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Bipasha Basu demands 1 crore for an item song

Bipasha basu, we hear, has been approached by the makers of " Gabbar Singh", the Telugu remake of "Dabangg", for an item number on the lines of "Munni Badnam".

A source close to director Harish Shankar says, "Bipasha was offered `50 lakh, but she is asking for `1 crore. The filmmakers are trying to negotiate the deal. As of now, nothing is concrete."

Warrant issued for agent Leigh Steinberg over debt

SANTA ANA, Calif. — "Show me the money" indeed: A bench warrant over a $1.4 million debt has been issued for the sports agent who was the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire."

The warrant for Leigh Steinberg's arrest was issued after he failed to appear in court last week in a case involving a judgment owed to a landlord, Carole Levitzky, a spokeswoman for Orange County Superior Court, said Thursday.

Court papers show Steinberg was ordered to pay $1.4 million last year to the Irvine Company in a default judgment for office space he leased in Newport Beach.

Steinberg stopped paying under the terms of his lease in 2009, according to court papers filed by the landlord, which declined to comment on the case.

Steinberg was the inspiration for Tom Cruise's character in 1996's "Jerry Maguire," which turned "Show me the money!" into an enduring catchphrase, though Steinberg isn't actually known for using that phrase.

Steinberg said he's not hiding or running from the law. He said he has an office open for business in Irvine and thousands of friends on Facebook and followers on Twitter.

The 62-year-old agent said he's still representing athletes and he's acting as a consultant on projects related to sports in movies, television and video games.

Steinberg said he had asked his attorney to change the date of his Dec. 15 hearing and was told it was taken care of. Steinberg said he was unaware he had a warrant in the case, which stems from some payments he missed in 2009 before moving to less expensive office space.

"Since when in this country do you put people in jail for having debt?" he said in a phone interview Thursday. "The point is, I had some financial struggles, which I regret. And I am working hard right now to pay the debts I owe."

Steinberg said his financial troubles stem in part from his divorce several years ago. He separated from his wife in 2006.

The Irvine Company earlier this month asked the court to require Steinberg to apply a portion of his income stream to pay the judgment, alleging process servers have been unable to directly contact him.

"Steinberg is a semi famous figure with huge apparent notoriety but shows signs of significant recent deterioration," Brooke Brandt, an attorney for the Orange County real estate company, wrote in a Dec. 9 court filing. "He appears to have a phalanx of security protection around him that prevents process servers from gaining access to him unless he allows it."

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Feb. 6.

Steinberg is considered the first super agent in sports, having represented such NFL stars as Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Warren Moon and Ben Roethlisberger, as well as boxer Oscar De La Hoya. His resume includes representing eight No. 1 overall NFL draft picks. He began his career in 1975 and was able to secure huge signing bonuses for some of football's biggest stars.

Kraft Foods spent $640K lobbying in 3Q

Kraft Foods Inc. spent $640,000 lobbying the federal government in the third quarter on trade, transportation, agricultural issues and other business matters, according to a disclosure report.

That is down from the $650,000 it spent in the same quarter last year and $730,000 in the second quarter this year.

The company lobbied on a number of issues, including marketing to children. Kraft and other food and beverage makers have adopted voluntary controls on how they market to children recently as the matter has come under heavy scrutiny. The company also has worked to protect its interest in how the nutritional information and benefits of food are labeled on its packages.

In addition to Congress, the nation's largest food maker lobbied the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, Office of the White House and others from July through September, according to the report filed with the House clerk's office.

McCoy, Browns still dazed by Harrison hit

BEREA, Ohio  — Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson doesn't expect Pittsburgh's James Harrison to suddenly get soft — or stop bending the rules.

Although Harrison had to sit out one game for his illegal helmet-to-helmet hit on Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy, who is still bothered by concussion symptoms two weeks after the head-jarring shot, Jackson believes the Steelers' heat-seeking linebacker will continue to level anyone in his path.

"Harrison is who he is and whether you fine him, you suspend him, he's not going to change," Jackson said Thursday. "That's up to the commissioner to handle it the best way he knows how."

Jackson's comments came one day after an unapologetic Harrison defended his head shot on McCoy, who has not been medically cleared to practice and will miss his second straight game Saturday in Baltimore. Harrison also said the NFL should punish the Browns for allowing McCoy to return to the game so quickly.

Jackson was stunned by Harrison's comments.

"I didn't hear that. Oh, goodness," Jackson said. "It doesn't surprise me coming from Harrison. He's one of the guys that he's going to live and die by the way he plays. I don't know what to say to it really. You hate to see guys get injured when you hit 'em. I know it's a physical game, a fast, contact game. When a guy gets hurt, all bets are off. You want that guy to be OK. For him to say something like that, I got no comment for it. I'm going to leave that one alone."

McCoy, the Browns and the NFL, for that matter, are still shaking off the effects from Harrison's hit.

On Wednesday, the league announced a new policy that will require teams to have a certified athletic trainer in the press box to monitor play and help medical staffs evaluate injured players. The change was prompted by the Browns' treatment of McCoy, who was not checked for a concussion during the game and was sent back in after sitting out just two plays.

The in-game policy shift preceded former Browns running back Jamal Lewis and other retired players suing the league over brain injuries they claim have left them struggling with medical problems years after their playing days ended.

Browns coach Pat Shurmur has spent most of the past two weeks addressing McCoy's touchy situation. The second-year QB has been coming to work every day, getting checked by Cleveland's doctors and participating in team meetings before being sent home.

Shurmur was asked if the 25-year-old has been advised not to play again this season.

"Not to my knowledge, no," Shurmur said. "He's like any player who is fighting back from injury."

If McCoy is cleared to play in Cleveland's season finale, he'll be facing Harrison and the Steelers, who will visit the Browns on Jan. 1.

Last season, after Harrison knocked out Browns wide receivers Mohamed Massaquoi and Josh Cribbs with concussions, Cleveland center Alex Mack accused the linebacker of "being cheap, being dirty." Mack wouldn't go that far after Harrison's hit on McCoy, and even said Harrison had cleaned up his game.

"He's improved," Mack said. "We really weren't watching for it. I didn't know it happened in the game, so it wasn't apparent to me that anything malicious was going on."

Mack, though, said Harrison's aggressiveness is pushing the boundaries of legality. When Harrison was suspended, the league said it was because he has had five illegal hits to quarterbacks in the past three years.

Mack believed Harrison could have avoided hitting McCoy so high.

"I'd say he's playing on the very edge of the rules," he said. "You don't have to use your head. You could shove him really hard in the chest and get the job done the same way. But there's something to be said about affecting the quarterback."

Shurmur would not comment on Harrison's claim the Browns should be disciplined for their handling of McCoy's concussion. The first-year coach was also asked if he was troubled that Harrison did not seem to be getting the message that his hits won't be tolerated.

"He plays for the Steelers, I would probably comment if it were a Browns player," Shurmur said. "You see and hear a lot of things and I think it's important that we all play hard, we play physical and we try to teach our guys to play hard, play physical and play by the rules.

"At times, we're all being educated as to what the rules are. The underlying deal is safety and we've gone through that here the last couple weeks. As coaches, we are all for players' safety."

Notes: The Browns placed safety T.J. Ward on injured reserve with a sprained foot. Ward started eight games in his second NFL season. He was injured on Dec. 6 at Houston and the team was confident he would get back. Shurmur said Ward, who had 38 tackles, will not need surgery. ... CB Joe Haden (thigh) and WR Massaquoi (foot) returned to practice and are expected to play against the Ravens. ... WR Jordan Norwood will also miss Saturday's game with a concussion sustained last week in Arizona. WR Rod Windsor was signed off the practice squad.

Noisy Toys Might Harm Kids' Hearing

THURSDAY, Dec. 22-- Some toys at the top of children's Christmas wish lists could pose a hearing threat, according to researchers.

They measured the noise levels of 24 popular toys and bought the 10 loudest to test in a soundproof booth. All 10 toys exceeded 90 decibels and several reached 100 decibels or more, which is about equal to the noise of a power mower, chain saw or subway train.

Extended, unprotected exposure to sounds above 85 decibels can lead to hearing damage, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology.

"Generally, toys are safe if used properly," Dr. Hamid Djalilian, an associate professor of otolaryngology and director of neurotology and skull base surgery at the University of California, Irvine, said in a university news release. "We tested the sound levels at the speaker and again at 12 inches, which is about the length of a toddler's arm."

Hearing problems may occur if a noisy toy is held too close to the ears, they found.

"Children are very sensitive to loud and high-pitched sounds. Unfortunately, hearing loss from noise damage is permanent and not currently curable," Djalilian said.

If you're buying a noisy toy for a child, pay attention to location of the speaker. It's better if the speaker is on the underside of the toy instead of on top. Djalilian also suggested you hold the toy as a child would and listen to the sound.

"If it hurts your ears then it's probably too loud for a child," he said.

Here is a list from the release of the toys tested and the decibel levels at the speaker and 12 inches from the speaker:

  •     Road Rippers Lightning Rods: 108 / 68
  •     I Am T-Pain microphone: 101 / 64
  •     Tonka Mighty Motorized Fire Engine: 100 / 69
  •     Marvel Super Shield Captain America: 98 / 69
  •     Whac-A-Mole game: 95 / 69
  •     Tapz electronic reflex game: 95 / 65
  •     Sesame Street Let's Rock Elmo: 95 / 74
  •     VTech Magical Learning Wand: 94 / 69
  •     VTech Magical Learning Wand: 93 / 60
  •     Green Lantern Colossal Cannon: 92 / 67

Occupy protesters sue over free speech, force

Most major Occupy encampments have been dispersed, but they live on in a flurry of lawsuits in which protesters are asserting their constitutional rights to free speech and assembly and challenging authorities' mass arrests and use of force to break up tent cities.

