ethnic lines and still struggling with an insurgency and political uncertainty after sectarian slaughter drove the country to the brink of civil war in 2006-7.

Nowhere illustrates the splintering of Iraq better than Baghdad, the capital built in 762 A.D. by the Abbasid Caliph Abu Jaafar al-Mansour on the Tigris River and for some time the centre of the Muslim world.

One symbol of the division is the Grei'at Bridge, a steel footbridge built in 2008 to enable people to move between Shi'ite areas without having to go through the mainly Sunni Adhamiya district.

Thousands fled their homes during the worst of the sectarian strife, fearing they would be attacked in their own neighborhoods because of their faith. Many never went back.

"We sold our house in Adhamiya in 2006 during the war and came here," said Shi'ite Abu Hassan, standing on the bridge which carries pilgrims and daily visitors from Grei'at to the sacred Shi'ite shrine in Kadhimiya.

"There were so many problems back then, so we left and rented a house here. It is better here," he said.

Many directly accuse the U.S. invasion of stirring up sectarian divisions in a country where Saddam, from the minority Sunni sect, ruthlessly crushed any signs of Shi'ite dissent but minimized sectarian divisions in daily life.

"There were no Sunnis and Shi'ites before the Americans, there was no sectarianism," said Abu Issam as he crossed the bridge. "I am a Shi'ite and my two sons are married to Sunni women."


The identity of Iraq, once an influential political power and historically a thriving cultural hub in the Middle East, has changed through the years depending on who was in power, and these changes are reflected in Baghdad's urban landscape.

Under Saddam, statues and images of the ruler dotted almost every neighborhood and street.

After the invasion, Iraq's majority Shi'ites rose to political supremacy and stamped their mark on the capital. Saddam City is now Sadr City, and Saddam Bridge was renamed al-Hassaneen Bridge, after revered Shi'ite figures.

Green, black and red Shi'ite flags and banners depicting the Prophet Mohammad's grandson Imam Hussein, a Shi'ite hero, now fly high on buildings, a sight never allowed under Saddam.

Many Iraqis say they believed the U.S. invasion would bring them democracy and prosperity after years of war, economic sanctions and oppression by Saddam's security apparatus.

Many say they now feel betrayed.

The U.S. convoys, and the black-masked militiamen who five years ago controlled whole neighborhoods, have left the city's streets. But bombings and killings remain part of everyday life.

The city is often blanketed with dust and smoke, its buildings are crumbling and streets are littered with garbage. Blast walls and razor wire erected to protect buildings from bombings still cover the capital.

Iraqis worried about joblessness and insecurity must also contend with an acute water shortage and get only a few hours of electricity a day unless they have their own generators.

"They (Americans) brought us a corrupted government that does not reflect what the people want. They are leaving but they left chaos behind ... and the Iraqi people are the ones who suffer," said Abbas Jaber, a government employee.

Iraqis also fear meddling from their regional neighbors after the U.S. pullout. Sunnis fear the rising power of Shi'ite Iran as it grows closer to the government in Baghdad, and Shi'ites say they fear a Sunni coup pushed by Saudi Arabia, which has never come to terms with Shi'ite rule in Iraq.

From the mainly Shi'ite southern city of Basra through the Sunni stronghold Ramadi in the west to the northern, Kurdish city of Arbil, Iraqis appear to agree on one thing: they want the Americans out, but they are anxious about the timing.

"Yes we want the occupation out, but this is not the time for them to leave," said Mahdi, a government employee in Basra.

"The Americans will get out from here and everyone else will start coming in from elsewhere."

Three die in Egyptian protests

CAIRO: At least three people have been killed and 257 wounded as Egyptian protesters and security forces clashed in the worst violence in weeks, overshadowing the vote count in the latest round of a landmark general election.

State television reported that three people were killed on Friday in the clashes that continued through the night on a street that is home to government buildings and parliament.

The clashes, which raged since dawn, were the bloodiest since five days of protests in November killed more than 40 people just before the first general election since the ouster of the former president Hosni Mubarak in February.

