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Aretha Franklin calls off wedding plans

(iBBC News) - "Queen of Soul" Aretha Franklin on Monday called off plans to marry in the summer, saying she and her fiancé William 'Willie' Wilkerson had decided they had gone too far, too soon.

"Will and I have decided we were moving a little too fast, and there were a number of things that had not been thought through thoroughly. There will be no wedding at this time," the couple said in a joint statement.

"We will not comment on it any further because of the very personal and sensitive nature of it. We appreciate all of the many well wishes from friends. Aretha & Will."

Franklin, 69, announced her engagement three weeks ago, saying she and her longtime friend planned to marry in June or July on Miami beach, followed by a party on a yacht.

The announcement came about a year after the "Respect" singer was sidelined by a mystery illness requiring surgery. She returned to performing and released a new album in May after dropping about 85 pounds in weight.

Man admits killing Texas dancer he met at NYC club

GOSHEN, N.Y. (iBBC News) — A sex offender suddenly admitted Monday that he suffocated an aspiring dancer from Texas he met at a Manhattan nightclub, stuffed her body into a laundry basket and dumped her 85 miles away in the Pennsylvania woods.

Accepting a manslaughter conviction in a plea bargain after three years of non-cooperation, Michael Mele said that after he picked up 25-year-old Laura Garza in December 2008, she became upset in his upstate apartment when she saw a picture of his girlfriend.

"She wanted to leave. I didn't want to drive back," said Mele, 26. "She started to get a little louder. I put my hand over her mouth and partially her nose, and shortly after that, she stopped yelling, stopped moving, and I realized something bad had happened."

He said he then panicked.

"I put her in a laundry basket and put a blanket over it," before carrying the body to his Infiniti SUV and driving to a remote area outside Scranton, Pa., where he dumped it, he said.

Garza's remains weren't found for more than two years.

Orange County Judge Nicholas De Rosa agreed to sentence Mele to 23 years in prison for manslaughter and at least 16 months more for tampering with evidence — Garza's body. The sentences are to be served concurrently, and defense lawyer Craig Brown said after the plea that with good behavior, Mele could be out in less than 20 years.

If convicted of murder at trial, he could have been sentenced to 25 years to life.

Several of Garza's relatives who attended the court session weren't satisfied.

Garza's mother, Elizabeth Esquivel, wept as she spoke to reporters in Spanish. A family friend, Awilda Cordero, translated, saying, "She's very upset. She's not happy with the 23 years. They wanted a jury to give him more. She's worried he'll get out before the 23 years."

Garza's brother Ivan Garza said, "It's not justice."

"My mother and my brother Nicolas and I, we came to see the man and to see a jury," he added. He said he has a daughter who might be Laura's age when Mele gets out of prison and he worries about people like him walking free.

Cordero said the family would address the judge about their concerns when Mele is formally sentenced March 6.

Prosecutor Kelle Grimmer wouldn't comment. A call to the district attorney's office wasn't immediately returned.

The plea came as jurors gathered in a nearby room, ready to hear the case. Opening arguments and the first witnesses had been scheduled for Monday. The gallery was packed with reporters and investigators, some of whom had worked on the case since Garza disappeared.

Garza, dreaming of a career in dance, had moved to Brooklyn from McAllen, Texas, on the Mexico border, five months earlier.

Early on Dec. 3, 2008, a surveillance camera captured her leaving the Marquee nightclub in Manhattan with Mele, who had several sex-offense convictions — most involving approaching women while fondling himself — and was on parole.

Investigators said they drove north 60 miles to his Wallkill home. Garza never came home, and Mele quickly became the prime suspect in her disappearance. He refused to answer questions, "continuing to exercise his right to remain silent," said Orange District Attorney Frank Phillips.

But Mele was quickly locked up for violating parole — he acknowledged drinking, he had not attended sex-offender treatment and he had not reported to his probation officer.

Police said that two days after Garza's disappearance, Mele had what appeared to be a bite mark on his finger and scratches on his back. Mele said the mark on his finger was a knife cut incurred during his work as a restaurant manager; he blamed his cat for the scratches.

His apartment and the woods, fields, roads and icy lakes around it, as well as septic systems and trash bins, became the grounds for an exhausting search for Garza and for evidence.

As many as 200 firefighters, police officers and volunteers spent days searching various locations in Orange and Sullivan counties.

Garza's brothers traveled east from Texas and posted "missing" signs with their sister's picture around the area. They held vigils for her in Manhattan a month after her disappearance and again at the one-year mark.

In April 2010, a group of ATV riders came across what police described as "an intact skeleton" outside Scranton. Police said a watch that Garza was wearing when she disappeared was found on the remains. DNA tests confirmed the identity.

Mele was indicted in December. Garza's body was eventually cremated, the ashes returned to her Texas hometown.

Russia's support "arsenal" for Assad exhausted: Kremlin

MOSCOW (iBBC News) - Moscow can do no more for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a top Kremlin aide said on Monday, opening the way to a shift in Russia's position after 10 months of bloodshed.

Russia has resisted pressure to call for Assad's resignation and, with China, blocked a Western-crafted U.N. Security Council resolution that would have condemned a crackdown that has killed thousands of Syrians.

But Mikhail Margelov, a senior lawmaker who is President Dmitry Medvedev's special Africa envoy and has engaged in diplomacy over Syria, said Russia's diplomatic 'arsenal' was now exhausted.

"(Our) veto on the U.N. Security Council resolution was the last instrument allowing Bashar al-Assad to maintain the status quo in the international arena," Margelov was quoted as saying by the state-run Itar-Tass news agency.

The veto "was a serious signal to the president of Syria from Russia. This veto has exhausted our arsenal of such resources," said Margelov, who is chairman of the international affairs committee in Russia's upper house of parliament.

Assad "should read this position unequivocally: reforms, an end to violence, free elections. This is what the Syrian leadership should do immediately, today," he said.

Moscow has repeatedly urged Assad to implement reforms faster but has opposed sanctions as a form of pressure.

Russia presented its own draft resolution to Security Council partners last year, but Western diplomats have accused Russia of failing to negotiate seriously in a bid to buy time for Damascus.