Lawyers representing protesters have filed lawsuits — or are planning them — in state and federal courts from coast to coast, challenging eviction orders and what they call heavy-handed police tactics and the banning of demonstrators from public properties.

Some say the fundamental right of protest has been criminalized in places, with protesters facing arrest and charges while doing nothing more than exercising protected rights to demonstrate.

"When I think about the tents as an expression of the First Amendment here, I compare it to Tahrir Square in Egypt," said Carol Sobel, co-chairwoman of the National Lawyers Guild's Mass Defense Committee.

"Our government is outraged when military forces and those governments come down on the demonstrators. But they won't extend the same rights in this country," she said. "They praise that as a fight for democracy, the values we treasure. It comes here and these people are riffraff."

A handful of protesters began camping out in September in a lower Manhattan plaza, demanding an end to corporate excess and income inequality, and were soon joined by scores of others who set up tents and remained around the clock. Similar camps sprang up in dozens of cities nationwide and around the world, but patience wore thin, and many camps — including the flagship at Zuccotti Park and in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Oakland, Philadelphia and Portland, Ore. — were forcibly cleared.

Public officials and police unions have generally defended moves to break up the camps, citing health and safety concerns. They also said that responding to problems at Occupy encampments was draining crime-fighting resources.

Protester lawsuits are now beginning to wend their way through the legal system, and attorneys say more are likely on the way.

The National Lawyers Guild and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California sued the Oakland Police Department in federal court in November, saying police and other agencies violated demonstrators' Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force — including "flash-bang" grenades — against demonstrators who posed no safety threat. The suit says officials also violated their First Amendment rights to assemble and demonstrate.

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan on Wednesday announced an independent investigation into the police response.

In Austin, Texas, this week, a federal judge has been hearing the case of two Occupy protesters who were arrested and later barred from City Hall under a policy their attorneys call overly broad and say amounts to a ban on speech. The Texas Civil Rights Center says around 106 people have been banned since the protests began, in some cases for up to a year. The policy says a criminal trespass notice may be issued for "unreasonably disruptive" conduct.

Yvette Felarca is among those suing campus police and administration officials at the University of California, Berkeley, after officers forcefully dispersed a group of Occupy protesters and others rallying for public education last month.

Felarca, a middle school teacher and organizer with the civil rights organization By Any Means Necessary, which filed the suit, says she was standing, arms linked with other demonstrators', before a line of police officers who moved in after some tents were set up on a lawn. She said she was chanting and yelling when a police officer hit her in the throat with his baton. She said she was also hit in her ribs, abdomen and back and watched others bear repeated blows.

"The brutality was absolutely designed to chill the speech of students in the movement and literally try to beat and terrorize our right to criticize, to think critically and to act on that criticism," Felarca said.

The university has called it "disconcerting" that the suit contains "so many inaccuracies."

Sobel, of the National Lawyers Guild, said a lawsuit is also planned in the case of the pepper-spraying by campus police of peaceful protesters at the University of California, Davis, video footage of which went viral.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, called the lawsuits an important check on police power. She noted that authorities haven't been uniformly excessive around the country, but pointed in New York City to mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge — which are under litigation — as well as the pepper-spraying of several women and the dark-of-night breakup of Zuccotti Park.

She said that her group has been concerned for years about police tactics, but that the response to the Occupy movement shines a light on them in a way that "engages and offends a new sector of the public."

She predicted there will be other lawsuits about excessive force, civil rights violations and mostly likely people's rights to get back into Zuccotti, which she said police have blocked from public usage with their pens.

"I think what's been happening with Occupy is so reminiscent of what happened during the Republican National Convention" in 2008, she said. "When people get together to engage in that most American of pastimes — protest — it almost always generates a defensive and repressive response from law enforcement. Occupy is no exception."

Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn., said police overreacted to the Occupy movement in some cities, which probably earned protesters some new support. Still, he noted, protesters' First Amendment rights are not without limitation.

"We've always had to balance our rights," he said. "No one can really claim you have an unfettered unlimited First Amendment rights. The courts are there to say, wait a minute, that goes too far, or that's OK. It is part of that give and take. Of course we all wish our rights were never intruded upon."

Packers need more from WRs with Jennings out

GREEN BAY, Wis. — In theory, the Green Bay Packers' group of receivers is deep and talented enough to make up for the loss of one player — even one as good as Greg Jennings.

It just didn't look that way in Sunday's loss at Kansas City.

Tight end Jermichael Finley dropped passes, and he wasn't the only player who struggled to hold onto the ball. Jordy Nelson was relatively quiet after a couple of head-scratching offensive pass interference calls went against him. And when Aaron Rodgers needed to make big plays at the end of the game, nobody was open.

"We have to be on top of our game, and we weren't in Kansas City," Nelson said. "That's all that matters."

Jennings sprained his left knee in the Packers' Dec. 11 victory over Oakland, and is not likely to return until the playoffs. He made a brief appearance in the locker room Thursday and appeared to be walking without difficulty, making a couple of moves to avoid reporters.

The Packers have a chance to wrap up home-field advantage in the NFC with a victory over Chicago on Sunday night, but they'll likely need a better performance from their receivers to beat the Bears.

Rodgers acknowledged the offense was out of rhythm against the Chiefs.

"I think it's us not executing and making the plays we expect to make and them playing good defense," Rodgers said. "So all offenses are aided by a good rhythm, keeping drives going, converting on third downs, being good in the red zone. We just didn't do those things on Sunday and they controlled the football, controlled the clock and the urgency just wasn't there when we were on offense and we didn't make the plays."

Offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said it's too simplistic to say the Packers' struggles were simply a case of the Chiefs being able to spend more attention covering everybody else with Jennings out.

"When you watch the film, there's more to it than that," Philbin said. "I thought at times, we had guys open that maybe the protection didn't allow us to get to. At times, our protection was very good and we didn't get guys open, so everybody thought, 'God, the o-line got their (butts) kicked.' Usually in football, it's never that cut and dried."

And while the dropped passes are beginning to mount for Finley this season, Philbin fully expects him to bounce back.

"Obviously there's a couple relatively easy catches that he missed the other day, but we had other guys drop the ball as well," Philbin said. "There's no magic formula. He's got good hands."

Finley said he didn't feel like himself.

"The drops, it's not me, you know?" Finley said. "This year, I've been dropping several passes. It's a thing of football. I have to work a little harder and start going back to the basics and keeping two eyes on the ball and look it in."

Finley said concentration is especially important when playing with a quarterback who throws as hard as Rodgers.

"We don't (have) a guy that's tossing the ball," Finley said. "We have a guy throwing the ball like a baseball, so you have to focus hard."

Finley did have three touchdowns in the Packers' Sept. 25 victory at Chicago, but he expects the Bears to adjust the way they cover him on Sunday.

"I would think they've seen film of guys putting their hands on me, getting manned up and getting me off my route," Finley said. "I wouldn't doubt they'll do the same."

Nelson, meanwhile, acknowledged that a pair of early interference calls changed the way he played Sunday.

"It affects you because you're out there playing the game the way you've always played," Nelson said. "So when you get two flags, especially as quickly as I did back-to-back like that, you kind of have to change something, because obviously what I was doing was incorrect. You have to adjust to the way the game is being officiated and move forward. I don't think I was ever in the situation again with the back-shoulder throw the rest of the game. But it's part of the game and you've got to adjust."

And Nelson isn't buying talk that the Chiefs' defense provided some sort of blueprint for other teams to slow down the Packers' offense.

"What Kansas City did, I think teams have tried," Nelson said. "We were a little undermanned, and we didn't perform the way we needed to perform across the board. I don't think there's very many guys in here that were very happy with their play. When you don't play well, a team at this level, especially on the road, is going to take advantage of that."

George H.W. Bush backs Romney for president

WASHINGTON - Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush backs Mitt Romney for president, the Houston Chronicle reported on Thursday, an important boost for Romney from the Republican establishment less than two weeks before the Iowa caucuses.

The comments were not a formal endorsement but Bush told the newspaper he had known Romney for several years and also knew his father, former Michigan Governor George Romney.

"I think Romney is the best choice for us," Bush told the newspaper.

He cited Romney's "stability, experience, principles" and said, in a possible reference to Romney's famously volatile rival Newt Gingrich, "He's a fine person. I just think he's mature and reasonable - not a bomb thrower."

Romney, who has been a frontrunner in the race for the 2012 Republican nomination for months, is viewed as too moderate by many conservatives. He has failed to gain more than about 25 percent support in national polls as a series of rivals have surged into first place and then faded.

Romney said he had spoken to the former president and thanked him for his support. "I'm very encouraged by the support of President Bush for my candidacy," Romney told reporters in Berlin, New Hampshire, where he was campaigning on Thursday.

Gingrich pushed past Romney into first place recently, although the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives has faded partly due to withering attacks by Romney and his supporters.

Bush said he knew Gingrich fairly well and told the Chronicle, "I'm not his biggest advocate." The two men had a disagreement in 1990 when recession drove then-President Bush to agree to new taxes, despite having vowed not to do so. Gingrich, then a Republican House leader known for strong opinions and an outspoken style, declined to appear with the Republican president.

Bush lives in Texas but is not backing Texas Governor Rick Perry, who trails Romney in opinion polls. "I like Perry but he doesn't seem to be going anywhere; he's not surging forward," Bush said.