One of the dead was Emad Effat, a senior cleric in the government-run Dar al-Ifta, the state's official interpreter of Islamic law, the institution said.

Footage posted on YouTube showed the bloodied cleric lying on the street before protesters carried him away.

The violence erupted at dawn after a protester said he had been arrested by soldiers and beaten up, infuriating his comrades who began throwing stones at the soldiers, witnesses said.

Protesters threw petrol bombs as clashes continued through morning.

The protesters objected to the military's appointment of a new caretaker prime minister, calling on the generals to transfer power to a civilian government.

Floods in Southern Philippines Leave Hundreds Dead

MANILA — Flash floods in the southern Philippines on Saturday sent water gushing into homes, killing more than 500 people and surprising families who fled to rooftops clutching children, officials said.

"The rivers flooded and washed through villages,” said Col. Leopoldo Galon, a military spokesman. “Soldiers conducting search-and-rescue operations are finding bodies in all areas, in homes, rivers, offshore, in the street. Casualties are everywhere.”

The flooding was set off by tropical storm Washi, which hit the southern Philippine island of Mindanao on Friday with winds of up to 56 miles per hour and heavy rain. By early Saturday, the storm had caused flooding in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan City, officials said.

The heavy rain sent water pouring down mountains and into already swollen rivers that quickly engulfed areas in the northern part of Mindanao. Fast-rising waters poured into homes after 2 a.m., when most people were sleeping, said Benito Ramos, a civil defense official, during a news briefing in Manila.

By Saturday night, the Philippine Red Cross had counted 521 bodies, including 239 in Cagayan de Oro and 195 in Iligan City, and said that 458 people were missing.

The storm is the 19th to hit the country this year, but Mr. Ramos said typhoons and tropical storms usually strike farther north; this one took a path that officials had never seen before. As a result, many residents were caught off guard by the water’s speed and ferocity. Local officials confirmed his assessment.

“This area is not on the usual path for violent typhoons and doesn’t get this type of severe flooding,” Colonel Galon said. “This storm took a different path, and it surprised people.”

He noted that soldiers in the area were preparing for Christmas celebrations with their families when they were called in for emergency operations that quickly turned into the grim and grisly task of collecting bodies. “We’re not complaining,” he said. “It’s our job.”

Residents in the area expressed similar sentiments, noting that Christmas trees had been erected in parks in Cagayan de Oro, a popular tourist town, and that residents had begun going to church nightly in preparation for the holidays.

“This Christmas is going to be imprinted in everybody’s memories,” Stephanie Caragos, 34, said. “We are seeing trucks pass by filled with dead bodies, and people are buying in bulk to give away to those who need it. This will be in our minds for a long time.”

Reached by telephone, Ms. Caragos, a lifelong resident of the city, said she had lost an uncle in the flooding and found that funeral parlors in the area were busy with many victims.

“We knew there was a storm coming, but we had no idea it would be this bad,” she said. “When we woke up, whole parts of the city were flooded. There were areas where the water was so strong that even the rescuers could not get it in.”

The storm was expected to leave the Philippines on Sunday, after striking the western island of Palawan, according to the national weather service.

The country was hit by tropical storm Banyan in October, which killed eight people. In September, two typhoons, Nesat and Nalgae, struck in quick succession and killed more than 100 people.

Last Convoy of American Troops Leaves Iraq, Marking an End to the War

BAGHDAD — The last convoy of American troops to leave Iraq drove into Kuwait on Sunday morning, marking the end of the nearly nine-year war.

Soldiers in armored vehicles left Contingency Operating Base Adder, near the southern city of Nasiriyah, as part of the last American military convoy to leave the country.

The convoy’s departure, which included about 110 vehicles and 500 soldiers, came three days after the American military folded its flag in a muted ceremony here to celebrate the end of its mission.

In darkness, the convoy snaked out of Contingency Operating Base Adder, near the southern city of Nasiriyah, around 2:30 a.m., and headed toward the border. The departure appeared to be the final moment of a drawn-out withdrawal that included weeks of ceremonies in Baghdad and around Iraq, and included visits by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, as well as a trip to Washington by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq.