Pressure on Assad has increased after the Arab League called on him to step down in favor of a unity government. Syria has rebuffed the demand and Russia has not commented on it.

The Russian Foreign Ministry walked a thin line on Monday to avoid endorsement of the Arab League plan while still recognizing the league's mission to Syria as vital to dialogue between the authorities and protesters.

The ministry made no direct comment on the call for Assad to step down, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did not comment on it in brief remarks to journalists.

Analysts say Russia will hold out as long as possible before any climbdown on Syria, which it has used to emphasize its opposition to interference. It accused Western nations of violating the mandate of a Security Council resolution which authorized an air campaign that helped Libyan rebels oust Muammar Gaddafi last year.

"The Russian leadership is disappointed by the deadlock in Syria. We don't see any way out of the turmoil," said independent analyst Yevgeny Volk.

"Russia's position will remain ambiguous, (but) ... Russia is moving towards recognizing that Assad is not the person to rule Syria and that Syria needs some change, but Russia needs some guarantee its interests will be respected."

Apart from representing hundreds of millions of dollars in arms sales, Syria also hosts a Russian naval maintenance facility on its Mediterranean coast.

U.S. slaps sanctions on Iranian state-owned bank

WASHINGTON (iBBC News) - The Obama administration on Monday imposed sanctions on Iran's third largest bank, making it harder for Tehran to access the world's financial system.

Iran's Bank Tejarat, and an affiliate Trade Capital Bank, were blacklisted for providing financial services to other entities already sanctioned for their involvement with the country's nuclear weapons program, the U.S. said.

Sen. Brown, rival agree to curb Mass. attack ads

BOSTON (iBBC News) — Republican U.S. Sen. Scott Brown and his chief Democratic rival, Elizabeth Warren, have signed a pledge to curb political attack ads by outside groups in their Massachusetts Senate race.

Under the terms of the deal, each campaign would agree to donate half the cost of any third-party ad to charity if that ad either supports their candidacy or attacks their opponent by name.

At least one outside group that has targeted Warren immediately raised objections to the deal.

Brown first laid out the basic terms of the deal last week, but top-level staffers for both candidates were unable to reach a final deal on Friday.

Then early Monday morning, Warren responded, saying she was ready to sign off on the deal as long as it included a few final changes, such as adding Internet advertising to the deal and closing any other loopholes that could permit third parties to help one campaign or the other by running ads.

"With an agreement to try to stop third party advertising, we can set an historic example in Massachusetts and give the people we want to represent an opportunity to make a choice free from the kind of out-of-control, outsider advertising that has plagued so many recent elections," Warren wrote.

Brown quickly agreed, and signed what he described as the "People's Pledge."

"This is a great victory for the people of Massachusetts, and a bold statement that puts Super PACs and other third parties on notice that their interference in this race will not be tolerated," Brown said in a statement.

Both campaigns then quickly pointed out that each has already been the target of outside advertising.

Referring to Warren's background as a Harvard professor, Brown said "the extreme liberal groups who planned to pollute the airwaves with their false and misleading ads in support of Professor Warren can now pack their bags and find someplace else to do their dirty work."

Brown has come under fire from the League of Conservation Voters and the League of Women Voters, which have spent a total of about $3 million on separate ad campaigns criticizing him.

The League of Women Voters' ad rapped Brown for voting with other Senate Republicans to ban the Environmental Protection Agency from controlling gases blamed for global warming. They urged Brown to "protect the people and not the polluters." Another spot by the League of Conservation Voters slammed Brown for siding with "big oil."

Neither ad mentioned Warren, who pointed to outside ads that have targeted her campaign. Crossroads GPS, an affiliate of American Crossroads, a group with ties to GOP political operative Karl Rove, has already sponsored two ads.

"Karl Rove and his Crossroads GPS have pledged to spend millions of dollars in this campaign, and he has a long history of using every trick in the book. So I sign this agreement with both hope and vigilance, and I assume you do the same," Warren wrote.

One Crossroads ad used spliced images of Warren with rowdy Occupy Wall Street protesters to claim that she "sides with extreme left" protesters who "attack police, do drugs and trash public parks." A second ad by the group then painted Warren as being too cozy with Wall Street.

The president of American Crossroads, Steven Law, quickly criticized the deal saying it fails to cover union phone banks, direct mail, and get-out-the-vote drives, "all union core specialties."

The Crossroads GPS ads and the ads from the League of Women Voters and the League of Conservation Voters would all appear to come under the terms of the agreement.

Brown's campaign has also pointed to online ads from Rethink Brown — a political action committee formed last year. Its mission, according to its website, is "to encourage Massachusetts voters to make up their own minds about U.S. Senator Scott Brown's actual record and potentially 'rethink' their initial opinions about him."

A spokesman for Warren's campaign said joint letters signed by Warren and Brown will be going out to third-party groups — including Rethink Brown and American Crossroads — asking them to pull their ads.

The U.S. Supreme Court has paved the way for millions of dollars in spending by super PACs following a trio of decisions capped by the landmark Citizens United case in 2010, which eased restrictions on the use of corporate money in political campaigns.

The Senate campaign is expected to be one of the costliest in state history.

Warren has reported raising $5.7 million during the final three months of 2011, eclipsing Brown's $3.2 million for the same period. Brown still enjoys an overall money advantage with $12.8 million in cash on hand, compared to the more than $6 million Warren has in her account.

Newbery, Caldecott winners announced

NEW YORK (iBBC News) — Jack Gantos' "Dead End in Norvelt" has won the John Newbery Medal for the best children's book of 2011. Chris Rashka's "A Ball for Daisy" won the Randolph Caldecott award for best illustrated story.

The Newbery and Caldecott prizes, the most prestigious in U.S. children's literature, were announced Monday by the American Library Association. Gantos' novel follows the improbable adventures of a boy named "Jack Gantos," while Rashka's picture book recounts the saga of a dog whose favorite toy is destroyed.

Both winners are well established in children's publishing. Gantos has been a finalist for the Newbery and National Book Award. Rashka won the Caldecott in 2006 for "The Hello, Goodbye Window."