Perry succeeded Bush's son, George W. Bush, as Texas governor when the younger Bush became president in 2001. But Bush backed another Perry rival, U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, over Perry in the Republican gubernatorial primary in 2010.

Bush said he could support any of the Republicans now seeking the nomination, although he expressed concern about the prospects for another Texan, the libertarian-leaning Congressman Ron Paul. Paul has moved past Gingrich in polls of Iowans likely to participate in the state's January 3 nominating caucuses.

"I want to see Obama beaten," Bush told the Chronicle. "I just don't believe Ron Paul can get the nomination."

Dollar trades in tight range after US jobs data

NEW YORK — The dollar was practically unchanged against the euro Thursday after the U.S. government said the number of people applying for unemployment benefits dropped last week.

The Labor Department said applications for unemployment benefits fell 4,000 to 364,000, the fewest since April 2008. The report suggests that layoffs are starting to slow.

The euro slipped to $1.3043 in late trading Thursday from $1.3044 late Wednesday.

In other trading Thursday, the British pound rose to $1.5678 from $1.5671 from late Wednesday. The dollar rose to 78.17 yen from 78.09 yen and to 0.9364 Swiss franc from 0.9362 Swiss franc.

The dollar fell to 1.0212 Canadian dollar from 1.0280.

USC quarterback Matt Barkley says he's returning for his senior year

LOS ANGELES — USC quarterback Matt Barkley says he's returning for his senior year

Feds: Neb. man ran $1.4 million health care scam

LINCOLN, Neb. — A man who ran the business operations of a Nebraska health care provider bilked Medicare, the state's Medicaid program and private insurers out of nearly $1.4 million while defrauding a local bank, prosecutors say.

Federal prosecutors charged Mark Koehler of Norfolk this week with health care and bank fraud for the alleged scam between 2007 and 2010.

Koehler worked as the business manager for Heartland Physical Therapy in Norfolk, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court of Nebraska. His job included filing reimbursement claims to Medicare, Nebraska Medicaid and private insurers for physical therapy services.

Prosecutors say Koehler also defrauded BankFirst of Norfolk by including the false billings in reports that were used to collect cash advances. They say bank officials relied on the inflated reports when they advanced Heartland Physical Therapy about $500,000, which the company should not have received. The amount shown in the company's accounts receivable reports determined how much the bank was willing to advance.

Koehler routinely included the "phantom billings" in the company's daily reports to the bank, Assistant U.S. Attorney Alan Everett said in court papers.

A woman who answered the phone Thursday at Heartland Physical Therapy's Norfolk office said Koehler hasn't worked for the company for nearly two years. She declined to comment further. Koehler's home phone number was unlisted.

Prosecutors say Medicare, the federal health care program for the elderly and disabled, paid more than $190,000 to Heartland Physical Therapy for services not provided. The company received more than $279,000 from Nebraska Medicaid, a program for low-income residents, and more than $931,800 from private insurers, according to court documents.

Heartland Physical Therapy runs offices in Norfolk, Pierce and Humphrey, according to its website.

In September, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning announced a settlement with a health care company that was to return $275,000 to the state's Medicaid program.

The settlement revolved around allegations that Maxim Health Care Services, Inc. submitted claims for services not rendered and did not provide documentation. The investigation began with a whistleblower lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court that alleged a number of false claims filed on behalf of a single Medicaid recipient. The settlement totaled $130 million and involved 41 states.

Since its inception in 2004, the state's Medicaid Fraud and Patient Abuse unit has recovered more than $39 million from violating service providers and drug companies.

Congressional aides: House GOP to accept short-term payroll tax cut measure.

WASHINGTON — Congressional aides: House GOP to accept short-term payroll tax cut measure.

Ex-Notre Dame QB Crist transferring to Kansas

KANSAS CITY, Mo.  — Kansas coach Charlie Weis landed a pair of high-profile quarterbacks Thursday.

Former top recruit Dayne Crist announced on Twitter that he would join the Jayhawks for his senior season after a checkered career at Notre Dame, shortly before news broke that BYU quarterback Jake Heaps was also transferring to Kansas.

Crist will reunite with Weis, who recruited him to Notre Dame, and be eligible to play next season because he's already graduated from Notre Dame. Heaps will have to sit out under NCAA transfer rules but will have two seasons of eligibility remaining.

Officials at Kansas could not comment on the quarterbacks until they enroll.

Crist visited Kansas and Wisconsin before making his decision, which came the same day Badgers offensive coordinator Paul Chryst was hired as the head coach at Pittsburgh.

One of the country's top recruits out of Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, Calif., Crist enrolled in South Bend in 2008 as part of a blockbuster recruiting class.

Things didn't pan out as anybody expected, though.

Weis struggled to win games despite suiting up numerous top prospects at Notre Dame, and was fired after the 2009 season. Crist had a season-ending knee injury his freshman year and another last year, after he completed 60 percent of his passes for 2,033 yards with 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions under Weis' replacement, Brian Kelly.

He came back from the injury to regain the starting job this season, but was benched at halftime of the opener against South Florida. Crist played only a handful of snaps behind Tommy Rees the rest of the way, ultimately announcing that he had decided to transfer.

"After a long & difficult decision making process, I'm incredibly excited to join the Kansas football team. Rock Chalk Jayhawk!" Crist wrote on Twitter.

He'll compete for the starting job at Kansas right away.

Sophomore quarterback Jordan Webb struggled with consistency last season, completing 63 percent of his passes for 1,884 yards with 13 touchdowns and 12 interceptions during a 2-10 season.

Webb was benched a few times in favor of senior Quinn Mecham, who fared little better.

Although he will only have one season of eligibility, Crist represents a major coup for Weis, who needs a strong-armed quarterback to effectively run his pro-style offense. Crist was the No. 2-ranked pro-style quarterback in the nation out of high school, according to Rivals.com, behind only Blaine Gabbert, who is now the starter for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Heaps was just as highly touted as Crist coming out of Sammamish (Wash.) Skyline High School. He was rated by Rivals.com as the No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the class of 2010.

Heaps graduated early so that he could enroll at BYU, and started the final 10 games his first season, setting freshman school records for yards passing (2,316), attempts (383), completions (219), touchdown passes (15). The Cougars finished 7-6 and beat UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl.

He struggled early this season, though, and lost the starting job to Riley Nelson. Heaps asked BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall to be released from his scholarship earlier this month.

Polish PM goes to Afghanistan to honour 5 dead soldiers

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk went to Afghanistan on Thursday to pay homage to five Polish soldiers who were killed by a makeshift bomb, the PAP news agency reported.

At a military ceremony at the Polish base in southeastern Ghazni the head of government hailed the memory of the victims of what he called "the greatest tragedy in the history of Polish missions" abroad.

Taliban bombers attacked the soldiers' convoy on Wednesday, causing the deadliest single loss for Warsaw's NATO contingent in the 10-year war.

The five soldiers were killed by what Tusk described Wednesday as a "very powerful explosive device" while on patrol. The attack took place on a "road considered to be safe until now," he added.

Poland has 2,600 soldiers in Afghanistan and is one of the largest contributors to NATO's US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which expects to withdraw all combat troops by the end of 2014.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in a text message to AFP.

The losses bring to 36 the number of Polish soldiers killed in Afghanistan since 2002.

Appeals court tosses Obama birthplace challenge

SAN FRANCISCO  — The so-called birther movement was dealt another legal blow Thursday when a federal appeals court tossed out a lawsuit challenging President Barack Obama's U.S. citizenship and his eligibility to serve as commander in chief.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that none of the challengers had legal standing to file the lawsuit on Jan. 20, 2009, the day Obama was inaugurated. The three-judge panel cited various reasons for disqualifying six sets of plaintiffs, who included Obama's political rivals, taxpayers and military personnel.

The birther movement has filed multiple lawsuits over the issue, so far with no success. Its leaders have lost similar challenges before the U.S. Supreme Court and the California Supreme Court.

The U.S. Constitution says only "a natural born citizen" may serve as president. The challengers allege that Obama, whose father was Kenyan, was born in that African country, rather than the U.S. state of Hawaii. They claim his Hawaii birth certificate is a forgery.

The appeals court didn't address the authenticity of the birth certificate, instead ruling that the challengers couldn't show "concrete injury" from the allegations.

The taxpayers listed in the lawsuit, for instance, failed to show how the citizenship question affected any federal taxing and spending provisions.

The lawsuit was filed in 2009 by 40 plaintiffs, including conservative activists Alan Keyes and Wiley Drake, who ran for president and vice president respectively as members of the American Independent Party against Obama in 2008.

They alleged they had standing to file a lawsuit because of their interest in competing in a fair election. Libertarian Party vice-presidential candidate Gail Lightfoot was also a plaintiff.

Judge Harry Pregerson, writing for the three-judge panel, said Keyes and Drake waited too long to file their lawsuit. The election was over and Obama was already sworn in when the lawsuit was filed.

"Once the 2008 election was over and the President sworn in, Keyes, Drake, and Lightfoot were no longer 'candidates' for the 2008 general election," Pregerson wrote. "Plaintiffs' competitive interest in running against a qualified candidate had lapsed."

Orly Taitz, one of the challengers' lawyers, said she would ask the appeals court to convene a special 11-judge panel to reconsider the case. If she's turned down there, she said she would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

Taitz said she has filed similar lawsuits in five states and has two other federal appeals pending in Washington, D.C.

Login with Facebook Claims lowest since '08 as job market improves

WASHINGTON  — In in the latest sign that the economy is surging at year's end, unemployment claims have dropped to the lowest level since April 2008, long before anyone realized that the nation was in a recession.

