Karzai's U.S. visit a time for tough talk

The last time Presidents Obama and Karzai met was in May in Kabul, when they signed a pact regarding U.S. troop withdrawal.


  • Afghan President Karzai meeting with President Obama in Washington this week

  • Felbab-Brown: Afghan politics are corrupt; army not ready for 2014 troop pullout

  • She says Taliban, insurgents, splintered army, corrupt officials are all jockeying for power

  • U.S. needs to commit to helping Afghan security, she says, and insist corruption be wiped out

Editor's note: Vanda Felbab-Brown is a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. Her latest book is "Aspiration and Ambivalence: Strategies and Realities of Counterinsurgency and State-Building in Afghanistan."

(CNN) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai is meeting this week with President Obama in Washington amid increasing ambivalence in the United States about what to do about the war in Afghanistan.

Americans are tired of the war. Too much blood and treasure has been spent. The White House is grappling with troop numbers for 2013 and with the nature and scope of any U.S. mission after 2014. With the persisting corruption and poor governance of the Afghan government and Karzai's fear that the United States is preparing to abandon him, the relationship between Kabul and Washington has steadily deteriorated.

As the United States radically reduces its mission in Afghanistan, it will leave behind a stalled and perilous security situation and a likely severe economic downturn. Many Afghans expect a collapse into civil war, and few see their political system as legitimate.

Karzai and Obama face thorny issues such as the stalled negotiations with the Taliban. Recently, Kabul has persuaded Pakistan to release some Taliban prisoners to jump-start the negotiations, relegating the United States to the back seat. Much to the displeasure of the International Security Assistance Force, the Afghan government also plans to release several hundred Taliban-linked prisoners, although any real momentum in the negotiations is yet to take place.

Vanda Felbab-Brown

Vanda Felbab-Brown

Washington needs to be careful that negotiations are structured in a way that enhances Afghanistan's stability and is not merely a fig leaf for U.S. and NATO troop departure. Countering terrorism will be an important U.S. interest after 2014. The Taliban may have soured on al Qaeda, but fully breaking with the terror group is not in the Taliban's best interest. If negotiations give the insurgents de facto control of parts of the country, the Taliban will at best play it both ways: with the jihadists and with the United States.

Negotiations of a status-of-forces agreement after 2014 will also be on the table between Karzai and Obama. Immunity of U.S. soldiers from Afghan prosecution and control over detainees previously have been major sticking points, and any Afghan release of Taliban-linked prisoners will complicate that discussion.

Karzai has seemed determined to secure commitments from Washington to deliver military enablers until Afghan support forces have built up. The Afghan National Security Forces have improved but cannot function without international enablers -- in areas such as air support, medevac, intelligence and logistical assets and maintenance -- for several years to come. But Washington has signaled that it is contemplating very small troop levels after 2014, as low as 3,000. CNN reports that withdrawing all troops might even be considered.

Everyone is hedging their bets in light of the transition uncertainties and the real possibility of a major security meltdown after 2014. Afghan army commanders are leaking intelligence and weapons to insurgents; Afghan families are sending one son to join the army, one to the Taliban and one to the local warlord's militia.

Patronage networks pervade the Afghan forces, and a crucial question is whether they can avoid splintering along ethnic and patronage lines after 2014. If security forces do fall apart, the chances of Taliban control of large portions of the country and a civil war are much greater. Obama can use the summit to announce concrete measures -- such as providing enablers -- to demonstrate U.S. commitment to heading off a security meltdown. The United States and international security forces also need to strongly focus on countering the rifts within the Afghan army.

Assisting the Afghan army after 2014 is important. But even with better security, it is doubtful that Afghanistan can be stable without improvements in its government.

Afghanistan's political system is preoccupied with the 2014 elections. Corruption, serious crime, land theft and other usurpation of resources, nepotism, a lack of rule of law and exclusionary patronage networks afflict governance. Afghans crave accountability and justice and resent the current mafia-like rule. Whether the 2014 elections will usher in better leaders or trigger violent conflict is another huge question mark.

Emphasizing good governance, not sacrificing it to short-term military expediencies by embracing thuggish government officials, is as important as leaving Afghanistan in a measured and unrushed way -- one that doesn't jeopardize the fledgling institutional and security capacity that the country has managed to build up.

Karzai has been deaf and blind to the reality that reducing corruption, improving governance and allowing for a more pluralistic political system are essential for Afghanistan's stability. His visit provides an opportunity to deliver the message again -- and strongly.