Replica ships Nina and Pinta to visit Houma

HOUMA, La. (iBBC News) — Replicas of two of the three ships that Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World will be displayed next month in Houma.

The Nina and Pinta will be open to the public Feb. 17-26 at the Downtown Marina, and will depart on Feb. 27.

A statement from the Columbus Foundation says the Nina was built by hand and without power tools. The Pinta is larger than the ship used by Columbus. It was built recently in Brazil to accompany the Nina.

The vessels tour together as a sailing museum, providing education to school children and maritime enthusiasts about caravels, the broad-bowed three-masted ships used by Columbus and many early explorers.

After Texas visits in March, the ships will be in Lake Charles on April 27-May 8 for the Contraband Days celebration.

Self-guided tours cost $6 to $8. Group tours are $4 per person. A minimum of 15 people is required for group tours.

PetMed shares rise on better-than-expected results

POMPANO BEACH, Fla (iBBC News) — Shares of PetMed Express rose Monday before the market opened after the company reported some surprising numbers for the fourth quarter.

For the period ended Dec. 31, the company said sales rose 12 percent to $50.5 million, compared with $45.1 million, in the prior-year period. Net income was $3.9 million or 19 cents per share compared with net income of $4.5 million or 20 cents per share. That represented a 3 percent decline, which still beat the average estimate of analysts surveyed by FactSet, who expected earnings per share of 16 cents on revenue of $44.7 million.

The company attributed the increase in sales to higher online purchases during the period, which increased 19 percent to $38.7 million for the quarter.

Company shares rose $2.22, or 19.7 percent, to $13.49 in premarket trading.

IAEA aims to resolve "substantive issues" in Iran

VIENNA (iBBC News) - The U.N. nuclear watchdog confirmed Monday a planned Jan 29-31 visit to Iran and said the overall objective was to "resolve all outstanding substantive issues" linked to Tehran's disputed atomic activities.

"A senior IAEA team will visit Iran from 29 - 31 January 2012," the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Vienna-based U.N. body, said in a statement.

"The team of experts will be led by the Deputy Director General for Safeguards, Herman Nackaerts, and will include the Assistant Director General for Policy, Rafael Grossi."

France votes on genocide law, faces Turkish reprisals

PARIS (iBBC News) - French senators vote later Monday on a bill to make it illegal to deny that the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks nearly a century ago was genocide, raising the prospect of a major diplomatic rift between two NATO allies.

Lawmakers in the lower-house National Assembly voted overwhelmingly in December for the draft law outlawing genocide denial, prompting Ankara to cancel all economic, political and military meetings with Paris and recall its ambassador for consultations. [ID:nL6E7NM0OV]

The bill, which has been made more general so that it outlaws the denial of any genocide, partly in the hope of appeasing the Turks, will be debated from 3 p.m. (1400 GMT) in the upper house before a final vote.

Armenia, backed by many historians and parliaments, says about 1.5 million Christian Armenians were killed in what is now eastern Turkey during World War One in a deliberate policy of genocide ordered by the Ottoman government.

The Ottoman empire was dissolved soon after the end of World War One, but successive Turkish governments and the vast majority of Turks feel the charge of genocide is a direct insult to their nation. Ankara argues there was heavy loss of life on both sides during fighting in the area.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Ankara would take new measures against France unless the bill was rejected.

"If every (EU) parliament implements decisions reflecting its own historical views a new Inquisition period will begin in Europe," Davutoglu was reported as saying by Dogan news agency. "We all know what happened during the Inquisition in the Middle Ages. Unfortunately the revival of this is shameful for France."

Thousands of Turks from across Europe demonstrated in central Paris at the weekend and about 200 Franco-Turks protested Monday in front of the senate. They waved their French voting cards and banners with slogans including: "It's not up to politicians to invent history."

The Socialist Party, which has had a majority in the Senate since elections in the upper house late last year, and the Senate leader of President Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP party, which put forward the bill, have said they will back the legislation.

But a non-binding Senate recommendation last week said the law would be unconstitutional, and after weeks of aggressive Turkish lobbying there are suggestions the outcome will be closer than anticipated.

If adopted, Sarkozy should then ratify the bill with the process to be completed before parliament is suspended in February ahead of presidential elections.

The bill can still be rejected by the country's highest court if that body considers the text unconstitutional.

Turkey calls the bill a bid by Sarkozy to win the votes of 500,000 ethnic Armenians in France in the two-round presidential vote on April 22 and May 6.

Sarkozy wrote to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan last week saying the bill did not single out any country and that Paris was aware of the "suffering endured by the Turkish people" during the final years of the Ottoman empire.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero Monday called on Turkey not to overreact, adding that Paris considered Ankara a "very important ally."

Engin Solakoglu, first secretary at the Turkish embassy in Paris, said: "France can't continue to say that Turkey is an important ally when it votes laws against it."

European Union candidate Turkey could not impose economic sanctions on France, given its World Trade Organization membership and customs union accord with Europe.

But the row could cost France state-to-state contracts and would create diplomatic tension as Turkey takes an increasingly influential role in the Middle East.

The bill mandates a maximum 45,000-euro fine and a year in jail for offenders. France passed a law recognizing the killing of Armenians as genocide in 2001.

JetBlue, Hawaiian Airlines ink partnership deal

NEW YORK (iBBC News) — JetBlue Airways Corp. and Hawaiian Airlines have formed a partnership that will allow passengers to fly on both carriers' flights on a single ticket.

The deal, which is expected to be formally announced later Monday, follows Hawaiian Airlines' announcement of plans to add New York service direct from its home base in Honolulu starting in June. Customers on both airlines will be able to connect with those flights through JetBlue's base at New York's JFK.

In the meantime, passengers can connect through Los Angeles International Airport to Hawaiian Airlines one-stop service from Hawaii to New York.

Besides added flight options, travelers will also be able to earn or redeem frequent flier miles on each other's flights, starting with the New York service in June.

Partnerships like this allow airlines to expand their service without spending more money to add flights on their own. Hawaiian Airlines already has similar partnerships, called codeshares, with major U.S. airlines including United-Continental, Delta and American. JetBlue has deals with a number of international carriers, including Ireland's Aer Lingus, Virgin Atlantic Airways and Emirates.