Claims fell by 4,000 last week to 364,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. It was the third straight weekly drop. The four-week average of claims, a less volatile gauge, fell for the 11th time in 13 weeks and stands at the lowest since June 2008.

While the economy remains vulnerable to threats, particularly a recession in Europe, the steady improvement in the job market is unquestionable.

"The underlying trend is undeniably positive," said Jennifer Lee, senior economist with BMO Capital Markets. "I think everyone is starting to come around to the view that, yes, there is a recovery going on."

Unemployment claims are a sort of week-to-week EKG for the job market. Except for a spike this spring, after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan hurt U.S. manufacturing, they have fallen steadily for a year and a half.

Claims peaked at 659,000 in March 2009. In the four years before the Great Recession, they mostly stayed between 300,000 and 350,000. That claims are edging closer to that range is a sign that the layoffs of the past three years have all but stopped.

"We haven't yet really seen substantial numbers of new jobs, but this is definitely an encouraging sign of what lies down the road," said Sam Bullard, an economist at Wells Fargo.

The steady decline may also herald a further decline in the unemployment rate, which fell in November to 8.6 percent from 9 percent the month before. The December rate will be announced Jan. 6.

If unemployment claims keep declining, the unemployment rate might fall as low as 8 percent before the November elections, said Dan Greenhaus, chief global strategist at BTIG LLC, a boutique brokerage.

The presidential election will turn on the economy. Ronald Reagan holds the post-World War II record for winning a second term with the highest unemployment rate. He won in 1984 with unemployment at 7.2 percent.

Economists will also watch closely on Jan. 6 to find out how many jobs were added this month. It added at least 100,000 each month from July through November, the best five-month streak since 2006.

"When you fire fewer people, hiring unquestionably follows," Greenhaus said. He expects employers to create as many as 200,000 jobs per month if the trend continues.

In another encouraging report Thursday, the Conference Board's index of leading economic indicators rose strongly in November for the second straight month, suggesting that the risks of another recession are receding.

The index puts the economy on track to grow at a 4 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter, which ends this month, said Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist with High Frequency Economics.

The economy hasn't posted 4 percent growth or stronger since the first quarter of 2006, when it grew at a 5.1 percent rate. The best it has done since the recession was 3.9 percent, in the spring of 2010.

The Great Recession lasted from December 2007 through June 2009. Economists didn't declare that it was under way until December 2008.

The economy grew at a 1.8 percent annual rate in the third quarter of this year. The government revised that figure downward from 2 percent Thursday because Americans spent less than the government had estimated.

Besides a brightening job market, the positive factors include strong holiday shopping and cheaper gas, which leaves people more money to spend on other things and helps consumer confidence.

"The economy is carrying some clear momentum into 2012," said economist Joel Naroff of Naroff Economic Advisors.

The flip side, said Bullard, the Wells Fargo economist, is political uncertainty at home and a near-inevitable recession across the Atlantic. Those factors will weigh on growth next year and might reverse the momentum that the job market appears to be enjoying.

In Europe, the 17 nations that use the euro currency are struggling to deal with debt problems and keep the currency union together. A recession there would be bad news for American companies that export to Europe.

Another source of uncertainty for 2012 is what Congress will do about the Social Security payroll tax cut, set to expire Jan. 1. Extended unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed also expire on that date.

The tax cut applies to 160 million Americans. For a worker earning $50,000, it saves $1,000 over a year. For a high-earning couple, it would save $4,404 over next year, or about $85 a week.

Economists say that failing to renew the tax cut and emergency unemployment aid could cut a full percentage point from economic growth next year.

Americans frustrated by congressional stalemates

CHICAGO  — As Americans watch yet another political drama play out on Capitol Hill — this time over whether to extend the payroll tax cut and jobless benefits — they have a question for Congress: Can't you all just get along? For once?

"It's like, 'Kids, kids, kids,'" said Brenda Bissett, a lawyer from Santa Clarita, Calif., as she waited for coffee Wednesday at a Starbucks in downtown Los Angeles. "It's just frustrating that there's no compromise. I think that both parties have been listening too much to their far ends."

Regardless of their backgrounds, incomes or political leanings, people say they're angry and downright disgusted by the posturing in Washington after the House rejected a two-month extension of the payroll tax cut passed by the Senate, then both chambers adjourned for the holidays.

If lawmakers don't act by Jan. 1, payroll taxes will jump almost $20 a week, or $1,000 a year, for a worker earning $50,000, and as much as $82 a week, or $4,272 a year, for a household with two high-paid workers. What's more, about 6 million people could lose unemployment benefits, and Medicare payments to doctors would be slashed.

"The Senate ... should have tried to stay and resolve this for the American people," said Jorge Gonzalez, an accounting clerk at a law firm in Miami. "Partisan politics should be set aside for the best interest of the country."

President Barack Obama is urging congressional leaders to return to Washington to pass a short-term payroll tax cut extension before New Year's Day, promising in return to start working immediately on a full-year extension. House Republicans have insisted that both chambers instead negotiate a full-year agreement by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the public can only wait and wonder — and stew.

"I wish those guys would come and finish the job they started and deserted," said Sandi Dumich, a retired teacher from Schaumburg, Ill., who has taken a part-time job in a neuropsychologist's office to help pay bills.

At Augie & Ray's, a popular eatery in East Hartford, Conn., the consensus among several diners Wednesday was that the partisan bickering was eroding their already shaky faith in Congress. To some, that was just as frustrating as the idea that their paychecks could shrink.

"It's us, the average Joe, that's getting caught in the middle," said Ray Ramsey, a retired utility meter technician who works part-time for a medical-supply company.

Fellow diner Richard Longo, who owns a building-maintenance business, said he worries about the effect of the taxes on himself and his 30-plus employees. But he thinks there's a lot of blame to go around.

"I truly believe that if the sides were reversed, if we had a Republican president and a Democratic Congress, we'd still be going through the same thing," he said.

But Scott Gessner, a Boston man who works with homeless women and children, said he's suspicious of House Republican demands for a yearlong extension.

"We can't repeal Bush's tax hikes for the extremely wealthy, but we are going to let this one expire, which affects millions of millions of millions of more people and the middle class?" Gessner said. "What I'd like to know is ... what do the Democrats have to give up to get the one-year bill?"

A payroll tax increase would come at a vulnerable time for some people who already have been affected by falling property values and, in some cases, state tax increases, and some said they would spend less on non-essential things, like dining out.

Others, though, said they were willing to pay more if it means reducing the deficit.

"I understand every dollar is every dollar, but I think there are some bigger problems that we have here that can put a lot more money in your pocket than a $20 payroll tax," said Thomas Lowndes, who owns a real estate investment business in Charleston, S.C., and was in Louisville, Ky. For a basketball game.

But almost all agreed that the partisan acrimony and 11th-hour crises in Washington are getting old.

"It seems they want to bring down everything to the last minute and then figure it out," said David Kaiser, a researcher at a Miami college who said a tax increase wouldn't affect him significantly. Kaiser wanted "some way to send that message to them: That's not what they're hired for."

The tax cut lowered the Social Security tax on incomes of up to $106,800 from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent. It's meant a maximum savings of $2,136 for an individual.

Without a deal, Americans would begin 2012 facing a tax increase just as an election year begins. And many say the bickering has more to do with elections than economic ideals.

"It's a fight between the parties. It's really not about the citizens," said Sandra Robinson, an administrative officer at the Department of the Interior in Little Rock, Ark., who depends on the extra money to help pay her daughter's college tuition.. "They don't care about us."

Greg Kirksey, a pastor in Little Rock, Ark., said a payroll tax increase would be little more than an inconvenience for him, but others are "talking about whether to buy dried beans or ground beef to get their protein."

"But I'm afraid because it's a political year ... I'm not thinking anybody's really got the guts to make the hard decisions," he said. "They just keep putting a Band-Aid on, putting a Band-Aid on, kicking the can down the road a little farther."

South Korea clinches sub deal, beating tenders from France, Germany and Russia

South Korea clinched a $1.1 billion deal to supply three submarines to Indonesia, beating tenders from France, Germany and Russia, because its offer included technology transfer, authorities said Thursday.

"South Korea has advanced technology and they are open to a technology transfer, while the other countries in the tender were only focused on selling the submarines," defence ministry spokesman Hartind Asrin told AFP.

South Korea won the tender Tuesday over France, Germany and Russia, according to the ministry, in its largest-ever weapons export deal.

It will allow Indonesian company Penataran Angkatan Laut (PAL) to observe how the vessels are built and to assemble the third in Indonesia.

"Under the contract, two submarines will be built in South Korea and the third one will be built at PAL?s facilities in Surabaya in East Java," Asrin said.

It is the second major defence deal between the two countries. In May, the state-run Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) agreed to export 16 supersonic T-50 Golden Eagle trainer jets worth $400 million to Jakarta.

The 1,400-tonne submarines will have a capacity of 40 personnel and come equipped with eight weapons tubes for torpedoes and guided missiles.

Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering will build the vessels, with the first expected to arrive in 2015 and the last built by 2018.

Daewoo has the second-biggest shipyard in the world after South Korea's Hyundai Heavy Industries.

The deal brings the volume of South Korea's defence exports this year to an all-time record $2.4 billion, more than double the amount from a year ago, South Korea's Defense Acquisition Program Administration said.

The two nations agreed to boost defence industry trade at a bilateral meeting last month, despite a hiccup in bilateral weapons trade earlier this year.

South Korea's spy agency came in for criticism in February following reports that its agents tried to steal commercial secrets from the hotel room of a visiting Indonesian trade delegation.

