World and Nation

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U.S. Agreement With Iraq Over Troops Now at Risk

An agreement to extend the U.S. military mandate in Iraq beyond this year — near completion only a month ago — has stalled over objections by Iraqi leaders and could be in danger of unraveling, according to Iraqi and Bush administration officials.

The disagreements threaten a capstone of President Bush’s Iraq policy during his remaining months in office. Bush has already offered significant concessions to the government of Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki in the negotiations, including his willingness to accept a specific date for withdrawing U.S. forces: the end of 2011.

The major remaining point of contention involves immunity, with the United States maintaining that U.S. troops and military contractors should have the same protections they have in other countries where they are based and Iraq insisting they be subject to the country’s criminal justice system for any crime committed outside of a military operation, the officials said.

In a television interview this week, al-Maliki cited the example of an Iraqi killed by an American soldier in a market, saying that a case like that should fall “to Iraqi courts immediately.”

“This,” he said of the U.S position, “they reject.”

The White House has expressed confidence that an agreement could be reached before the end of December, when the United Nations’ mandate authorizing U.S. forces in Iraq expires. In a sign of urgency, though, the administration plans to send its chief negotiators back to Baghdad in the coming days to try to complete an agreement that officials had originally planned to finish in July.

Famine Threatens Afghanistan

A pitiable harvest this year has left small farmers all over central and northern Afghanistan facing hunger, and aid officials are warning of an acute food shortage this winter for 9 million Afghans, more than a quarter of the population.

The crisis has been generated by the harshest winter in memory, followed by a drought across much of the country, which come on top of the broader problems of deteriorating security, the accumulated pressure of returning refugees and the effects of rising world food prices.

The failure of the Afghan government and foreign donors to develop the country’s main economic sector, agriculture, has compounded the problems, the officials say. They warn that the food crisis could make an already bad security situation worse.

The British charity Oxfam, which conducted a provisional assessment of conditions in the province of Daykondi, one of the most remote areas of central Afghanistan, has appealed for international assistance before winter sets in. “Time is running out to avert a humanitarian crisis,” it said.

That assessment is echoed by villagers across the broader region, including in Bamian province.

“In all these 30 years of war, we have not had it as bad as this,” said one farmer, Said Muhammad, 60, who lives in Yakowlang, in Bamian. “We don’t have enough food for the winter. We will have to go to the towns to look for work.”

Mayor in China Fired in Widening Milk Scandal

The mayor of a city whose officials have been accused of failing to deal with reports of tainted baby milk was dismissed Thursday as the government announced that a fourth infant had died and that the police had arrested a dozen more people in a widening investigation.

The mayor of Shijiazhuang, Ji Chuntang, was the most senior official to be fired so far in the growing milk scandal. Ji had been removed Wednesday from his post as deputy secretary of the Shijiazhuang Municipal Committee of the Communist Party, according to Xinhua, the state news agency.

Sanlu Group, one of China’s largest dairy companies and the first company that was found to be selling contaminated milk, has its headquarters in Shijiazhuang, in the northern province of Hebei. Investigators have discovered traces of melamine, an industrial chemical, in batches of powdered baby formula made by 22 dairy companies, all of which have said they were recalling their milk products. Producers trying to cut costs often dilute milk with water, which lowers the nutrition level. But the addition of melamine, which is high in nitrogen, helps the milk appear to meet nutrition standards by artificially raising its protein count.

Babies drinking the tainted milk over the course of several months can develop kidney stones or suffer kidney failure. Chinese officials said more than 6,200 babies developed kidney stones after drinking Sanlu’s baby milk formula, and four have died.

Oil Prices Return to Triple-Digits

After spending only three days under $100 a barrel, oil prices shot back up on Thursday morning, erasing most of a $10-a-barrel decline in just two days.

Crude oil futures traded above $100 shortly after the open, before falling back slightly to $99.75. The rise follows a large jump on Wednesday when oil gained 6.6 percent as panicky investors fled the stock market to seek shelter in the perceived safety of commodities.

After six months in the triple-digits, oil prices had slumped earlier in the week because of concerns that the financial turmoil on Wall Street would slow economic growth and hurt oil demand. Prices, which had fallen to $91.51 a barrel on Tuesday, have since made up their losses.

Also, five days after Hurricane Ike came ashore, the extent of the damage to the nation’s energy hub along the Gulf Coast remains unclear. The Gulf of Mexico’s entire oil and natural gas production remains shut while a dozen refineries across Texas and Louisiana are trying to resume production. It could take weeks before the situation returns to normal.