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The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Vanda Felbab-Brown.

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1 dead, 1 wounded in Old Town shooting

One man was shot to death and another seriously wounded in the Old Town neighborhood this evening, among at least six people shot since this afternoon in the city, authorities said.

A man, age 31, was shot and a man, age 20, was shot in the back in an attack about 6:15 p.m. in the 1300 block of North Sedgwick Street. The Cook County medical examiner's office identified him as Tyshawn Blanton, of the 1300 block of North Halsted Street.

The 31-year-old was taken to Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center, where he was declared dead, said Chicago Police News Affairs Officer Daniel O'Brien, citing preliminary information. He was at least the second shooting victim to die today in Chicago.

The other victim was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in serious-to-critical condition, said Chicago Fire Department spokesman Chief Joe Roccasalva.

The shooting took place in front of a convenience store, police said.

Neighbors said one man was shot inside the store, the other outside. They reported hearing as many as 10 gunshots and later saw one man being taken away in a neck brace, the other being revived by paramedics.

Family members said the man who was killed grew up in the neighborhood and in the Cabrini-Green public housing complex nearby, and recently had a child. Before heading to the hospital, family members huddled in the street near the shop, crying.

The convenience store is a typical neighborhood shop, selling basic food and household items as well as cell phones. Uniformed officers and detectives were inside with store employees this evening as other officers canvassed the area.

Neighbors said they are angered by what they say seems to be an increase in crime in the area.

“You can’t even go to the store without getting shot and killed,” said Chante Morris, 30, who lives nearby.

Another shooting wounded a 21-year-old man about 90 minutes after the homicide. A 21-year-old was shot in the 600 block of East 51st Street about 7 p.m., Chicago Police News Affairs Officer Ron Gaines said. He was taken to John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital in fair condition with wounds to his right forearm and hip, Gaines said.

Earlier, two people were shot and seriously wounded, apparently in the parking lot of a small strip mall on the Southwest Side this afternoon, authorities said.

The shooting took place just after 4 p.m. near 65th Street and Western Avenue, said Chicago Police News Affairs Officer Daniel O'Brien. Photos from the scene showed police checking the pavement of a strip mall on the southwest corner of 65th and Western for shell casings following the shooting.

Two men were wounded in the shooting and both were in serious condition, said Chicago Fire Department spokesman Chief Joe Roccasalva. One was taken to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn for treatment, the other to John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital, he said.

On the scene, a 20-year-old man was shot in the leg was considered in serious condition, and the other man, age 19, shot in the leg, was considered in good condition, O'Brien said. The older of the two was taken to John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County and the younger to Advocate Christ Medical Center.

Another man, 24, was shot in the 13000 block of South Drexel Avenue in the Altgeld Gardens housing complex. Though police didn't find a crime scene where the man said he was shot, neighbors did report hearing gunfire. He drove to Roseland Hospital but was later transferred to Advocate Christ Medical Center in serious condition with a gunshot wound to the chest and three more to the left arm, police said.


Twitter: @ChicagoBreaking

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Exhausted Egyptians count cost of political turmoil

ZAGAZIG, Egypt (Reuters) - These days, craftsmen, shopkeepers and other inhabitants of the Egyptian Delta town of Zagazig are often too busy making ends meet to ponder why life seems to be getting harder every day.

But when, exhausted, they finally come home and sit down to their evening meal, conversations inevitably turn to growing hardship and the frightening prospect of cuts in food subsidies as the economy slides further into crisis.

With their patience already stretched after years of upheaval, Egyptians - from the capital Cairo to smaller towns like Zagazig - appear to be nearing the point where discontent could explode into a new wave of unrest.

"There is no security. There is nothing," said Soheir Abdel Moneim, a retired school teacher, as she hurried through an open-air market in Zagazig in search of vegetables she could afford.

"The pound is falling. Everything is more expensive. Is there anything that has not become more expensive?" she asked with a shrug, as traders on bicycles loaded with their wares dodged through the chaos of the market.

Nearby, a torn poster of President Mohamed Mursi beams from the wall of a crumbling brick house, with the words "Liars! Liars!" scrawled over his face.

The mood of growing nervousness is bad news for Mursi, who faces a parliamentary election in coming months, and a new round of political feuding that could pitch Egypt back into civil strife.

Egypt's economy, once strong and popular among investors, has been in tatters since the revolt of 2011 that ousted Hosni Mubarak and shook the country to its foundations.