Newspapers said three agents from the National Intelligence Service entered the room on February 16 in an attempt to steal information on possible Indonesian arms purchases, but were caught by a delegate as they copied files from a laptop computer.

Charges refiled against man in Pa. basement case

PHILADELPHIA  — Philadelphia prosecutors have refiled charges dismissed by a judge this week against a suspect in the case of mentally disabled adults found locked in a basement.

Prosecutors said Thursday that they're refiling kidnapping, assault and other charges against Eddie "the Reverend Ed" Wright.

A judge Tuesday agreed to drop charges against Wright after his attorney argued he was more a victim than a perpetrator. A message left for Wright's attorney wasn't immediately returned Thursday.

Convicted killer Linda Ann Weston, her daughter, Jean McIntosh, and her boyfriend, Gregory Thomas, have been ordered to stand trial on charges they kidnapped mentally disabled adults for their Social Security checks and then abused them. The victims say they lived with Weston for years and were often kept locked up.

The suspects haven't entered pleas.

Man gets 14 years for black church arson after Obama's win

A white man convicted of burning down a mostly black church to condemn Barack Obama's election as the nation's first black president in November 2008 was sentenced on Thursday to nearly 14 years in prison.

The arson fire on November 5, 2008, just hours after election results were announced, destroyed the nearly-finished Macedonia Church of God in Christ in Springfield, Massachusetts, about 90 miles west of Boston.

Prosecutors alleged in a three-week trial last spring that Michael Jacques, 27, of Springfield, and two white friends were motivated by racial resentment when they doused the building with gasoline and torched it.

The church's congregation was about 90 percent African American and authorities said the white men wanted to denounce Obama's victory earlier that night.

Judge Michael Ponsor in U.S. District Court in Springfield on Thursday sentenced Jacques to 166 months in federal prison for his role in the hate crime, Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Smyth, the lead prosecutor in the case, told Reuters.

Jacques had faced between 10 and 60 years in prison.

The prison term is to be followed by four years of supervised release. Jacques was also ordered to pay nearly $1.6 million in restitution, including $123,570 to the church.

"I think the sentence is fair and reasonable, and it sends a message that hatred and intolerance will not be tolerated," Smyth said.

On April 14, a jury convicted Jacques of conspiracy to violate civil rights, religious property damage because of race and damage to religious property by use of fire.

Two other men charged in the hate crime, Benjamin Haskell and Thomas Gleason, already have pleaded guilty to similar charges. Haskell was sentenced in November 2010 to nine years in federal prison, and Gleason, who testified for the prosecution in the trial, will be sentenced in January.

Prosecutors said Gleason lived near the church and the three men spent election night drinking beer and smoking marijuana together before they agreed to go burn it down early the next morning.

Jacques tried unsuccessfully to have his confession thrown out before trial. He argued that state police and the FBI had falsely obtained it during a more than six-hour interview while he was suffering from withdrawal from nicotine and the pain-killer Percocet.

No worshipers were inside the building at the time of the fire. The rebuilt church reopened to worshipers in September.

In the days immediately after the blaze, the FBI briefed the President-elect and the U.S. Attorney General about the arson. U.S. authorities said the hate crime was the only one of its kind on election night.

McConnell: Extend tax cut short-term and long-term

WASHINGTON — The Senate's top Republican on Thursday urged the GOP-led House to pass a short-term renewal of payroll tax cuts and break an impasse that threatens all workers with a Jan. 1 tax increase. Within hours, a House Republican freshman broke ranks and agreed, signaling that fierce pressure from almost every corner of the Republican Party had begun to crack conservative opposition to a short-term fix.

"This isn't about proving a point," said Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis. "Middle class families deserve a Congress that will rise above the squabbling and ensure their taxes don't go up right after Christmas."

He called on his own Republican leaders to take up a two-month extension of the cuts, days after the House rejected such a plan passed by the Senate and held out instead for a one-year renewal

The statement suggested that GOP Leader Mitch McConnell's plan may have started to break down a deadlock between House Republicans and Democrats controlling the Senate that had split House and Senate Republicans, too. This, as President Barack Obama has underscored that only swift action can head off an increase of 2 percentage points in the Social Security tax paid by employees.

McConnell urged House Republicans to pass a new short-term extension while calling on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to appoint negotiators on the separate House measure that would bring a year-long renewal of the payroll tax and jobless benefits. At least two other Republican senators, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Mike Johanns of Nebraska, issued statements Thursday imploring the House to approve the two-month fix.

In competing news conferences and statements, all sides sought to avoid blame should taxes go up Jan. 1, just as Americans begin paying holiday bills. House Republicans in particular were facing fire from GOP establishment figures incensed that they would risk losing the tax cut issue to Democrats at the dawn of the 2012 presidential and congressional election year.

McConnell's move intensifies pressure on House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to cut his losses and agree to a short-term bill. But Boehner is thus far holding firm.

"This is an issue where an overwhelming number of people of both parties agree," Obama said in an appearance in which he was flanked by several people who had tweeted the White House about how they would be hurt by higher taxes. "Has this place become so dysfunctional that even when we agree to things we can't do it?" He added: "Enough is enough."

In a Thursday morning phone call, Boehner urged Obama to send administration officials to the Capitol to negotiate an agreement on a long-term measure demanded by Republicans. Obama declined the offer.

"The president told Speaker Boehner that he is committed to begin working immediately on a full-year agreement once the House passes the bipartisan Senate compromise that prevents a tax hike on 160 million Americans on January 1," said a White House statement.

McConnell weighed in, saying the House should pass a short-term extension that ensures no disruption in the expiring payroll tax cuts and Reid should appoint negotiators allowing Congress to "work on a solution for the longer extensions."

McConnell's move was welcomed by Democrats but received a tepid reaction from Boehner.

"We believe, as Senator McConnell suggested, the two chambers should work to reconcile the two bills so that we can provide a full year of payroll tax relief — and do it before year's end," said Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith. He declined to comment on McConnell's suggestion that House Republicans back away from their insistence on a year-long extension — or none.

But Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, the powerful chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee and a House negotiator on this issue, suggested that he would be open to a three-month extension.

House Republicans have complained that the Senate's proposed 60-day extension would be hard for companies to implement and would be too complicated for businesses — which file taxes every three months — to manage.

The Senate passed the two-month measure after Reid and McConnell tried but failed last week to come up with a long-term extension. Reid said that if the House passes a short-term measure he'll restart talks on a year-long plan.

"We have made good progress towards a year-long extension of all of these programs, but there remain important differences between the two parties," Reid said. "Once the House passes the Senate's bipartisan compromise ... I will be happy to restart the negotiating process to forge a year-long extension."

McConnell's idea would require the House to generate a new bill — which could address the flaws Republicans have complained about — and send the measure to the Senate. It would take unanimous agreement by the Senate to pass the measure Tuesday or Friday.

In an appearance on CNBC's "Squawk Box," Camp seemed open to an idea like McConnell's.

"The policy that would work best for this country is to do a year," Camp said. "If we cannot do a year, we should at least do a quarter."

The conflict arose after the Senate, on a bipartisan vote, passed legislation last week to extend for two months the payroll tax cut and jobless benefits. The House had just days before passed a full-year extension that included a series of conservative policy prescriptions.

McConnell was a driving force behind the Senate measure and had been virtually silent in the political firestorm that has erupted since, knocking tea party House Republicans on their heels.

The Republican establishment was putting special pressure on House Republicans who were refusing to compromise. The 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain, former Bush administration Karl Rove and The Wall Street Journal editorial page were among the conservative voices urging Republicans on Capitol Hill to get it together.

The impasse also put Republican presidential contenders in an awkward spot less than two weeks before the Iowa caucuses that kick off the nomination process. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney refused to be pinned down on the issue, while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich castigated Congress for "an absurd dereliction of duty."

Pakistan beat China 5-3

Pakistan came from two goals down Thursday to beat a much improved China 5-3, taking the lead 2-0 in a four-match series that marks the first international hockey in the troubled country for seven years.

Forwards Waqas Sharif and Haseem Khan hit two goals each with Ali Shah netting once to lead Pakistan's fight-back after China dominated initial play with two goals by the 11th minute.

Pakistan won the first match 3-0 on Wednesday in Karachi, in the first international hockey hosted by Pakistan in seven years.

A campaign of Taliban and Al-Qaeda linked attacks across Pakistan, including an attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in 2008, has made Pakistan a virtual "no go" zone for international sport.

China struck in the third minute when striker Dong Yang scored off the first penalty corner, going under the feet of Pakistani goalkeeper Salman Akbar, who had a miserable match.

Liu Xiang Tang doubled the lead in the 11th minute when he sneaked past Pakistan's defence to score a field goal, much to the shock of Pakistan.

Awoken by their rivals' sudden surge, Pakistan struck three times within the next 14 minutes as Khan (14 and 28 minutes) and Waqas Sharif (23 minutes) put Pakistan ahead with 3-2.

Yang pulled one back in the 54th minute in a slick move from the forward line before Sharif ended the score with another field goal in the 56th minute.

The remaining two matches will be played in the cities of Faisalabad on Saturday and Lahore on Sunday.

Pakistan, who last hosted an international hockey game in 2004, hopes the Chinese tour will help convince other foreign teams to visit.

Judge rules R. Allen Stanford competent to stand trial for $7 billion Ponzi scheme.

HOUSTON — Judge rules R. Allen Stanford competent to stand trial for $7 billion Ponzi scheme.