Sharapova battles through after Lisicki scare

MELBOURNE (iBBC News) - Maria Sharapova hammered her way into the quarter-finals of the Australian Open Monday but only after some tense moments in a third-set decider when Germany's Sabine Lisicki had her hanging on by her finger nails.

The fourth-seeded Russian had to blunt the powerful ground strokes and blistering service returns of the 14th seeded Lisicki and fought off five break points in the third game of the final set to turn the match her way.

The Russian's confidence grew enough for her to break Lisicki's serve in the sixth game of the set, which essentially sealed the victory and she ran out a 3-6 6-2 6-3 winner.

The 24-year-old had walked onto Rod Laver Arena a heavy favorite having conceded just five games in her previous three matches and spent only three hours, 29 minutes on court.

In contrast, Lisicki had been hampered by an abdominal injury that forced her to withdraw from the Auckland Classic quarter-finals and out of Sydney altogether.

Knowing that old rival Serena Williams would not be waiting for her in the quarter-finals after the American was bundled out earlier by Ekaterina Makarova, Sharapova raced out to a 3-0 lead and seemed destined for another early night.

Lisicki, however, finally found her range and reeled off six successive games to win the first set when Sharapova blasted a backhand service return well over the baseline.

A nervous looking Sharapova, well aware that if she did not stop the momentum she would be joining Williams on an early flight home, was in danger of losing her first service game of the second set before she attacked the net twice and managed to fight off the German and hold serve.

She then began to control the pace of the match, stopping Lisicki's high-paced game to seal the second set in 42 minutes.

"She's a really solid player," Sharapova said of Lisicki, who she beat in last year's Wimbledon semi-finals.

"If you play to her strengths, if you give her time that's what she really does best, she gets a good strike on the ball and can hit a good winner from any side of the court.

"But obviously I was trying to create those opportunities where maybe she had to go for a little bit more and force the errors out of her."

Lisicki attacked Sharapova's serve in the third set and held five break points in the third game before Sharapova slammed a forehand winner to hold and screeched a loud "Come On" before she broke Lisicki in the sixth game that gave her the momentum to win.

"I think it (when Sharapova held serve) was quite important, but also the game where she broke me," Lisicki said.

"It was very close, the entire match. When the match is that close, really every single point counts at that moment.

"I thought it was a very good game. Unfortunately she made some great serves in the third set when I had breakpoints (and there was) not much I could do there at that moment.

"But I kept fighting until the very last point, and unfortunately it wasn't enough."

Iran steps up threats to shutter Strait of Hormuz

TEHRAN, Iran (iBBC News) — Two Iranian lawmakers on Monday stepped up threats their country would shutter the strategic Strait of Hormuz, through which a fifth of the world's crude flows, in retaliation for oil sanctions on Tehran.

The warnings came as EU nations agreed in Brussels on an oil embargo against Iran as part of sanctions over the country's controversial nuclear program. The measure includes an immediate embargo on new contracts for Iranian crude and petroleum products while existing ones are allowed to run until July.

Iran has repeatedly warned it would choke off the strait if sanctions affect its oil sales, and two lawmakers ratcheted up the rhetoric on Monday.

Lawmaker Mohammad Ismail Kowsari, deputy head of Iran's influential committee on national security, said the strait "would definitely be closed if the sale of Iranian oil is violated in any way."

Kowsari claimed that in case of the strait's closure, the U.S. and its allies would not be able to reopen the route, and warned America not to attempt any "military adventurism."

Another senior lawmaker, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, said Iran has the right to shutter Hormuz in retaliation for oil sanctions and that the closure was increasingly probable, according to the semiofficial Mehr news agency.

"In case of threat, the closure of the Strait of Hormuz is one of Iran's rights," Falahatpisheh said. "So far, Iran has not used this privilege."

Monday's EU measure also includes a freeze on the assets of Iran's central bank as part of sanctions meant to pressure Tehran to resume talks on its uranium enrichment, a process that can lead to making nuclear weapons. Iran insists its nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes.

For its part, the United States has enacted, but not yet put into force, sanctions targeting Iran's central bank and, by extension, the country's ability to be paid for its oil.

Some 80 percent of Iran's oil revenue comes from exports and any measures or sanctions taken that affect its ability to export oil could hit hard at its economy. With about 4 million barrels per day, Iran is the second largest producer in OPEC.

Tensions over the strait and the potential impact on global oil supplies and also the price of crude have weighed heavily on consumers and traders. Both the U.S. and Britain have warned Iran over any disruption to the world's oil supply through he strait.

Another Iranian lawmaker, Ali Adyani, sought to downplay the latest EU move, describing it as a "mere propaganda gesture," according to the semiofficial Fars news agency.

Former intelligence minister, Ali Falahaian, suggested Iran should stop all its crude exports "so that oil prices would go up and the Europeans' sanctions would collapse."

Threats to close the strait escalated during Iran's naval exercises in the Persian Gulf in January. Iran plans more naval war games in February.

2 dead in Ala. as storms pound South, Midwest

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (iBBC News) — Emergency officials say two people have died in the Birmingham, Ala., area as storms pounded the South and Midwest, prompting tornado warnings in a handful of states.

Allen Kniphfer of the Jefferson County emergency management said early Monday the victims were found in two different areas of the county in central Alabama.

No more details of the deaths were immediately available.

Searchers in the Birmingham area were going from house-to-house early Monday in an effort to rescue people trapped in their homes.

Halliburton rides oil boom to 4Q profit

NEW YORK (iBBC News) — Halliburton's net income spiked 50 percent in the final three months of 2011 as the world's biggest oilfield services company shifted its focus from natural gas to oil, with a barrel of crude again trading near the triple digit mark yet again.

Energy companies are capitalizing on new technology to reach crude that was once prohibitively expensive to pump, especially in the United States, and Halliburton has benefited immensely.

The Houston company posted earnings of $906 million, or 98 cents per share, for the fourth quarter. That compares with $605 million, or 66 cents per share, for the same part of 2010.