Disagreements over a new national constitution late last year triggered violent protests, dealing another blow to the economy and eroding trust in Mursi's government.

A country where cuts in food subsidies have caused riots in the past now faces the risk of further upheaval as Mursi prepares to impose austerity measures in order to obtain a desperately needed $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

In Zagazig, people worry about the future.

Farouk Sarhan, the 74-year-old manager of a shop selling women's clothes, said sales were already down by almost 50 percent from just a few weeks ago.

"No one is selling or buying. I had more activity last year," he said, stubbing out a cigarette with a deep sigh in his tiny store lined with mannequins of veiled women.

"Customers are not buying as much as before because of the economic situation."

The price of fresh food often goes up in winter but shoppers in the Zagazig market said recent increases had been steep, with tomatoes and cauliflower about 50 percent dearer than at the start of the year.


Egypt has been on the ropes since investors and tourists fled after the revolt, when people rose up to demand their freedom and also an end to economic policies they said simply lined the pockets of the rich.

On the economic front, the picture remains grim, although Qatar's decision to lend Egypt another $2 billion has offered some respite.

Foreign reserves are dwindling and the pound has been hitting new lows daily. Food and raw materials from abroad have become more expensive, hurting businesses and families in a desert nation which relies on imports to feed itself.

As in other parts of Egypt, people in Zagazig see complex economic trends in terms of the daily hardships they must endure, and it is Mursi's government and his Muslim Brotherhood allies who get the blame.

"Mursi doesn't feel our grievances," said Emad, a man in his late 30s who sells traditional Egyptian clothes by the side of a dusty street. He said he had been forced to raise prices to cover rising costs, upsetting his customers.

Pointing to one of the black embroidered gowns, Emad said: "We used to sell this for 35 pounds ($5.40). Now it's 45 pounds. We didn't raise the prices. Traders did.

"Very few people are buying. I used to sell 50 pieces a day, and now I sell 15 or 20. Today I still haven't sold anything."

Reliable opinion polls are unavailable in Egypt and it is hard to gauge how widespread people's views are. But in Zagazig, most of those interviewed by Reuters echoed Emad's feelings.

Economists worry that continued turmoil could prompt people and businesses to convert their savings into dollars en masse - a risky process known as dollarisation which has caused trouble in many emerging market crises before.

But in Zagazig, people laughed at the idea, saying only the rich could afford to buy foreign currency. "Dollars?" asked Nabil, a local trader, as others burst into laughter. "Give me some dollars! Of course we don't have any!"


But some were prepared to give Mursi a chance.

In the nearby village of al-Adwa, where the future president grew up in the family of a local farmer, brick walls and fences were plastered with posters of Mursi.

A crowd of farmers standing by the side of a dirt track cutting through the village shook their fists and shouted "Mursi! Mursi!" when asked about their political views.

But even in Adwa, where Mursi appeared to enjoy rock-solid support, locals said sudden increase in taxes or abrupt cuts to fuel or food subsidies would cost him dearly.

"If that happens that would be the worst thing. What am I going to do as a farmer?" said Said Youssef, his hands black from working the land. "Where are we going to get the money?"

Another man, Aly Saber, 65, said fertilizer prices had gone up by 50 Egyptian pounds in the past year alone, making his business less profitable.

"Things are tough here in the rural areas," he said as others nodded in agreement. "Everything is becoming more expensive."

Mohamed Gamal, the 42-year-old owner of a tiny shop selling kitchen appliances, said business was so bad that he would sometimes go for days without a single customer.

"I import goods all the time. Prices have gone up by 10-40 percent since the revolution. It's gone up even more in recent weeks," said Gamal, who, Like Mursi, grew up in Adwa.

He said his neighbors were suspicious about why he had to keep raising his prices.

"People just don't believe me," he said, hunched over his desk, cigarette smoke swirling above stacks of unsold trays, cups and ironing boards. "They are not convinced why things are getting more expensive. I buy them, and they stack up."

($1 = 6.4809 Egyptian pounds)

(Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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Stock futures flat ahead of earnings season start

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stock index futures were little changed in low volume on Tuesday before the unofficial start of the earnings season, which is expected to show sluggish corporate growth.

Profits in the fourth quarter were expected to top the previous quarter's lackluster results, but analysts' current estimates are down sharply from where they were in October. Quarterly earnings are expected to grow by 2.8 percent, according to Thomson Reuters data.