Ottawa to rethink federal regulator plan

OTTAWA - Canada's top court derailed government plans to consolidate a patchwork system of provincial securities regulators on Thursday, ruling that proposed federal legislation violated provincial rights.

The Supreme Court's surprise unanimous decision leaves Canada as the only major developed country without a national regulator, and forced Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to abandon his plan.

"It is clear we cannot proceed with this legislation," Flaherty said in a brief statement. "We will review the decision carefully and act in accordance with it."

Flaherty, facing stiff opposition from provinces like Quebec and Alberta, had asked the Supreme Court in May 2010 to weigh the legality of proposals for a new national regulator. Six provinces had opposed the draft law, seeking to keep the current system of provincial regulators.

"The proposed federal act overreaches the legislative interest of the federal government," the court said.

"As important as the preservation of capital markets and the maintenance of Canada's financial stability are, they do not justify a wholesale takeover of the regulation of the securities industry, which is the ultimate consequence of the proposed federal legislation."

BANKS SEE PROGRESS

The push for a Canadian national regulator has been an on-again off-again campaign for decades, and many in the financial industry argued that the current regime creates too much red tape, hurts enforcement and deters foreign investment.

But some financial executives, often big fans of a national regulator, framed the decision as at least a partial victory, after the court left the door open for Ottawa to take on more oversight in risky areas like derivatives or short-selling.

"We think real progress has been made here," said Terry Campbell, chief executive of the Canadian Bankers Association, an umbrella group that had supported the push for a single entity. "The court has recognized, for the first time, that there is federal jurisdiction over securities."

The court pointed to certain areas relating to systemic risk - also including credit rating and data collection - as areas where the federal government could legitimately get involved. Provisions relating to these were in Flaherty's draft bill.

"What this does is it sets the constitutional platform for us to move forward and actually build a national regulator for Canada which is essential for capital markets," said Ian Russell, chief executive of the Investment Industry Association of Canada.

SETBACK

However, the ruling is a clear setback for Canada's Conservative government, which had hoped to put the new system in place next year.

"Either Ottawa needs to go back to the drawing board and rethink proposals for a national commission and to try and work cooperatively with the provinces to bring that about," said Joe Groia, a securities lawyer and the former director of enforcement at the Ontario Securities Commission.

"Or Ottawa might say it's just not worth the commitment of time and resources and they may decide to do something different."

Six of Canada's 10 provinces had asked the court to rule against the government. Some had said a cooperative approach that retained a substantial role for the provinces would be appropriate, a view that the court appeared to share.

"A cooperative approach that permits a scheme that recognizes the essentially provincial nature of securities regulation while allowing Parliament to deal with genuinely national concerns remains available," the court said.

But that seems unlikely.

"If the federal-provincial cooperative could've worked I think it would've gotten there by now," said Patrick Monahan, provost at York University and the former dean of Osgoode Hall Law School. "What interest do the provinces that oppose this have, why would they come to the table. There's nothing to require them to do so."

Ontario, home to Canada's largest stock exchange and most of its financial services industry, has been the driving force behind the push for a single regulator, while Quebec and Alberta were the strongest opponents.

Canada's lack of a national watchdog came under intense scrutiny during the global financial crisis as regulators around the world seek to cooperate more closely.

Addressing the concern about systemic risk, the opposing provinces pointed out to the court that the United States had a national regulator, yet that had not prevented either the subprime crisis or recent corporate scandals.

The name of the case is In the Matter of a Reference by Governor in Council concerning the proposed Canadian Securities Act, as set out in Order in Council P.C. 2010-667, dated May 26, 2010 (33718).

Beckham tax better in Paris than London: minister

French Industry Minister Eric Besson has moved to appease critics of David Beckham's move to Paris Saint Germain saying the global football icon would pay 50 percent of his salary to the tax man.

Reports that former England midfielder Beckham is set to join the French league leaders have intensified in recent days, with claims he had finally agreed on a lucrative 5 million euro deal and would sign for the club in early January.

While widely welcomed, the news has also prompted criticism at Beckham's proposed monthly salary of 800,000 euros.

Besson, however, played down the concerns.

"I can understand it (the amount of his salary) could cause upset and shock," Besson said on the fringes of a visit to a French commerce website on Thursday.

But "if he comes to France, Beckham will pay around 50 percent in tax in France.

"Would it be better for him to pay it in (tax) London rather than Paris? Personally, I'd prefer if he paid it in Paris."

While newspapers around the capital on Wednesday trumpeted Beckham's imminent arrival, a spokesperson for Beckham -- whose main aim next year is to play for the Great Britain team at the London Olympics -- denied a deal had been done.

"No agreement with any football club has been reached. Any talk of a deal is premature. David is presently considering his options," the spokesperson told AFP.

However that has not stood in the way of a media frenzy which has focused mainly on what Beckham's arrival could do for the image of French football, and for the country as a whole, instead of what he could contribute as a player.

Leading economists suggested Wednesday that Beckham's monthly salary would easily be justified by the many commercial spin-offs, such as increased shirt sales, his arrival would generate.

Purchased by wealthy investors Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) in the summer, PSG's new owners have pledged to "make the club a great team and a strong brand on the international scene."

Besson added: "Let's face facts. David Beckham for Qatar and for Paris Saint Germain represents an investment, although it will be several weeks or months before we know whether it is viable.

"It's possible that in six or eight months everyone will be saying that David Beckham has, for PSG and French football, been a sound investment."

The 36-year-old Beckham's contract with Los Angeles Galaxy expires at the end of December.

Although in the twilight of his career at nearly 37, Beckham is formidably fit and he can call on years of valuable Champions League experience with former clubs Manchester United and Real Madrid.

PSG took over the lead of the French top flight on Wednesday, however sources told AFP Thursday that manager Antoine Kombouare has been informed that he has been fired.

An official announcement was expected to be made later in the day.

Stocks open higher on encouraging economic reports

NEW YORK — Stocks are rising after the opening bell following encouraging signs that the U.S. economy is growing at a faster clip than earlier in the year and fewer people are applying for unemployment benefits.

The Dow Jones industrial average is up 28, or less than 1 percent, to 12,136 early Thursday. The S&P 500 index is up 3, or less than 1 percent, to 1,247. The Nasdaq is up 10, or less than 1 percent, to 2,588.

The Commerce Department says the economy grew at an annual rate of 1.8 percent in the July-September quarter. That was the fastest growth this year, up from 1.3 percent in the April-June quarter.

The number of people applying for unemployment benefits dropped last week to its lowest level since April 2008.

Ethicist: 18th century 'giant' should be buried

LONDON — Two experts say the skeleton of an 18th century man nicknamed the 'Irish Giant' should be removed from a museum and buried at sea in keeping with his last wishes.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, medical ethicist Len Doyal and lawyer Thomas Muinzer say there is no good scientific reason to display the skeleton of Charles Byrne, and a strong moral case against it.

Byrne stood about 7 feet, 7 inches (2.3 meters) tall, and died in 1783 at age 22. His skeleton was obtained by pioneering anatomist James Hunter, and is on display in London's Hunterian Museum.

Museum director Sam Alberti said Thursday that the skeleton is still valuable to scientists, who have used Byrne's DNA to help develop treatments for acromegaly, a hormonal disorder from which he suffered.

Italian Senate passes tax hikes, pension reforms demanded by government to ease debt crisis

ROME — Italian Senate passes tax hikes, pension reforms demanded by government to ease debt crisis.

Observers head to Syria amid international uproar

BEIRUT  — Arab League delegates traveled to Syria Thursday to arrange the deployment of foreign monitors under a plan aimed at ending the regime's deadly 9-month-old crackdown on dissent. They arrive in the midst of a new international uproar over activist reports that government troops killed more than 200 people in two days, with Turkey condemning President Bashar Assad over the "bloodbath."

The opposition suspects Assad's agreement Monday to allow hundreds of Arab League monitors in, after weeks of stalling, is only a tactic to buy time and ward off a new round of international sanctions and condemnation. They said Assad was only intensifying his crackdown ahead of the arrival of the observers, a sure sign he is not sincere about calming violence.

Activists have accused government troops of a "massacre" on Tuesday in Kfar Owaid, a village in the rugged mountains near Syria's northern border with Turkey. A witness and activist groups said military forces completely surrounded about 110 unarmed civilians and trapped them in a valley, then proceeded to systematically kill all of them in an hours-long barrage with tanks, bombs and gunfire. No one survived the onslaught, the activists said.

Turkey, which before the uprising was a close ally of Syria, said the violence flew in the face of the spirit of the Arab League deal that Syria signed and raises doubts about the regime's true intentions.

"We strongly condemn the Syrian leadership's policies of oppression against its own people, which are turning the country into a bloodbath," the Turkish Foreign Ministry said. It added that that no administration "can come out a winner from a struggle against its own people."

On Wednesday, the Obama administration said it was "deeply disturbed" by Tuesday's attack on Kfar Owaid and accused the government of continuing to "mow down" its people. The French foreign ministry said everything must be done to stop this "murderous spiral."

The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have died since March as Syria has sought to put down the uprising — part of the Arab Spring of protests that has toppled long-serving unpopular leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Fresh raids and indiscriminate shooting by government forces on Thursday killed at least six people in the central city of Homs, and in the south and northern provinces, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees.

Activists said given the high death toll of the past few days, the Syrian government appears to be furiously trying to control the situation on the ground before the full Arab League monitoring team arrives.

Indeed, activists said government forces appeared to have gained full control of the rebellious Jabal al-Zawiya region, where Kfar Owaid is located, as of Wednesday evening.

