IRAQ: END OF THE MISSION
-BIG PICTURE…The last American forces are packing, loading up, and boarding convoys south, for Kuwait and - ultimately - home. After eight and a half years and thousands of casualties, the mission winds down. A big week of related events begins today with President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki meeting at the White House to discuss the next phase; Wednesday Obama speaks about the war's end at Ft. Bragg; Thursday the U.S. effectively shuts down in headquarters in Baghdad; and later this month the last convoys cross the Kuwaiti frontier. The President thus fulfills both a campaign pledge - and a more recent they'll-be-home-for-the-holidays promise.
-BACK TO FALLUJAH…Martha RADDATZ and Richard COOLIDGE returned today to Fallujah - scene of so much carnage in the early years of the war. From Martha: "Down to 5500 troops here…Iraqis clearly in charge…today we went back to Fallujah - to the bridge where the blackwater guards were hung."
-U.S. + IRAQ…While Obama and al-Maliki have pledged to maintain strong ties, the contours of the partnership remain murky, especially with Iran eager to assert influence over neighboring Iraq. And serious questions remain about Iraq's capacity to stabilize both its politics and security. Monday's meeting between Obama and al-Maliki is expected to focus heavily on how the U.S. and Iraq will continue to cooperate on security issues without the presence of American troops. Iraqi leaders have said they want U.S. military training help for their security forces but have been unable to agree on what type of help they'd like or what protections they would be willing to give American trainers.
-IRAQI STUDENTS IN U.S….USA Today reports that the number of Iraqi students studying in the U.S. was up 45% for the 2010-11 school year. Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has earmarked $1 billion to be spent on education and will announce this week that it will fund scholarships for 2,500 students to attend U.S. universities in 2012.
EURO-CRISIS: NOT OUT OF THE WOODS
-BIG PICTURE…European governments and investors await a verdict on the accord hammered out Friday - from the one institution they believe can halt the euro zone's debt spiral: the European Central Bank. But most investors warn that the region's crisis is far from over. Asian stocks opened high, European stock markets skidded and analysts warn it will take months before the accord goes into effect.
-TRADERS ON EURO-TIME…The New York Times had an interesting look at how the Euromess has changed the behavior of the traders who once awoke at dawn - and are now rising in the dead of night to gain an edge when business begins in London, Paris and Frankfurt.
-ITALIAN STRIKE TODAY…Italy's main workers' union CGIL has called for a four-hour general strike today to protest the latest round of austerity measures announced by Prime Minister Mario Monti.
Alex MARQUARDT reports that Syria is holding local elections despite continuing violence between security forces and protesters. Roughly 43,000 candidates are vying for more than 17,500 seats in local councils. From MARQUARDT: "We saw posters of the candidates all over Damascus last week. But activists have called for a boycott, and Al Jazeera English reports that in restive Homs, Hama and Deraa, campaigning activities were almost nonexistent. Separately - a Free Syrian Army official tells CNN that the Homs opposition has been given until tonight to stop their protests, hand in weapons and surrender defectors or suffer a new assault. This follows a deadly weekend; fighting claimed 55 people Friday and Saturday, according to Agence France-Presse. Another 26 people were killed yesterday, Al Jazeera reported.
YEMEN: QAEDA ESCAPE
Yemeni officials say several al-Qaida militants have escaped from a prison in the southern port city of Aden. A prison officer says at least 10 convicts escaped on Monday morning through a tunnel dug by the inmates. A security official says 15 militants fled, including several convicted of killing security officials and a bank heist. In June, nearly 60 suspected al-Qaida militants tunneled their way out of a prison in the southern Mukalla city.
AFGHAN ATTACKS: THE GIRL IN THE PHOTO
The Telegraph profiles that schoolgirl photographed in hysterics with bodies lying at her feet moments after a bomber had killed more than 70 Shia worshippers outside a shrine last week. The 12-year-old, who graced the cover of the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, lost seven relatives and had another eight wounded as the attacker's suicide vest tore through the festival crowd.
-PRESIDENT VOWS VOTE FRAUD PROBE…Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced on his Facebook page that he has ordered a probe into the allegations of electoral fraud in the country's Dec. 4 parliamentary vote. Medvedev's post generated over 2,200 mostly angry comments within one hour. "Shame!" and "We don't believe you!" were the most common. Other Facebook users asked Medvedev whether he really disagrees with the protest's main slogan, "We're for fair elections." Some wrote that Medvedev's message made them even more determined to take part in the next planned rally against electoral fraud - on Dec. 24. Tens of thousands of Russians rallied in Moscow and other cities Saturday in the largest anti-government protest in the nation's post-Soviet history.
-NBA OWNER TO CHALLENGE PUTIN…Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov said he'll challenge Vladimir Putin in the March presidential elections. Mr Prokhorov is ranked by Forbes as Russia's third richest man with a fortune of around $18billion.
NORIEGA BACK HOME, BACK IN JAIL
As Molly HUNTER writes, "Do not pass Go, do not collect $200 and go straight to jail…" So it went for former Panamanian dictator, Manuel Noriega, who was extradited last night and today serves day one of his 20-year sentence. He is 77.
CHRISTMAS TREES (1): THIS YEAR, A MORE MODEST TREE
A year ago the Emirates Palace hotel Christmas tree entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the most expensive of all time as it dripped with $15 million worth of gold and gemstones. This year, the UAE's The National reports, they went for gold and silver foil ornaments, significantly lowering the price tag. The setup still required more than 48 workers.
CHRISTMAS TREETS (2): KOREA'S CHRISTMAS TREE WARS
The South Korean government is allowing Christians to light three Christmas tree shaped towers near the border with North Korea. It's the second year Seoul has allowed this to move forward (just one tree was lit last year), despite strong opposition from Pyongyang. A South Korean Defense Ministry official tells the AP, the move is meant to "guarantee freedom of expression and religion." Pyongyang says it amounts to psychological warfare, and would trigger "an unexpected consequence."
WILD ANIMALS (1): SCANDAL IN THE SNOW - FAKED POLAR BEARS?
Molly HUNTER again: On your wild animal beat this morning, the UK Mirror reports that BBC has faked an animal scene. And not just any animal scene - the BBC reportedly shot polar bears in a zoo and led viewers to believe the polar bears were in the wild. The network responded saying they never meant for viewers to think that all shots in their new documentary "Frozen Planet" were actually in the wild.
WILD ANIMALS (2): JAPAN'S WILD MONKEYS TRACK RADIATION
Fukushima University researchers are enlisting wild monkeys to help track radiation levels in the forest. The Japan Times reports, scientists are currently monitoring radiation levels from the air, but they've been looking for a way to get more accurate readings on the ground. A robotics professor at Fukushima says he's come up with the solution: small radiation meters and GPS transmitters attached to wild monkeys who already live in the forest. Researchers plan to track the data for a few months, then unclip the transmitters by remote control. They also say the meters will be helpful in tracking radiation levels of other wild animals.
LONGEST RADIO INTERVIEW - EVER…
Did you miss it? Joe SIMONETTI has you covered. An Australian radio presenter smashed the Guinness World Record for the longest ever one-on-one radio or television interview on Monday. Richard Glover who works for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Sydney interviewed author and journalist Peter FitzSimons for 24 hours. The pair started the interview at 10 a.m. on Sunday and finished the marathon chat at 10 a.m. Monday. They discussed a range of topics from FitzSimons' life experiences to his interest in history. Guinness World Record observers were on hand to supervise and ensure the two abided by strict rules, including that no questions be repeated, and that no other people be interviewed, local media reported. The rules did allow for short refreshment breaks, local media reported.