IRAQ WAR: FINAL DAYS
-PRESIDENT ON THE WAR'S END…President Obama and the First Lady will be in Fort Bragg today to deliver remarks to troops about the end of the Iraq war. The President will speak about the enormous sacrifices and achievements of American servicemen and women and the significance of this milestone.
-THE LONG ROAD HOME…Martha RADDATZ profiles a trio of staff sergeants - who between them have served 11 tours in Iraq - as they finish a long trek from Southern Iraq to Kuwait and - this afternoon - to Fort Hood, Texas. These three are like so many thousands of Iraq vets - they have seen the war through its highest and lowest moments - and all are now making some variation of this long trek home. One of the men has missed the first steps and first steps of each of his three children. Bruno ROEBER first found these three last month - Martha and Richard COOLIDGE picked up the story - and Gina SUNSERI is with their families ("anxiously awaiting" doesn't do it justice) at Fort Hood today.
-LAST COMBAT UNIT…From Nick SCHIFRIN: "We're about to start patrolling with the last combat unit in Baghdad on one of its final missions. They will sweep through neighborhoods that have been used to fire rockets into the Green Zone and what used to be Camp Victory with the Iraqi police. These men haven't taken direct fire since they arrived in May, so they're not expecting much contact. But after almost 9 years of war, it's a bittersweet moment: following these final patrols, the Iraqi security forces in Baghdad will be completely on their own. The young American men in this platoon are each down to one bag of belongings and they will all be home by Christmas."
-CHEAPER TO LEAVE GEAR BEHIND…RADDATZ and Luis MARTINEZ also report that Americans are leaving behind hundreds if not thousands of pieces of U.S. property for the Iraqi government: housing trailers, flat-screen TVs, desks and chairs. It's apparently far cheaper to leave all that behind than to cart it home. A spokesman for American forces in Iraq tells NPR the military has saved approximately $700 million in unnecessary shipping costs by keepin all that equipment in Iraq.
AFGHAN WAR: PANETTA'S WARNING
From Luis MARTINEZ: ?Defense Secretary Panetta traveled to a U.S. army base in eastern Afghanistan today and told soldiers there that the U.S. is winning in Afghanistan though "you're damn right there are challenges". The pool producer traveling with Panetta says he visited FOB Sharana in Paktika Province which is about 35 mile from Pakistan. He took questions from about 200 soldiers gathered to hear him. Said Panetta: If Afghanistan is to be secured "the Pakistanis better damn well secure their country, as well."
-BLOGGER CHARGED…From Alex MARQUARDT: An American-born blogger arrested last week while trying to cross into Jordan has been charged with inciting sectarian strife, spreading false information and weakening national sentiment. Razan Ghazzawi documented human rights abuses, and was on her way to a conference on press freedoms. She faces 15 years in prison.
-KEY DEFECTION?…A video has been released that shows a man called Brig. Gen. Ahmad Muhammed Al-Shaikkah defecting alongside other officers. MARQUARDT: It hasn't gotten much attention, we don't know who he is or how powerful he is, but if true it's the highest-level military defection yet just by rank.
-THE FIGHTING… Roughly 30 people were killed yesterday, activists say, most in the north near Turkey. This is a good clip of a protester/militant/defector firing an RPG at a Syrian tank.
OTHER ARAB SPRING…
-EGYPT BEGINS SECOND ROUND OF ELECTIONS… Egypt holds the second round (of three) of its first elections since the ousting of former President Hosni Mubarak. The first round earlier this month was dominated by Islamist parties, with the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party winning 36.6% of vote.
-GADHAFI'S SPY NETWORK…Interesting read in the WSJournal on just how intricate and sweeping Moammar Gadhafi's spy network was. "In August 2010, Libyan journalist Khaled Mehiri shot an email to his editor at al-Jazeera proposing an article about the hollow nature of the Gadhafi regime's anticorruption efforts. Before the story was even written, the regime knew about it. Libyan security agents had intercepted the email, using an Internet-surveillance system purchased from a French company, Amesys. For months, the agents monitored the journalist's emails and Facebook messages via the Amesys tools, printing out messages and storing them in a file that The Wall Street Journal recovered in an abandoned electronic-surveillance headquarters in Tripoli…"
BELGIUM ATTACK UPDATE
The body of a woman has been found in the garage of a grenade-lobbing gunman who killed four people and injured 122 in that attack in the city of Liege, officials said Wednesday. The top Liege Prosecutor said the body of a woman in her forties had been discovered during a search of Nordine Amrani's property, adding that the attacker died in Tuesday's attack in an apparent suicide, and was found with a number of grenades still on him.