German data showed industrial orders fell more than forecast in November due to a sharp drop in demand from abroad, reinforcing concerns that Europe's largest economy may have contracted in the fourth quarter of 2012.

"I'm surprised futures are holding up, given the relative disappointment that German data showed, but I think all eyes are on the beginning of earnings season," said Kim Forrest, senior equity research analyst at Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh.

Monsanto Co , Apollo Group and Dow component Alcoa Inc start the quarterly season.

Monsanto shares rose 3.2 percent to $99 after announcing first-quarter results and the company's outlook.

"Alcoa is not a huge bellwether," Forrest said. Investors are now focused more on companies' performance than on macroeconomic factors, so "we should be kind of flat until we get some company-oriented news," she said.

S&P 500 futures were off 0.8 point and slightly below fair value, a formula that evaluates pricing by taking into account interest rates, dividends and time to expiration on the contract. Dow Jones industrial average futures were unchanged, and Nasdaq 100 futures fell half a point.

Shares of Yum Brands Inc fell 5 percent to $64.50 in premarket trading a day after the KFC parent warned sales in China shrank more than expected in the fourth quarter.

Sears Holdings shares rose 5.5 percent to $45.27 in light premarket trading a day after the company said its chief executive will step down for family health reasons. The U.S. retailer also reported a 1.8 percent decline in quarter-to-date sales at stores open at least a year.

ConAgra Foods Inc priced a public offering of 8.1 million common shares at $29.75 per share, the foodmaker said on Monday. ConAgra closed at $30.17 during regular Monday trading.

(Reporting by Rodrigo Campos; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Kenneth Barry)

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'Bama bashes Notre Dame 42-14 in BCS title game

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — Barely taking time to celebrate their latest national championship, Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide are ready to get back to work.

That's how they make it look so easy.

In what must be an increasingly frustrating scene for the rest of college football, another season ended with Saban and his players frolicking in the middle of a confetti-strewn field. Eddie Lacy ran all over Notre Dame, AJ McCarron turned in another dazzling performance through the air, and the Tide defense shut down the Fighting Irish until it was no longer in doubt.

The result was a 42-14 blowout in the BCS title game Monday night, not only making Alabama a back-to-back champion, but a full-fledged dynasty with three crowns in four years.

This one was especially satisfying to Saban.

"People talk about how the most difficult thing is to win your first championship," he said. "Really, the most difficult one to win is the next one, because there's always a feeling of entitlement."

Rest assured, that feeling won't last long in Tuscaloosa.

While Saban insisted he was "happy as hell" and "has never been prouder of a group of young men," it was hard to tell. He was already talking about reporting to the office Wednesday morning and getting started on next season.

"One of these days, when I'm sitting on the side of the hill watching the stream go by, I'll probably figure it out even more," Saban said. "But what about next year's team? You've got to think about that, too."

So, in short order, he'll be talking with underclassmen about entering the NFL draft, making sure everyone goes back to class on schedule, and getting started on that next depth chart.

"The Process," as he calls it, never stops.

"We're going to enjoy it for 24 hours or so," Saban said.

No. 2 Alabama quieted the top-ranked Irish on the very first drive — so much for waking up the echoes — and could've started the celebration at halftime, heading to the locker room with a commanding 28-0 lead.

The Tide (13-1) pushed it out to 35-0 midway through the third quarter on the third of McCarron's four touchdown passes, a 34-yarder to Amari Cooper with a defender nowhere in sight.

At that point, Alabama was on a 69-0 blitz in national title games, having scored the last 13 points in its 2010 triumph over Texas and blanked LSU 21-0 for last year's BCS crown.

When Everett Golson finally scored for Notre Dame (12-1) with about 4 minutes remaining in the third, it snapped a scoreless stretch of nearly two full games — 108 minutes and 7 seconds — by the Tide.

"It was just a complete game by the offense, defense and special teams," said Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley, the defensive MVP with eight tackles, one of them behind the line.

Despite the dazzling numbers by McCarron — 20 of 28 for 264 yards — he was denied a second straight offensive MVP award in the title game. That went to Lacy, who finished with 140 yards rushing on 20 carries and scored two TDs. Not a bad finish for the junior, who surely helped his status in the NFL draft should he decide to turn pro.

Lacy also was MVP of the Southeastern Conference championship game, rushing for a career-best 181 yards in the thrilling victory over Georgia that gave Alabama a chance to repeat as champion.