Excluding a $15 million charge for an "environmental-related matter," Halliburton Co. earned $1 per share in the quarter. Revenue increased 36.9 percent to $7.06 billion.

The boom in shale drilling across regions of North America boosted Halliburton's 2011 earnings to

$2.84 billion, or $3.08 per share, compared with $1.84 billion, or $2.02 per share, in 2010. Annual revenue increased 38.1 percent to $24.8 billion.

Hydraulic fracturing, still a relatively new technology, has allowed energy companies to get to oil in fields that had been left behind with most of the remaining resources trapped in rock. Halliburton and others use a mix of highly pressurized water and chemicals to break apart those shale formations and free the resources contained within.

That has reshaped the industry enormously in recent years and those changes continued Monday with the announcement that oil and gas producer Apache Corp. would buy privately held Cordillera Energy Partners III LLC in a deal valued at $2.85 billion. Apache wanted access to Cordillera's approximately 254,000 net acres in the Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle, areas rich with potential for shale drilling.

Those companies need Halliburton to service wells, increasingly oil wells rather than natural gas.

"In 2012, we expect revenue growth in excess of rig count growth in both the Eastern and Western Hemispheres," said CEO Dave Lesar. "We are proactively moving equipment from dry natural gas to liquids plays in North America in response to recent rig moves. We believe strongly that we will not experience a collapse of margins in North America and, as a result, we expect revenue and operating income will increase in 2012 in North America."

Oil prices increased more than 10 percent in the fourth quarter while natural gas prices dropped by 13 percent.

Halliburton also saw an increase in drilling in Gulf of Mexico during the fourth quarter. Operating income also grew in Latin America, while falling in Europe and North Africa and holding steady in the Middle East.

Overall, the company's completion and production business increased profits 58 percent while its drilling and evaluation business increased profits by 35.6 percent.

Schlumberger Ltd., another major oil services firm, reported a 36 percent jump in fourth-quarter profits last week.

Halliburton shares fell by 20 cents to $36 in premarket trading.

Manning, Giants heading to Indy to face Pats again

Hey, Indianapolis. A Manning will be playing in your Super Bowl, after all.

No, not that one.

It'll be Eli Manning leading the New York Giants to a Super Bowl rematch against the New England Patriots — and this time on older brother Peyton's home field.

"It doesn't matter to me where you're playing it or the fact that it's in Indianapolis," Eli Manning said. "I'm just excited about being in one."

And if the Giants can pull this one off, Eli will have sibling bragging rights with one more Super Bowl ring than Peyton, who missed this season for the Colts after having neck surgery.

It sure won't be easy for the Giants, though. Four years after New York stunned previously undefeated New England in the Arizona desert, they'll play a Super sequel.

Eli vs. Brady. Coughlin vs. Belichick. The Giants vs. the Patriots.

Sound familiar? Here we go again.

"It's awesome and we look forward to the challenge," Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora said. "They are a great football team. They have always been a great football team. We are looking forward to it, and it's going to be a great game."

Well, judging from the last time these teams met in the Super Bowl — David Tyree's jaw-dropping, helmet-pinning catch and all — it just might be.

"Being in this situation is a great moment," Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. "You have to cherish this moment."

New England (15-3) opened as a 3-point favorite for the Feb. 5 game against New York (12-7), but the Patriots know all about being in this position. They were favored by 12 points and pursuing perfection in 2008, but New York's defense battered Brady, and Manning connected with Plaxico Burress on a late touchdown to win the Giants' third Super Bowl.

That TD came, of course, a few moments after one of the biggest plays in playoff history: Manning escaping the grasp of Patriots defenders and finding Tyree, who put New York in scoring position by trapping the football against his helmet.

"Hopefully, we will have the same result," Umenyiora said. "We still have one more game to go, but this is truly unbelievable."

Especially since the Giants appeared on the verge of collapsing with Tom Coughlin's job status in jeopardy just a month ago, when they fell to 7-7 with an embarrassing loss to the Washington Redskins on Dec. 18.

"We've been here before," linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka said at the time, "and we'll get back."

Boy, was he right.

The Giants were facing elimination against the rival Jets and Rex Ryan, who boldly declared that his team ruled New York. Well, Coughlin's crew silenced Ryan with a 29-14 victory. The Giants followed that with a 31-14 win over Dallas in the regular-season finale to clinch the NFC East and get to the playoffs for the first time since the 2008 season.

New York dominated Atlanta at home in the opening round. Then came a stunner: a 37-20 victory at Green Bay — knocking out the defending Super Bowl champions.

On Sunday, Manning extended the best season of his career with one more solid performance, and Lawrence Tynes kicked the Giants past the San Francisco 49ers 20-17 in overtime for the NFC title.

"I'm just proud of the guys, what we've overcome this year, what we've been through," Manning said, "just never having any doubts, keep believing in our team that we could get hot and start playing our best football."

The Patriots are rolling into the Super Bowl having won 10 straight, with their last loss being to — you guessed it — the Giants, 24-20 back in early November.

"We know they're a great team," Manning said. "We played them already this year. They've been playing great football recently."

They sure have. And now Brady and the Patriots are in familiar territory, playing in the Super Bowl for the fifth time in 11 years — and first since the stunning upset in Arizona.

New England hopes to avoid all that sort of drama this time around. Unless it goes in the Patriots' favor, as it did in the AFC title game.

Brady was unusually subpar in the Patriots' 23-20 victory over Baltimore, throwing for 239 yards with two interceptions and, for the first time in 36 games, no TD passes. But he got some help from the Patriots' much-maligned defense, which made some crucial stops down the stretch.

A few mistakes by the Ravens helped greatly, too, as Billy Cundiff shanked a 32-yard field goal attempt with 11 seconds left — soon after Lee Evans had a potential winning touchdown catch ripped out of his hands in the end zone.

"Childlike joy. It's all about childlike joy," linebacker Jerod Mayo said. "Last night felt like the day before Christmas for me and I haven't had that feeling in a long time."