As dawn approached on Sunday morning, the last trucks began to cross over the border into Kuwait at an outpost lit by floodlights and secured by barbed wire.

“I just can’t wait to call my wife and kids and let them know I am safe,” said Sgt. First Class Rodolfo Ruiz just before his armored vehicle crossed over the border. “I am really feeling it now.”

Shortly after crossing into Kuwait, Sergeant Ruiz told the men in his vehicle: “Hey guys, you made it.”

Then, he ordered the vehicles in his convoy not to flash their lights or honk their horns.

For security reasons, the last soldiers made no time for goodbyes to Iraqis with whom they had become acquainted. To keep details of the final trip secret from insurgents, interpreters for the last unit to leave the base called local tribal sheiks and government leaders on Saturday morning and conveyed that business would go on as usual, not letting on that all the Americans would soon be gone.

Many troops wondered how the Iraqis, whom they had worked closely with and trained over the past year, would react when they awoke on Sunday to find that the remaining American troops on the base had left without saying anything.

“The Iraqis are going to wake up in the morning and nobody will be there,” said a soldier who only identified himself as Specialist Joseph. He said he had immigrated to the United States from Iraq in 2009 and enlisted a year later, and refused to give his full name because he worried for his family’s safety.

Fearing that insurgents would try to attack the last Americans leaving the country, the military treated all convoys like combat missions.

As the armored vehicles drove through the desert, Marine, Navy and Army helicopters and planes flew overhead scanning the ground for insurgents and preparing to respond if the convoys were attacked.

Col. Douglas Crissman, one of the military’s top commanders in southern Iraq, said in an interview on Friday that he planned to be in a Blackhawk helicopter over the convoy with special communication equipment.

“It is a little bit weird,” he said, referring to how he had not told his counterparts in the Iraqi military when they were leaving. “But the professionals among them understand.”

Over the past year, Colonel Crissman and his troops spearheaded the military’s efforts to ensure the security of the long highway that passes through southern Iraq that a majority of convoys traveled on their way out of the country.

“Ninety-five percent of what we have done has been for everyone else,” Colonel Crissman said.

Across the highway, the military built relationships with 20 tribal sheiks, paying them to clear the highway of garbage, making it difficult for insurgents to hide roadside bombs in blown-out tires and trash.

Along with keeping the highway clean, the military hoped that the sheiks would help police the highway and provide intelligence on militants.

“I can’t possibly be all places at one time,” said Colonel Crissman in an interview in May. “There are real incentives for them to keep the highway safe. Those sheiks we have the best relationships with and have kept their highways clear and safe will be the most likely ones to get renewed for the remainder of the year.”

All American troops were legally obligated to leave the country by the end of the month, but President Obama, in announcing in October the end of the American military role here, promised that everyone would be home for the holidays.

The United States will continue to play a role in Iraq. The largest American embassy in the world is located here, and in the wake of the military departure it is doubling in size — from about 8,000 people to 16,000 people, most of them contractors. Under the authority of the ambassador will be less than 200 military personnel, to guard the embassy and oversee the sale of weapons to the Iraqi government.

History’s final judgment on the war, which claimed nearly 4,500 American lives and cost almost $1 trillion, may not be determined for decades. But it will be forever tainted by the early missteps and miscalculations, the faulty intelligence over Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs and his supposed links to terrorists, and a litany of American abuses, from the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal to a public shootout involving Blackwater mercenaries that left civilians dead — a sum of agonizing factors that diminished America’s standing in the Muslim world and its power to shape events around the globe.

When President George W. Bush announced the start of the war in 2003 in an address from the Oval Office, he proclaimed, “we will accept no outcome but victory.”

But the end appears neither victory, nor defeat, but a stalemate — one in which the optimists say violence has been reduced to a level that will allow the country to continue on its lurching path toward stability and democracy, and the pessimists say the American presence has been a bandage on a festering wound.

The war’s conclusion marks a political triumph for President Obama, who ran for office promising to bring the troops home, but is bittersweet for Iraqis who will now face on their own the unfinished legacy of a conflict that rid their country of a hated dictator but did little else to improve their lives.