Many of them blamed the Arab League for giving the Syrian regime a lifeline and a chance to kill more people and called for nationwide protests on Friday against the observer mission. "Protocol of death, a license to kill," was the slogan for the planned protests, a reference to the protocol of the Arab League plan signed by Syria this week.

In addition to the monitors, the Arab League plan calls for Syria to halt its crackdown, open talks with the opposition, withdraw military forces from city streets and allow in human rights workers and journalists. The 22-member Arab League has also suspended Syria's membership and leveled economic and diplomatic sanctions.

Sameer Seif el-Yazal, the assistant Arab League secretary general who is leading the advance team to set up the monitoring mission, said they will work with the Syrians on defining locations to send the observers. An observer team of around 20 experts in military affairs and human rights will head for Syria on Sunday, led by Lt. Gen. Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa of Sudan.

"We will carry out some necessary preparations to receive the mission on the ground including housing, transportation and communications and security," he told reporters in Cairo before leaving for Damascus.

Another team of 100 observers will leave for Syria within two weeks, according to the Arab plan. A total of 500 observers are planned.

That attack on Kfar Owaid was among the deadliest so far in Syria. The mountainous region of Jabal al-Zawiyah has been the scene of clashes between troops and army defectors, as well as weeks of intense anti-government protests.

"Thousands of soldiers and special forces have deployed, there are tanks and checkpoints every few meters, snipers everywhere," an activist in Kfar Owaid told The Associated Press by telephone Thursday,

He said he was on the run and spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for his own safety.

The Syrian government has not commented on the death toll in Kfar Oweid and other areas in the past few days, but state-run news agency SANA said Thursday that dozens of "terrorists" were killed or arrested in the north and in the southern Daraa province during raids and clashes.

Obesity rise prompts Wash. ferry capacity change

SEATTLE — The Washington state ferry service isn't going to start turning away hefty passengers, but it has had to reduce the capacity of the nation's largest ferry system because people have been packing on the pounds.

Coast Guard vessel stability rules that took effect nationwide Dec. 1 raised the estimated weight of the average adult passenger to 185 pounds from the previous 160 pounds, based on population information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

During the past 20 years, there has been a dramatic increase in obesity in the United States and about one-third of American adults are now considered obese, the CDC says on its website.

The state ferry system has complied with the new stability rules by simply reducing the listed capacity of its vessels, Coast Guard Lt. Eric Young said Wednesday.

"That has effectively reduced the amount of passengers by about 250 passengers or so depending on the particular ferry," said Young, who is based in Seattle. "They generally carry about 2,000, so it's down to 1,750 now."

With that many passengers, the ferry wouldn't tip over even if everyone ran to the side at the same time to look at a pod of killer whales, he said.

The state operates 23 white and green vessels on 10 routes across Puget Sound and through the San Juan Islands to British Columbia. Carrying more than 22 million passengers a year, it's the biggest ferry system in the United States and one of the four largest in the world, said system spokeswoman Marta Coursey.

The ferries themselves could be contributing to passenger girth. The galleys cater to customers looking for fast food they can eat while looking out the windows at the scenery and seagulls. Calorie counters typically aren't buying the hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken strips.

"We do serve light beer," said Peggy Wilkes who has worked 20 years for the food concessionaire, Olympic Cascade Services, which serves food and drinks on 12 of the state ferries.

News reports of overloaded ferries sinking in other parts of the world are sometimes a topic of discussion, she said.

"I think it's cool the Coast Guard is keeping up on that," she said. "Not that we overload them. A couple of times, like for a Seahawks game, we've had to cut off passengers and had to leave them at the dock."

Carol Johnston, who has been riding the state ferries since 1972, said she found the rule change perplexing.

"The ferries are not listing, they are not sinking," said Johnston, who was onboard a Seattle-bound ferry from Bainbridge Island Wednesday afternoon. "How are you going to establish how much weight there is on the ferry?"

Johnston worried about the potential loss in revenue, which could cause ferry fares to increase further. And she joked she may alter her eating habits.

"That means I will not have popcorn with my wine," Johnston said.

The reduced passenger capacity is unlikely to have much practical effect on the spacious ferries, said Coursey, the system spokeswoman. The ferries often fill up with vehicles, but the number of passengers, especially walk-ons, is seldom a problem, she said.

The new stability rules may have a bigger impact on the smaller charter fishing boats, such as those that take anglers fishing out of the Pacific Ocean ports of Westport and Ilwaco, Young said. Any vessel that carries more than six paying customers has to be inspected and certified by the Coast Guard as a passenger vessel.

Congressional Insider Trading and American Hypocrisy

Have American politics finally become as debauched as the late Roman Empire?

A recent exposé by 60 Minutes on Nancy Pelosi's insider trading activity and the resulting media storm have left much of America agape. Can it really be that the same congressional leaders that have established laws to firmly punish insider traders such as Martha Stewart, the insider king Raj Rajaratnam, and just this past week Diamond Back Capital and Level Global, are themselves exempt from the rules? Sadly, under the status quo, they are.


According to reports, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi bought stock in an initial public offering that earned hefty returns while she had access to insider information about pending legislation likely to impact those values. Additionally, just days after a private committee briefing during the 2008 financial crisis, Spencer Bachus purchased stock options that proved quite profitable through the downturn. The irony that Mr. Bachus is currently the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee is palpable.

And if you have doubt that this problem is widespread, all you have to do it look at the results of a recent study that reveals the average portfolio returns of congressmen and senators. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, these leaders consistently outperformed stock indices like the Dow and the S&P 500 and the returns of professional money managers.

In academic studies from the Journal of Financial and Qualitative Analysis, statistically significant results demonstrate that both Republican and Democratic politicians are outperforming the market, with the Democrats enjoying a whopping 9 percent annual outperformance. Senators were the biggest winners, displaying Houdini-like magic and beating the S&P by 12 percent annually. These results are not due to luck or financial acumen, but are rather the result of trades based on non-public information that these politicians are privy to in closed-door sessions. For the rest of us hard-working and investing Americans, this type of advantage is called insider trading.

Obviously, behavior that is criminal for everyday Americans should not be okay for lawmakers who have the power to gin up laws that affect companies while simultaneously keeping an eye on their own spreadsheets and brokerage accounts. Sadly, however, this is in fact the case.

Congressional immorality seems to extend beyond this insider debacle. Recent reports have revealed that Countrywide provided special VIP loans with publically unavailable discounted interest rates to representatives. There was even a rumor this past month concerning student loans given to congressional family members that are later forgiven. Further research by Snoops.com and others revealed that these forgiven student loans are just for a limited group of staff members who work for our elected officials. Well, there you go; finally some moral fiber. It leaves those of us struggling to get our retirement portfolios on track to wonder if there is a way to pick up one of these staff member positions, or better yet become a lawmaker to get to the real juice.

Some may be old enough to recall Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey's Contract With America. Amongst such common sense things as a balanced budget amendment, congressional term limits, and "loser pays" tort reform was a cornerstone section that stated: "All laws that apply to the rest of the country also apply equally to Congress." Here is something that should unite Tea Party members right through Occupy Wall Street protestors: legislation that requires lawmakers to play by the same rules as the rest of us.

Now, due to this dust-up, Congress is pursuing legislation to address the insider trading problem. The STOCK Act seeks to require lawmakers to publicly report all trades within 90 days. Those in the know say this law does not go far enough and that immediate and transparent reporting is necessary on all trading. Unfortunately, the real answer should be moral rectitude in the form of public servants constrained by an internal sense of conviction that they must serve the country and not themselves. This conviction should second nature, but it is no longer clearly evident in congressional behavior. The fact that we have to codify this ethic in writing shows just how bad Washington has sadly become.

On the one hand, lawmakers have been passionate about confronting corruption on Wall Street. From Sarbanes-Oxley to Dodd-Frank, politicians have sought to weed out the next Enron, stop the next Madoff, and avoid the next Lehman collapse and MF Global bankruptcy. All the while, as they slap the hands of others, they too are burying their hands up to their wrists as they riffle through the cookie jar.

While index investing cannot hold a candle to the results these insiders enjoy, this mess underscores why a passive approach to your portfolio is the smartest way forward in this unfair world. While it is hard enough to build a smart and globally diversified portfolio, it is virtually impossible to compete with those who enjoy their insider advantage. By keeping your investment costs down and your bets widely spread across many markets, you will enjoy the rewards of long-term and tax-efficient market growth. If you want to jump into the ring, one hand tied behind your back, and fight the pros with insider insight, then good luck.

Mitt Romney, like George H.W. Bush, is prudent at this juncture: Character Sketch

After months as a stealth candidate, conducting a presidential Rose Garden strategy without the rose garden, Mitt Romney has flip-flopped. From sitting down with Chris Wallace on Fox News in his first Sunday interview in nearly two years to making regular morning appearances on MSNBC, Romney is suddenly omnipresent on TV screens, even reading a Top Ten list for David Letterman.  About all that is missing is for Mitt the Accessible to pop up on Animal Planet to defend the 1980s vacation drive to Canada with the family's Irish setter, Seamus, on the car roof.

Romney can still parry almost any question without mussing his hair or deviating from script. Asked by MSNBC's Chuck Todd Wednesday to comment on the dispute between Senate and House Republicans over terms for extending the payroll tax cut, Romney, normally the master of detail, begged off by complaining that the question was "deep in the weeds." On Fox & Friends Wednesday morning, Romney made an implicit comparison with Newt Gingrich when he said: "I am not willing to be a bomb-thrower. Or go over-the-top and say outrageous things or outlandish things or incendiary things simply for the purpose of getting people excited."