New England last won the Super Bowl in 2005, a long drought considering that the Patriots took home Lombardi trophies three times in four years. There are only a handful of players left from that team, with guys like Corey Dillon, Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison replaced by young up-and-comers such as Mayo, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

"It doesn't even feel right, especially playing with the veterans here," Gronkowski said. "I watched them go to the Super Bowl as I was growing up, and now I'm part of it? It is an unreal moment."

The constants, though, are Brady and Bill Belichick. And that's been a winning combination for New England, combining to become the first QB-coach combination to win five conference championships in the Super Bowl era.

Belichick did perhaps his finest coaching job this season, piecing together a defense that ranked second-to-last in the league during the regular season. That led to plenty of shootouts, and Brady was more than up to the task, throwing for a career-high 5,235 yards while tossing 39 touchdown passes.

"They're an amazing team," Patriots owner Robert Kraft said. "They're a great brotherhood; they're a family."

And they're all looking to lift another Super Bowl trophy together. Patriots-Giants. One more time.

Egypt's Islamist-led parliament to hold first session

CAIRO (iBBC News) - Egypt's parliament sits on Monday for the first time since a historic free election that put Islamists in the driving seat after years of repression under former president Hosni Mubarak.

The Muslim Brotherhood's party was the biggest winner in the first free vote in decades. It has vowed to guide Egypt in the transition to civilian rule after generals took charge following the fall of Mubarak to a popular uprising last February.

The rise of the Islamists marks a sea change from Mubarak's era when parliament was a compliant body stuffed with members of his National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood was officially banned though semi-tolerated.

Generals will remain in charge until after a presidential election in June when they have promised to hand over power, though many Egyptians suspect the army may seek to stay on from behind the scenes even after that.

"It will be a historic session in Egypt's transition to democracy and civilian rule," Mohamed Beltagy, a leading member of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), said before the first session, due to begin at 11 a.m. (4 a.m. ET).

One of the first steps in Monday's session of the lower house will be electing a speaker, set to be the FJP's nominee, Mohamed el-Katatni. Elections to parliament's upper house will be in February.

Although Islamists dominate, it is unclear whether they will form a single bloc in parliament, which will have a key role in drafting the new constitution by picking the 100-strong assembly that will draw up the new document. The Brotherhood has said it wants to be inclusive and ensure all voices in Egypt are heard.

"We will cooperate with everyone: with the political forces inside and outside parliament, with the interim government and with the military council until we reach safety heralded by presidential election," said Essam el-Erian, deputy FJP head.

Youth movements, who put national pride before religion when they galvanized Egyptians in the 18-day revolt against Mubarak, said they would demonstrate outside the assembly to ensure protesters killed in the uprising were not forgotten.

"We do not contest the popular mandate of parliament, but it better deliver on the rights of martyrs and wounded. We fear political parties may vie for political gain and ignore the youth," activist Mohamed Fahmy said.

Liberals were pushed into third place behind the FJP and ultraconservative Islamist Salafis led by the al-Nour party, the surprise runners up. The FJP says it controls almost half the 498 elected seats, with a few re-runs still to be held.

REVIVAL

Monday's session marks the revival of an assembly that in the early 20th century was a vibrant forum for the nation's aspirations and filled with deputies who vied with the monarch and Egypt's British overlords.

Parliament's independent voice was extinguished after a 1952 coup that toppled the king and swept military-backed autocrats to power. Mubarak was a former air force commander and the ruling military council is now led by Mubarak's defense minister for 20 years, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.

"The Egyptian military seems at this point determined to carve out an exception to democratic rule for its area of power and interest," Human Rights Watch's executive director Kenneth Roth said on Sunday at the launch of the group's annual report in Cairo.

Parliamentarians see the new assembly as bringing Egypt a step closer to ending military rule.

"We say that we respect and appreciate the army but the military council must be held accountable for any mistakes ... No one is above accountability," the Brotherhood's general guide, Mohamed Badie, said last week.

But the Islamist group has also previously said it does not seek a confrontation with the military.

Some analysts have suggested the army will not fully abandon politics unless the Brotherhood and other prominent political parties offer guarantees that it will not face legal retribution over the killing of protesters.

Mubarak, 83, is now on trial for his role in the deaths of 850 people during the uprising. Scores of people have been killed in sporadic violence since then, including demonstrations against army rule in November and December.

Several youth groups said they would hold protests in front of parliament in central Cairo to ensure the new assembly supports those wounded or families of those killed in protests.

A Brotherhood source said its members would form a human chain around parliament to stop any protest turning violent.

Mixed record for Obama's State of the Union goals

WASHINGTON (iBBC News) — As President Barack Obama prepares to deliver his annual address to Congress, many goals he outlined in previous State of the Union speeches remain unfulfilled. From reforming immigration laws to meeting monthly with congressional leaders of both parties, the promises fell victim to congressional opposition or faded in face of other priorities as the unruly realities of governing set in.

For Obama, like presidents before him, the State of the Union is an opportunity like no other to state his case on a grand stage, before both houses of Congress and a prime-time television audience. But as with other presidents, the aspirations he's laid out have often turned out to be ephemeral, unable to secure the needed congressional consent or requiring follow-through that's not been forthcoming.

As Obama's first term marches to an end amid bitterly divided government and an intense campaign by Republicans to take his job, it's going to be even harder for him to get things done this year. So Tuesday night's speech may focus as much on making an overarching case for his presidency — and for a second term — as on the kind of laundry list of initiatives that sometimes characterize State of the Union appeals.

"State of the Union addresses are kind of like the foam rubber rocks they used on Star Trek — they look solid but aren't," said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. "Presidents will talk about solving some policy problem, and then the bold language of the State of the Union address disappears into the messy reality of governing."

For Obama, last year's State of the Union offers a case study in that dynamic. Speaking to a newly divided government not long after the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz., Obama pleaded for national unity, a grand goal that never came to pass as Washington quickly dissolved into one partisan dispute after another.

Many of the particulars Obama rolled out that night proved just as hard to pull off.

Among the initiatives Obama promoted then that have yet to come to fruition a year later: eliminating subsidies to oil companies; replacing No Child Left Behind with a better education law; making a tuition tax credit permanent; rewriting immigration laws; and reforming the tax system.