The Tide will have some big holes to fill, no matter who decides to leave school early, with offensive tackle D.J. Fluker and cornerback Dee Milliner also pondering their draft prospects. There's not a lot of seniors on the roster, but All-America linemen Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack and safety Robert Lester are among those who definitely won't be back.

But Alabama had some huge holes to fill a year ago, too, with five players drafted in the first 35 picks.

That worked out just fine.

The Crimson Tide wrapped up its ninth Associated Press national title, breaking a tie with Notre Dame for the most by any school and gaining a measure of redemption for a bitter loss to the Irish almost four decades ago: the epic 1973 Sugar Bowl in which Ara Parseghian's team edged Bear Bryant's powerhouse 24-23.

"The process is ongoing," said Saban, tightlipped as ever and showing little emotion after the fourth BCS national title of his coaching career. "We have a 24-hour rule around here. We enjoy everything for 24 hours."

Notre Dame went from unranked in the preseason to the top spot in the rankings by the end of the regular season, winning two games in overtime and three other times by seven points or less.

But the long wait for a championship — the Irish haven't finished No. 1 since 1988 — will have to wait at least one more year.

"They just did what Alabama does," moaned Manti Te'o, Notre Dame's star linebacker and Heisman Trophy finalist, trying to digest an embarrassing loss in his final college game.

Golson will be back.

He completed his first season as the starter by going 21 of 36 for 270 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. But the young quarterback got no help from the running game, which was held to 32 yards — 170 below its season average.

"We've got to get physically stronger, continue close the gap there," said Brian Kelly, the Irish's third-year coach. "Just overall, we need to see what it looks like. Our guys clearly know what it looks like now — a championship football team. That's back-to-back national champions. That's what it looks like. That's what you measure yourself against there. It's pretty clear across the board what we have to do."

Kelly vowed this was only beginning, insisting the bar has been raised in South Bend no matter what the outcome.

"We made incredible strides to get to this point," he said. "Now it's pretty clear what we've got to do to get over the top."

Alabama is already there but still longing for more, not content even after the second-biggest rout of the BCS era that began in 1999. The only title game that was more of a blowout was USC's 55-19 victory over Oklahoma in the 2005 Orange Bowl, a title that was later vacated because of NCAA violations.

You could almost hear television sets around the country flipping to other channels as Alabama poured it on, a hugely anticipated matchup between two of the nation's most storied programs reduced to a laugher when the Tide scored on its first three possessions.

"We're going for it next year again," said offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandijo, only a sophomore and already the owner of two rings. "And again. And again. And again. I love to win. That's why I came here."


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Owners say ferrets are pets, officials say pest

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The difference between owning a ferret in Hawaii and one in Pennsylvania can be up to three years in jail — and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

That’s the penalty for ferret fans in the Aloha State, where the 3-pound members of the weasel and polecat family are banned amid concerns of the animals escaping and wreaking havoc on the islands’ delicate ecosystems. Similar fears are behind a decades-old ban in California, which has one of the nation’s most diverse ecosystems.

“The concern is that if these animals were released, like other non-native species have been, they would adapt and thrive and out-compete native species for food, and prey on native species,” said Adrianna Shea, deputy director of California’s Fish and Game Commission.

States have had problems with feral animals in nonnative environments, creating problems for native species by eating them or ravaging their food supply. Feral cats, for example, have decimated bird populations. In Hawaii, the introduction of the mongoose to combat a rat problem “was a very poor idea. Rats are nocturnal and mongooses are diurnal. They only saw each other for a short period between dusk and dawn,” said Minami Keevin, a land vertebrate specialist with the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.

But ferret fans argue that the foot-long domesticated creatures make excellent pets and shouldn’t be regulated by wildlife agencies.

“Ferrets are really wonderful animals for those of us who are so inclined. They are messy, and they’re expensive, and they’re demanding, but they are full of personality, full of love and full of joy,” said Pat Wright, who lives in La Mesa, near San Diego, and has been fighting California’s ban for nearly 20 years.

Keeping a ferret as a pet takes more time, care and money than owning a dog or cat. The American Veterinary Medical Association in Schaumburg, Ill., which recently posted a YouTube video on pet ferrets, noted that they need to be caged most of the time, require hours of exercise and emit a musky odor that many people find unpleasant. Large cages are expensive, but on the other hand, ferrets don’t require as much medical or dental care as cats or dogs.