But buried in the eight major interviews that Romney has granted in the last three weeks (six on television and two to newspapers) are tantalizing clues about his would-be presidency. They represent the closest that we may get in this campaign to Romney Unplugged, a hint of about how he might govern if his six-year quest for the presidency ended in the Oval Office.

The more I study Romney's words, the more he reminds me of George H.W. Bush, the 41st president, who was hailed by Princeton University political scientist Fred Greenstein for his "prudent professionalism." Beyond his private-sector background, Romney is peddling the prudence of experience. "A leader needs to be someone of sobriety and stability," Romney told the New York Times last week. In his interview on Fox News Sunday, Romney stressed that his proposal for cutting the federal budget by $500 billion by 2016 is a (wait for it) "responsible plan." When Bill O'Reilly pressed Romney Monday night to pander to the conservative base by agreeing that Barack Obama is a "socialist," Romney resisted the political urge to say anything imprudent about the president. As Romney put it, "I just prefer to use the term that he is over his head."

The most revealing interview that Romney has given in months was not with a prominent cable TV host but rather with the Des Moines Register editorial board, which later endorsed him. Talking about presidential leadership, Romney invoked qualities like "character, vision" and being "trusted by others." Moving beyond the obvious paeans to Ronald Reagan and Teddy Roosevelt, Romney began gushing about a president who rarely is mentioned in Republican debates or on the campaign trail. "Dwight Eisenhower," he said, "one of my favorite presidents. He doesn't get enough credit. I love Dwight Eisenhower." What is telling here is Romney's passion for a non-ideological moderate who brought a sense of bureaucratic order, honed in the military, to the White House.

George H.W. Bush, who had his own stylistic similarities to Ike, was always bedeviled by what he called "the vision thing." But Bush's strength as a president at the time the Cold War was melting flowed from his carefully nurtured personal relationships with world leaders and key legislators on Capitol Hill.

Without ever referring to Bush, Romney boasted about using similar techniques as governor to appeal to the Democratic leaders of the state legislature. "I figured out from Day One, I'm going to get nothing done if I attack these guys on a personal basis," Romney told the Register. "The speaker of the House and the Senate president have to have respect for me and I for them. I went and met with them in their offices." In similar fashion, during his interview on Fox News Sunday, Romney declared, "Leaders actually spend time meeting with people on the other side of the aisle, understand their needs, understand their concerns, get their input and look for some way to find common ground."

When not asking candidates about the latest poll numbers, TV interviewers are fond of posing hypotheticals about foreign policy crises. The answers to these questions are rarely revealing, because it is difficult and dangerous for a would-be president to spell out under what circumstances he might bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. But Romney, in his late November interview with Bret Baier on Fox News, did sound eerily Bushian (the father not the son) when he talked about repairing America's relationship with Pakistan, "We need to have a president who can be on the phone, who can have a personal relationship, not only with [President Asia Ali] Zardari, generals in Pakistan, with members of the ISI [security service], to assure that they understand exactly where we're coming from, and we understand their interests."

Romney, in an effort to show voters his emotional side, has begun talking about his wife Ann's ongoing battle with multiple sclerosis. He described the day that her disease was diagnosed to Chris Wallace: "We stood up and hugged each other, and I said to her, 'As long as it's not something fatal, I'm just fine. Look, I'm happy in life as long as I've got my soul mate with me.'" But Romney, again like George H.W. Bush, does not naturally gravitate to public heart-on-the-sleeve confessionals.

Far closer to the real Romney style is the restrained model of the candidate's father, George, a former governor of Michigan who was driven from the 1968 presidential race after he claimed that he had been "brainwashed" into supporting the Vietnam War. Long after the war was over, Ann Romney asked her father-in-law whether he felt belatedly vindicated in his opposition to Vietnam. On Fox News Sunday, Mitt Romney admiringly quoted his father's late-in-life response, "You know, I never look back. I only look forward."

As the most disciplined presidential candidate of this century aside from perhaps Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney will always remain enigmatic. Certainly, his father's credo of never looking back, never indulging in introspection, does not lend itself to let-it-all-hang-out self-revelation. But the more that Romney steps from the shadows into TV studios for formal interviews (along with regular sit-downs with the print press), the more accurately we can envision the prudent contours of a Romney presidency.

Cowell backs Amaro to win 'The X Factor'

LOS ANGELES — "The X Factor" judges didn't want to stop listening to Melanie Amaro.

The powerful 19-year-old vocalist from Sunrise, Fla., wowed the Fox talent competition's panel with her soaring rendition of Beyonce's "Listen" during Wednesday's final performance round, prompting head judge Simon Cowell to declare that Amaro should win the show's grand prize: a $5 million recording contract and a starring role in a Pepsi commercial.

"That wasn't a $5 million performance," declared judge L.A. Reid. "That was a $50 million performance."

The panel also poured praise on the other two finalists: soulful 30-year-old single father Josh Krajcik of Wooster, Ohio, and 28-year-old singer-rapper Chris Rene of Santa Cruz, Calif. Krajcik accompanied himself on guitar for his final performance of "At Last," while Rene delivered his original tune "Young Homie" with a group of dancers and singers.

"You make everyone fall in love with you," judge Paula Abdul told Rene.

Before the final showdown, each singer awkwardly dueted with established artists. Krajcik was joined by Alanis Morissette on "Uninvited," Rene teamed up with Avril Lavigne for "Complicated," and Amaro partnered with R. Kelly on "I Believe I Can Fly," which marked the first time that the R&B star performed his motivational anthem with another singer.

The winner, which will be decided by viewer votes, will be announced on Thursday's show.

The contest thus far hasn't achieved the same success as "American Idol," which Cowell left last year to import "X Factor" from the U.K. to the U.S. Last Wednesday's performance episode drew 10.79 million viewers, less than half of the average "Idol" audience.

Unlike "Idol," the competition is open to solo singers and groups and has a lower minimum age of 12 and no upper age limit. The judges also serve as mentors: Cowell represented female vocalists, including Amaro; Reid headed male singers, including Rene; Nicole Scherzinger was in charge of over-30 singers, including Krajcik; and Abdul helmed the groups.

Egypt's premier calls for dialogue to end crisis

CAIRO — Egypt's military-appointed prime minister on Thursday called for national dialogue to resolve the country's political crisis and pleaded for a two-month calm to restore security after weeks of protests and bloodshed.

Kamal el-Ganzouri also told a news conference that the ruling military, which took over from longtime leader Hosni Mubarak 10 months ago, was eager to relinquish power and deliver the country to civilian rule, as demanded by some activists and those still staging protesters in the streets around Cairo's Tahrir Square.

"They want to leave today, not tomorrow," he said without elaborating.

Few, if any, of the activists demanding an immediate end to military rule are likely to take up the offer of dialogue. Instead, they are focused on finding ways to persuade and pressure the generals to quickly step aside, such as offering them immunity from prosecution over the deaths of protesters killed in recent clashes with soldiers and police or calling for presidential elections by next month.

At least 100 people have been killed in such confrontations and in sectarian violence since the military took power in February.

The deaths, coupled with the brutality shown by army troops against protesters, including women, have prompted some activists to consider suing the generals in local courts or try to have them put on trial before the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands.

About 3,000 students from Ain Shams University in Cairo marched Thursday after a prayer service for a student killed in the recent clashes. Students carried a symbolic coffin, Egyptian flags and a large picture of Mubarak in a noose.

A Cairo protest rally is scheduled for Friday, called "Regaining honor and defending the revolution."

Ziad el-Oleimi, a newly elected lawmaker who was among the leading figures during the uprising, said for calm to be restored, the culprits behind the recent violence must be brought to trial and held accountable.

"This is just an attempt to gain time, and to make people hate the revolution even more," he said. "The prime minister never admitted a mistake. He is responsible for those killed."

For months, activists have criticized the generals' handling of the country during the tumultuous transition, taking aim in particular at their human rights record and their failure to revive the economy or restore security.

Under the military's own timetable for stepping aside, it has pledged to hold presidential elections before the end of June 2012. Staggered parliamentary elections are already under way, with two rounds of voting held. A third and final round is slated for early next month.

Turnout was light in the second day of voting in run-off elections on Thursday. More than 100 candidates are competing for 59 seats in the parliament, already clearly dominated by Islamist parties. A third round of voting will begin on Jan. 3.

The 78-year-old el-Ganzouri, who was appointed by the military last month in a failed attempt to quiet protests, is a veteran of the Mubarak regime. He served in several Cabinet posts for more than a decade before a previous stint as prime minister that began in 1996.

The military's choice of a Mubarak-era figure angered the revolutionaries who saw it as fresh evidence of the military's loyalty to the toppled regime.

"I say to everyone that we must forget the past and move forward in a dialogue with all shades so that Egypt can live in peace," el-Ganzouri said in his appeal Thursday.

"This is a salvation government that came to save the revolution," he said, offering a nod to the revolutionaries behind the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak's 29-year rule.

In a possible sign that the military could end its rule earlier than planned, a member of a civilian advisory panel appointed by the military said the generals were prepared to look into proposals to speed up the transition of power.

"The military council wants to reaffirm that it is not interested in power and it wants to hand it over to civilian institutions," panel member Hassan Nafaa said.

He added that there was no consensus yet among the panel's members on any proposals being studied.

The generals have yet to directly comment on such a possibility.

One proposal is for the next parliament to name a temporary consensus president next month to take over the running of the country until presidential elections are held.

The country's powerful Muslim Brotherhood, which has led the Islamists' domination of the voting, has shied away from backing these proposals, saying they should wait until after the elections are completed next month. The Brotherhood has criticized protesters, weakening the campaign against military rule.
 
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