The list of what he succeeded in accomplishing is considerably shorter, including: securing congressional approval of a South Korea free trade deal; signing legislation to undo a burdensome tax reporting requirement in his health care law; and establishing a website to show taxpayers where their tax dollars go.

One of Obama's pledges from last January's speech — to undertake a reorganization of the federal government — he got around to rolling out only this month. And other promises are vaguer or more long term, such as declaring a "Sputnik moment" for today's generation and calling for renewed commitments to research and development and clean energy technology; pushing to prepare more educators to teach science, technology and math; promoting high-speed rail and accessible broadband; and seeking greater investments in infrastructure.

"Clearly as time goes on and a presidency matures you get less and less of it and the State of the Union becomes an aspiration for what you want to do as opposed to a road map for what you can accomplish," said Princeton University historian Julian Zelizer. As voters' enthusiasm fades and opposition deepens, Zelizer said, "You lose some of your power and you get closer to the next election and no one wants to work with you."

Last year's address already contained more modest goals than the speech Obama gave to a joint session of Congress a month after his inauguration, which although not technically a State of the Union report had the feel of one. At the time Obama called for overhauling health care and ending the war in Iraq — promises he kept — but also for closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and imposing caps on carbon pollution — promises unmet.

Some of his goals, such as immigration and education reform, have resurfaced in multiple addresses, but still without being accomplished.

And rarely has Obama's rhetoric as president reached as high as the lofty promises of his campaign, when he pledged to change the very way Washington does business and remake politics itself. It's a far cry from those promises of change to the ambition of meeting monthly with Democratic and Republican congressional leaders — but even that relatively modest goal, from Obama's 2010 State of the Union, went unfulfilled.

Administration nominees awaiting next move by GOP

WASHINGTON (iBBC News) — Senate Republicans are returning to Washington in an angry mood over President Barack Obama's appointments to two key agencies during a year-end break.

More than 70 nominees to judgeships and senior federal agency positions are awaiting the next move from Republicans, who can use Senate rules to block votes on some or all of Obama's picks.

While Republicans return Monday to discuss their next step, recess appointee Richard Cordray is running a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the National Labor Relations Board — with three temporary members — is now at full strength with a Democratic majority.

Obama left more than 70 other nominees in limbo, well aware that Republicans could use Senate rules to block them.

The White House justified the appointments on grounds that Republicans were holding up the nominations to paralyze the two agencies. The consumer protection agency was established under the 2010 Wall Street reform law, which requires the bureau to have a director in order to begin policing financial products such as mortgages, checking accounts, credit cards and payday loans.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the five-member NLRB must have a three-member quorum to issue regulations or decide major cases in union-employer disputes.

Several agencies contacted by The iBBC News, including banking regulators, said they were conducting their normal business despite vacancies at the top. In some cases, nominees are serving in acting capacities.

At full strength, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. has five board members. The regulation of failed banks "is unaffected," said spokesman Andrew Gray. "The three-member board has been able to make decisions without a problem." Cordray's appointment gives it a fourth member.

The Comptroller of the Currency, run by an acting chief, has kept up its regular examinations of banks. The Federal Trade Commission, operating with four board members instead of five, has had no difficulties. "This agency is not a partisan combat agency," said spokesman Peter Kaplan. "Almost all the votes are unanimous and consensus-driven."

Republicans have pledged retaliation for Obama's recess appointments, but haven't indicated what it might be.

"The Senate will need to take action to check and balance President Obama's blatant attempt to circumvent the Senate and the Constitution, a claim of presidential power that the Bush administration refused to make," said Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican who is his party's top member on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Grassley wouldn't go further, and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky hasn't tipped his hand after charging that Obama had "arrogantly circumvented the American people." Before the Senate left for its break in December, McConnell blocked Senate approval of more than 60 pending nominees because Obama wouldn't commit to making no recess appointments.

Republicans have to consider whether their actions, especially any decision to block all nominees, might play into Obama's hands.

Obama has adopted an election-year theme of "we can't wait" for Republicans to act on nominations and major proposals like his latest jobs plan. Republicans have to consider how their argument that the president is violating Constitutional checks and balances plays against Obama's stump speeches characterizing them as obstructionists.

Senate historian Donald Ritchie said the minority party has retaliated in the past for recess appointments by holding up specific nominees. "I'm not aware of any situations where no nominations were accepted," he said. The normal practice is for the two party leaders to negotiate which nominations get votes.

During the break, Republicans forced the Senate to convene for usually less than a minute once every few days to argue that there was no recess and that Obama therefore couldn't bypass the Senate's authority to confirm top officials. The administration said this was a sham, and has released a Justice Department opinion backing up the legality of the appointments.

Obama considers the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau a signature achievement of his first term. Republicans have been vehemently opposed to the bureau's setup. They argued the agency needed a bipartisan board instead of a director and should have to justify its budget to Congress instead of drawing its funding from the independent Federal Reserve.

Cordray is expected to get several sharp questions from Republicans when he testifies Tuesday before a House Oversight and Government Reform panel.

The NLRB has been a target of Republicans and business groups. Last year, the agency accused Boeing of illegally retaliating against union workers who had struck its plants in Washington state by opening a new production line at its non-union plant in South Carolina. Boeing denied the charge and the case has since been settled, but Republican anger over it and a string of union-friendly decisions from the board last year hasn't abated.

Maruti Suzuki Q3 profit slumps 64 pct

iBBC News - Maruti Suzuki, India's biggest carmaker, reported a bigger-than-expected 63.6 percent fall in quarterly net profit as high interest rates and rising fuel costs hit demand for cars in Asia's third-largest economy.

Maruti, 54.2 percent owned by Japan's Suzuki Motor Corp <7269.T>, saw sales plunge 28 percent in the December quarter, because of a slowdown in small-car sales -- its key product -- while recovering from labour unrest last summer.

The company said profit fell to 2.06 billion rupees in the quarter from 5.65 billion rupees a year earlier, while sales fell to 76.6 billion rupees from 92.8 billion rupees.