CONJOINED TWINS SEPARATED, AS A NATION WATCHES
As Josh ELLIOT and Molly HUNTER reported this morning, hospital officials say doctors have separated conjoined twin girls after a marathon 18-hour surgery that Chileans followed on television and the Internet. The10-month-old twins are said to be in stable condition - as teams of doctors work on them individually after they were separated. Their mother said she had prayed for a miracle for her twins - and believes those prayers have been answered.
CHINA: REBELLION IN A VILLAGE
From Karson YIU in Beijing: Chinese police have reportedly placed the southern Chinese fishing village of Wukan under siege for staging an open rebellion against the local communist party. All the local Chinese Communist Party cadres and the police force have fled and the 20,000 residents of Wukan have essentially taken over control of their own village. Wukan residents are furious at their local officials for selling their land to real estate developers without their consent. Late last week the police reportedly started the blocking roads leading to Wukan in an attempt to end a nearly three month standoff between the villagers and the local government. A Daily Telegraph reporter managed to sneak past the police checkpoint and reported that the village only has about 10 days worth of food left. The police have cut off all supplies going in and out of Wukan. The tensions began back in September when villagers became fed up over their local government's role in the land grab. Hundreds of villagers stormed the communist party offices smashing windows, flipping vehicle and clashing with riot police. It should be noted that these protests are mainly directed at the local Communist Party and not the central government. Some of the villagers the Daily Telegraph spoke to even appealed to Beijing for help to resolve the situation.
RUSSIAN UNREST: EDITOR FIRED
After the Russian broadcast media was heralded for its progressive coverage last weekend - the Wall Street Journal reports today that a billionaire Russian media owner fired an editor whose magazine printed photographs of defaced election ballots and political graffiti with obscene remarks about Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Moral of the story: Kremlin-friendly tycoons still control much of the Russian media.
GOOGLE TO FIGHT GLOBAL SLAVERY
Google announced Wednesday it is donating $11.5 million to several coalitions fighting to end the modern-day slavery of some 27 million people around the world. In what is believed to be the largest ever corporate grant devoted to the advocacy, intervention and rescue of people being held, forced to work or provide sex against their will, Google said it chose organizations with proven records in combating slavery. "Many people are surprised to learn there are more people trapped in slavery today than any time in history," said Jacquelline Fuller, director of charitable giving and advocacy for Google. "The good news is that there are solutions." The Washington, D.C.-based International Justice Mission, a human rights organization that works globally to rescue victims of slavery and sexual exploitation, was chosen by Google to lead the efforts. It will partner with Polaris Project and Slavery Footprint and a handful of smaller organizations for the multi-year effort to rescue the enslaved, push for better infrastructure and resources for anti-slavery enforcement agencies overseas, as well as raise awareness here in the United States and help countries draft anti-slavery legislation.
HONG KONG SURPASSES U.S. AND U.K.
Hong Kong has leapfrogged the United States and the United Kingdom to take top spot in the World Economic Forum's 2011 index of financial market development - the first Asian financial center to do so. Singapore came in fourth, with Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, Japan, Switzerland and Norway completing the top. China comes in at 19. The report added that more than 90% of countries have not returned to pre-financial crisis levels in terms of access to capital.
DRAMATIC RIVER RESCUE IN NEW ZEALAND
Two people were rescued from the swollen Maitai River - the tourists (one from Canada) clung to a tree as New Zealand lifeguards (more accustomed to beach rescues) responded. Forecasters say the rainfall in the last 24 hours broke a 100-year record.
INDONESIAN POLICE SHAVE PUNK ROCKERS' MOHAWKS
Police in Indonesia's most conservative province of Aceh have a new Public Enemy No. 1: punk rockers. Police official Iskandar Hasan told the AP Wednesday that 65 youths were rounded up during a weekend concert and brought to a detention center where their spiky Mohawks - deemed by some to insult Islamic traditions - were buzzed off.
SOUTH POLE MILESTONE: 100TH ANNIVERSARY
Norway's prime minister, polar adventurers and scientists gathered at the bottom of the world today to mark the 100th anniversary of explorer Roald Amundsen becoming the first to reach the South Pole. The group unveiled an ice sculpture of the famous Norwegian explorer on the spot where he placed his flag on Dec. 14, 1911.
BEST (WORST) LETTER TO SANTA EVER?
Makeeda Austin seems a bit old to writing to Santa Claus (she's 13). The two gifts she most wants (demands) are a Blackberry and Justin Beiber. Oh and she also threatens to cook his reindeer if she doesn't get two of her three requests. Her mother found the note in her school backpack.