“They are wonderful little clowns that not only steal your heart but they will steal anything they deem is theirs. This includes your shoes, socks, pens, pencils, hairbrushes, potatoes, car keys, wallets and clothing. I had two ferrets that tried to take my notebook computer to what is called their hidey-hole,” said AmyJo Casner of Harrisville, Pa., who legally owns ferrets Manny, Marcuz, and Marylin.

Their antics are better than antidepressants, said Casner, whose pets inspired her to start a ferret clothing line that she sells online.

A count of ferret owners across the U.S. was unavailable, but the American Pet Products Association said that in 1992, 2 percent of people who owned a small animal like a mouse, rat, ferret, gerbil, rabbit, hamster or guinea pig said they had a ferret. In 2000, 10 percent of small-animal owners said they had a ferret, and 7 percent in 2010 had them. That’s despite bans in the two states, plus a number of large cities including New York, and U.S. military bases.

In California, where having a ferret can net a $ 500 fine or six months in jail, Wright estimated between 50,000 and 500,000 pet ferrets live a clandestine existence. His guess is based on ferret-supply sales and a 5,000-member mailing list for his ferret legalization cause.

Shea, who said Fish and Game has never tried to verify those numbers, said California doesn’t have enough game wardens to chase violators, so the ban is not strictly enforced. Billboards close to the borders of Arizona and Nevada point motorists in the direction of ferret sellers. And most pet stores in California carry ferret food and supplies.

But the issue is taken seriously in Hawaii, where every report of a ferret is checked. One captured last year in Hilo was turned over to the Hawaii Island Humane Society, flown to Honolulu and quarantined until it could be shipped out of state. The penalty for importing, selling or possessing a ferret in Hawaii is a fine up to $ 200,000 and as many as three years in jail.

Dr. Valarie Tynes, a veterinarian with the AVMA, said breeders who spay and neuter ferrets before selling them could allay states’ concerns that the animals could escape and procreate.

“I think there have been concerns by some that if ferrets got loose, they might thrive in the wild in the United States and possibly be damaging to native populations,” she said. “I think it’s interesting, as long as they’ve been pets, I’ve never heard of any place that’s happened.”

California’s 80-year-old ban can be changed by commission vote or legislation, and there have been six attempts at a bill since 1994. A 2004 proposal came closest when it reached the desk of the governor — Arnold Schwarzenegger, who appeared with a ferret in “Kindergarten Cop.” He vetoed it.

Wright is looking for another lawmaker willing to sponsor a new round of legislation, but conceded that task alone was difficult. With legislators facing issues like the budget, gun control and health care, he noted, anyone who goes to bat for ferrets will probably be mocked.




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Why Al Jazeera deal doesn't seem right


  • Al Gore sold Current to al Jazeera and could net an estimated $70 million

  • Howard Kurtz: Gore's Current network failed to gain an identity or viewers

  • He says it's odd that the former vice president is selling to an oil-rich potentate

  • Kurtz: Al Jazeera may have a tough time getting traction with U.S. viewers

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and is Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.

(CNN) -- So Al Gore starts a liberal cable network, which turns into a complete and utter flop, then sells it to a Middle East potentate in a deal that will bring him an estimated $70 million.

Is America a great country or what?

There is something highly unusual -- OK, just plain weird -- about a former vice president of the United States doing this deal with the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

Howard Kurtz

Howard Kurtz

Al Jazeera, owned by said emir's government, is trying to buy its way into the American television market by purchasing Current TV for a half billion dollars. The only thing stranger would be if Gore had sold Current to Glenn Beck -- oh wait, Beck did try to buy it and was told no way within 15 minutes.

So the sale was in part about ideology, which opens the door to examining why Gore believes Al Jazeera gives "voice to those who are not typically heard" and speaks "truth to power."

Bill O'Reilly, on Fox News, calls the network "anti-American." Fox pundit Dick Morris says Gore has sold to a fount of "anti-Israel propaganda." Such labels are rooted in the network's role during the height of the war on terror, when it aired smuggled videos of Osama bin Laden and was denounced by Bush administration officials.

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But Al Jazeera English, the spinoff channel launched in 2006, doesn't have the same reputation. In fact, no less a figure than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has praised it as "real news," and the channel has won journalism awards for its reporting on the Arab Spring and other global events.

To be sure, the main Al Jazeera network gives a platform to such figures as Yusuf al-Qaradawi. He's the Muslim cleric in Egypt who, The Washington Post gas reported, frequently appears on air to castigate Jews and America and has praised suicide bombings. But when I went to the home page of Al Jazeera English the other day, there was video of David Frost, the acclaimed British journalist who now works for the main network, interviewing Israeli President Shimon Peres.