Analysts expected net profit of 2.35 billion rupees, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Murray breezes into Australian Open quarters

MELBOURNE (iBBC News) - Andy Murray breezed into the quarter-finals of the Australian Open on Monday after Mikhail Kukushkin retired due to injury in their third set.

Murray, who had toiled against the Kazakh in the Brisbane warm-up tournament, was leading 6-1 6-1 1-0 when Kukushkin said he could not continue due to a hip flexor injury, allowing the Briton to retreat from the scorching heat on Rod Laver Arena.

World number four Murray, the runner-up at Melbourne Park for the last two years, will next play Japan's Kei Nishikori, who stunned French sixth seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in five sets.

"Just boring" was how Murray described his 49 minutes on court against the hobbled Kukushkin and said he would have to hit the practice courts to make sure he did not lose his rhythm.

But while the Scot was aware he had not been given a proper workout he was pleased to keep his powder dry for the quarter-finals.

"You can't look at it as a negative. At this stage of the tournament to be off the court in 45 minutes or so isn't bad," he told reporters. "It's perfect because you conserve energy."

Murray said Kukushkin made the right decision to quit.

"I thought it was best he retired because it was pointless. The people probably weren't enjoying the match that much. I certainly wasn't because nothing was happening.

"Sometimes it's best just to stop."

The 24-year-old credited new coach Ivan Lendl with instilling a little bit of extra confidence in him and said he was soaking up the eight-times grand slam champion's knowledge.

"I think because it's him you're kind of like a sponge," he added. "You're kind of absorbing a lot of different information. You're asking a lot of questions and you're getting a lot of good answers, interesting ones.

"When you just get that little bit of extra help from someone that's been there and done it many, many times, it helps."

History repeats itself in euro crisis debt spat

PARIS (iBBC News) - There are weeks when it can sound as if the European sovereign debt crisis is going round in circles. Barbed exchanges between Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and German Chancellor Angela Merkel carry echos of a prolonged dialogue of the deaf between Greece and Germany two years ago when Berlin was resisting calls to bail out Athens.

Then as now, a debt-stricken government pushing through spending cuts, tax rises and economic reforms pleaded for lower interest rates and stronger European (read German) support to convince citizens the pain is worthwhile.

Now as then, a chancellor constrained by public hostility to bailouts and convinced only market pressure can keep profligate nations on a path of righteousness is turning a deaf ear, saying there is no need to act since no one is requesting aid.

The delay in acting to help Greece in early 2010 undermined financial market confidence in the 17-nation single European currency, which has still not been wholly restored, and raised the cost of the eventual rescue.

But it's not all deja vu, because Germany has far more confidence in Monti's Italy than it ever had in Greece.

As a result, EU officials expect Merkel to relent and agree to a bigger European financial firewall in March once euro zone leaders have signed two key treaties sought by Berlin on budget discipline and the rules of a permanent rescue fund.

In the meantime, Italians fretting about tax rises and public spending cuts can draw some consolation from their country's declining borrowing costs on the bond market despite Standard & Poor's double-notch downgrade of Italy's credit rating to BBB+ on Jan 13.

"The problem is that despite these sacrifices, we do not see any concessions from the EU, such as in the form of lower interest rates," Monti complained to the German newspaper Die Welt on the eve of a visit to Berlin earlier this month.

If there was no tangible reward for their efforts, Italians could turn against Europe and against Germany, "seen as the leader of EU intolerance", he warned.

He has also voiced support for common euro zone bonds as a longer-term solution, which is anathema to Merkel.

In the short-term, Monti wants Berlin to increase the size of the euro zone's rescue fund for countries shut out of capital markets. The more money is pledged to the fund, he said, the less likely it is to have to spend a single euro.

That drew a gruff response from the chancellery.

"I am still searching for what more Germany should do for other euro zone countries," Merkel said when asked if Berlin should show more solidarity after S&P cut the credit ratings of Italy and eight other euro zone states.

Government spokesmen ruled out raising the German contribution to the rescue fund.

In public, Merkel has expressed admiration for Monti's bold pension and business reforms, and the Italian leader has lauded Germany's social market economy as a model for all of Europe.

Privately, German and Italian officials are sometimes less complimentary about each other.

While they respect Monti, the Germans are quick to recall that his predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi, went back on promised deficit reduction steps as soon as the European Central Bank stepped in to rescue Rome last August by buying its bonds.

Italy could apply for the European Financial Stability Facility to buy or insure its new bonds. But some in Berlin say Rome wants to avoid the stigma and the strict conditions and intrusive supervision that would come with such assistance.

In German eyes, it seems perverse to press for a bigger firewall when the money in the existing temporary rescue fund is not being tapped. Increasing the amount available might only whet the market's appetite for more.

Besides, it would be difficult to get Merkel's centre-right coalition to approve another increase in parliament after she repeatedly promised lawmakers last year that Germany's total liability would be pegged at 211 billion euros.

The Italians voice private frustration at perceived German intransigeance and question Merkel's pursuit of the fiscal pact to enforce stricter budget discipline in the euro zone when bond markets are more concerned to see a stronger financial backstop.

The German leader's insistence that European help for countries in difficulty must only be a "last resort" means the political will in Berlin to agree to additional measures tends to evaporate each time the markets are calm for a weak or two, an Italian diplomat said.

Unlike French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has argued that the European Central Bank should act as a lender of last resort to underpin the euro zone, Monti shares the German view of the treaty limits on the ECB's role.

His focus on strengthening the EU rescue fund shows a keen sense of what is politically feasible in Germany.

European officials expect Berlin will eventually allow the two rescue funds -- the temporary European Financial Stability Facility and the permanent European Stability Mechanism -- to run in parallel from July for an extended period.

That would provide a combined capacity of nearly 1 trillion euros, even if the EFSF has to live with a AA+ rather than a triple-A credit rating after some of its key guarantors, especially France, were downgraded.

Such a move might convince the world's major economies in the G20 that the euro zone is doing more to rescue itself, and hence enable the International Monetary Fund to increase its fire-fighting capacity by the requested $600 billion.

So the public sparring between Monti and Merkel may turn out to have been more of a safety valve to assuage public pressure on both sides of the euro zone divide until such a deal emerges than a venting of profound differences.
 
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