That's not to say Al Jazeera America, the working name for the new channel, won't have its own biases. Al Jazeera English is sometimes determined to paint the U.S. in a negative light.

During a report on President Barack Obama signing a renewal of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which entails a legitimate controversy over civil liberties, the reporter said flatly that the law "violate(s) U.S. constitutional rights in the name of national security."

Watch: Can Al Jazeera make it in the American market?

Dave Marash, the ABC News veteran who once worked for Al Jazeera English, told me the network has a "post-colonial" view of America and its stories can be infused with that attitude.

And there are real questions about how independent these channels are from the Qatar government that helps bankroll them. The director-general of Al Jazeera, Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim al-Thani, is a member of the country's royal family and has no background in journalism.

Such details add to the odd spectacle of the ex-veep, who would have been running Mideast policy had he won a few more votes in Florida, selling -- and some say selling out -- to the emir. Not to mention that the crusader against climate change is taking petrodollars from an empire built on oil, the bete noire of environmentalists.

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But what is Al Jazeera buying? The network is going to have a tough time cracking the American market.

Its earlier reputation makes the company highly controversial, and other cable carriers might follow the lead of Time Warner Cable (which is no longer owned by CNN's parent company, Time Warner) in refusing to carry it. These carriers agreed to air Current TV, after all, and contracts generally require them to approve a major change in programming.

Global politics aside, it may just be bad business. There's a reason Al Jazeera English, which will supply 40% of the content to the new channel, has barely gotten a foothold in the United States. Most Americans aren't lusting for a steady diet of international news.

Watch: Did Nancy Pelosi go too far in photoshopping picture of congresswomen?

There's no denying that Gore, a onetime newspaper reporter who had testy relations with the press during his 2000 campaign, presided over a lousy cable channel. No one quite knew what Current was during the years when it aired mostly low-rent entertainment fare and was famous mainly for North Korea taking two of its correspondents, including Lisa Ling's sister Laura, into custody.

Then Gore tried to relaunch it as a talking head channel to the left of MSNBC, hiring Keith Olbermann -- a relationship that ended with his firing and mutual lawsuits -- along with the likes of Eliot Spitzer and Jennifer Granholm, former Michigan governor. Gore himself offered commentary during major political events.

It was the utter failure of that incarnation of Current that prompted Gore and co-founder Joel Hyatt to put the thing up for sale.

Some detractors have slammed Gore for hypocrisy because, while he has advocated higher taxes on the rich, he tried to get the Al Jazeera deal done by December 31 to avoid the Obama tax hike. (The sale didn't close until January 2.) I don't see a problem trying to legally take advantage of changes in the tax code, no matter what your political stance.

Nor do I want to prejudge Al Jazeera America. The marketplace will decide its fate.

But there is something unsettling about Gore making off with such a big payday from a government-subsidized channel after making such bad television. Nice work if you can get it.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

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8 wounded in South, Southwest side shootings

A 24-year-old man was killed this morning on the West Side following a night in which at least 8 others were shot on the South and Southwest since Monday evening, according to police.

In the latest attack, a 24-year-old man was shot multiple times about 6:10 a.m. in the 4000 block of West Wilcox Street, Chicago Police News Affairs Officer Laura Kubiak said.

The man was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital, where was pronounced dead shortly after.

No further details were immediately available about the shooting, which happened in the West Garfield Park neighborhood.

Earlier, a 24-year-old man was shot about 4:20 a.m. this morning in the Brighton Park neighborhood, police said.

Shots rang out as the man was standing on the sidewalk in the 4600 block of South California Avenue, striking the man in the bicep and lower back, Chicago Police News Affairs Officer Hector Alfaro said.

The man managed to drive 15 blocks to the 3100 block of South California, where he was found by first responders. Paramedics transported the man to Mount Sinai Hospital, where his condition was stabilized.

About 2:30 a.m. in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, a 24-year-old man was shot in both thighs while walking in an alley, authorities said.

The shooting happened in the 900 block of West 53rd Street, Alfaro said. The man was taken to John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital of Cook County, where his condition was stabilized.

About 9:50 p.m., a 17-year-old boy was shot multiple times near the intersection of 30th Street and South Tripp Avenue in the Little Village neighborhood, police said.

Two males exited a black SUV and approached the teenager as he walked down the sidewalk, shooting him multiple times, Alfaro said.

The teen was taken to Stroger, where he was listed in critical condition, Alfaro said.

Police officers found a vehicle matching the description of the suspects' SUV, and after a brief pursuit, the SUV struck a light pole in the 3900 block of West Cermak Road, Alfaro said.

Three occupants were taken into custody and were regarded as possible suspects. No injuries were reported.

Police described the shooting as gang-related, a description shared by a close family friend of the teenager, who asked to remain anonymous when interviewed near the crime scene.

About 8:30 p.m., two men and a woman were shot in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood. Two men emerged from a gangway in the 6200 block of South Rockwell Street and fired shots into a parked vehicle where the three people were sitting, Alfaro said.

A 19-year-old woman was struck in the chest was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital, Alfaro said. A 22-year-old man struck in the thigh and 23-year-old man shot in the chest and buttocks were both taken to Holy Cross Hospital, Alfaro said.

The conditions of all three were stabilized, Alfaro said.

About 7:45 p,m., a 31-year-old man was shot in Marquette Park neighborhood, Chicago Police News Affairs Officer Joshua Purkiss said. The man suffered a gunshot wound to the leg and his condition was stabilized on the scene, said Purkiss.

About 6:30 p.m. in the Washington Park neighborhood, another 31-year-old man was shot in the left arm in the 6000 block of South Indiana Avenue, Purkiss said. His condition was stabilized on the scene, said Purkiss.

Purkiss had no hospital information or information on circumstances in the Marquette Park and Washington Park shootings. Fire Department officials did not respond to attempts to contact them.



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Japan PM orders stronger surveillance near disputed isles

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ordered his defense minister on Tuesday to strengthen surveillance around islands at the heart of a territorial feud with China, Kyodo news agency reported.

Deputy Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki summoned the Chinese ambassador earlier in the day to protest against an "incursion" by four Chinese maritime surveillance ships near the islands, officials said.

"I want you to respond firmly," Kyodo quoted Abe as telling Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera.

The ships entered the area around noon on Monday and left in the early hours of Tuesday, the officials said.

China's State Oceanic Administration confirmed four Chinese marine surveillance ships were patrolling waters near the islands.

But China routinely maintains such ships are in Chinese waters and a Chinese official accused Japan of intrusion.

"Japan has continued to ignore our warnings that their vessels and aircraft have infringed our sovereignty," the Communist Party chief of China's marine surveillance corps, Sun Shuxian, said in an interview posted on the Oceanic Administration's website.

"This behavior may result in the further escalation of the situation at sea and has prompted China to pay great attention and vigilance," Sun was quoted as saying.

Sino-Japanese ties chilled after the Japanese government bought the disputed islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, from a private Japanese owner last September.

Japan's Defence Ministry has scrambled F-15 fighter jets several times in recent weeks to intercept Chinese marine surveillance planes approaching the islands.

The hawkish Abe, whose conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) returned to power in a landslide election victory last month, has vowed a tough stance in the territorial feud.

(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka, Hitoshi Ishida and Linda Sieg; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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Stock futures slip after stocks hit five-year high

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stock index futures fell on Monday, with markets expected to consolidate after the S&P 500 index closed at a five-year high on Friday.

Last week was the best for U.S. stocks in more than a year as a budget deal and economic data boosted investor confidence.

Financial shares will be in focus a day after global regulators gave banks four more years and greater flexibility to build up cash buffers, scaling back moves that aimed to help prevent another financial crisis.

By spurring credit, the easing of the bank rule may help support growth, boosting investments in equities and other risk assets.

S&P 500 futures dipped 1.3 points and were below fair value, a formula that evaluates pricing by taking into account interest rates, dividends and time to expiration on the contract. Dow Jones industrial average futures fell 13 points, and Nasdaq 100 futures added 1 point.

Walt Disney Co started an internal cost cutting review several weeks ago that may include layoffs at its studio and other units, three people with knowledge of the effort told Reuters.

Video-streaming service Netflix Inc said it will carry previous seasons of some popular shows produced by Time Warner's Warner Bros Television.

Major U.S. technology companies could miss estimates for fourth-quarter earnings as budget worries likely led some corporate clients to tighten their belts last month.

Amazon shares rose 2.3 percent in premarket trading after Morgan Stanley raised is rating on the stock to "overweight" from "equal weight."

(Reporting by Rodrigo Campos; Editing by Kenneth Barry)

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