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Al-Qaeda Allies Threaten to Take Iraq Towns That Were Focus of U.S. Surge

Iraqi forces backed by aircraft and Sunni tribal militias launched assaults to expel al-Qaeda-linked militants from two key towns in Anbar province after they seized police stations and other buildings.

The air strikes targeted fighters suspected of belonging to an al-Qaeda offshoot in Ramadi and Fallujah, Al Jazeera said, citing video footage released by the country’s Defense Ministry. Iraqi forces later recaptured Fallujah’s police headquarters, Al Arabiya television reported. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sent reinforcements on Jan. 1 to dislodge the militants from the cities, which were one focus of the 2007 “surge” of U.S. forces.

‘Substantial Base’

While President Barack Obama has declined to intervene directly in the Syrian war, the U.S. may come under increasing pressure to contain the fallout from that conflict if Sunni al-Qaeda militants gain a foothold in western Iraq, Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said in an interview.

“If al-Qaeda manages to really take hold of western Iraq, that’s a pretty substantial base on Arab territory, where they’d have security and the space to start thinking about operations wherever they want to think about,” said Crocker who served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009. “It’s exactly what they had in Afghanistan before 9/11.”

There is little public or political support in the U.S. for renewed military involvement in Iraq, where 4,489 Americans were killed and 51,778 wounded in action after the Bush administration invaded the country almost 11 years ago. Obama has listed ending the war in Iraq as one of his primary accomplishments.



Christie Pulls N.J. Top Court Pick in Feud With Democrats

By Terrence Dopp and Elise Young - Jan 3, 2014

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie pulled one of his picks for the state Supreme Court amid a yearlong stalemate with Democrats, and instead nominated him for a lower judgeship.

In an e-mail to the secretary of the state Senate yesterday, Christie said he intends to nominate Robert Hanna to a Superior Court position. Hanna, 55, a registered independent, was one of two people nominated by Christie in December 2012 who have yet to receive a confirmation hearing in the Senate.

Christie, a 51-year-old Republican, won a second term in November. During his first term, Democrats who control the legislature blocked Christie’s efforts to reshape the high court. The governor has accused justices of “legislating from the bench” on issues affecting state spending, including decisions on school funding and affordable housing.

Democrats criticized Christie, a former U.S. attorney, after he denied reappointment in 2010 to John Wallace, the court’s only black justice. That sparked a standoff that lasted a year and delayed hearings on Christie nominee Anne Murray Patterson, a Republican. Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney later agreed to let Patterson replace Justice Roberto Rivera Soto, who retired in September 2011.

The governor in December 2012 also nominated David Bauman, a Republican who would be the first Asian-American justice on the seven-member court. The Senate hasn’t scheduled hearings to consider his nomination. Lawmakers earlier in 2012 rejected two other Christie nominees to the bench.



Bakken Crude Pegged as More Dangerous Imperils Shale Boom

By Mark Drajem, Angela Greiling Keane and Lynn Doan - Jan 3, 2014

Safety rules will probably be tightened on crude oil shipments from North Dakota following a string of railway explosions, threatening to damp an energy boom that has boosted the region’s economy.

U.S. regulators yesterday issued a safety alert after a train carrying oil crashed and caught fire earlier this week in North Dakota, where surging production has helped lead a renaissance in domestic energy and driven the state’s unemployment rate to the nation’s lowest.

The type of oil pumped from the shale formations of North Dakota may be more flammable and therefore more dangerous to ship by rail than crude from other areas, the Transportation Department said in the alert. Regulators are considering imposing tougher rules on railcar construction, among other things, potentially raising the costs of moving the crude to market.

Pipelines could be affected as well.

“Regulators have to take heed that anything they do is going to go beyond the rail industry, beyond the tank car industry,” Jason Seidl, a rail analyst at Cowen & Co. based in New York, said in an interview.



Wheat Futures Jump Most in Two Months on U.S. Crop Freeze

By Jeff Wilson - Jan 3, 2014

Wheat futures jumped the most since mid-October on concern that some crops will be damaged by freezing weather in parts of the U.S., the world’s top producer. Corn rose, and soybeans fell.

As much as 20 percent of winter wheat in the Great Plains may be damaged by the freeze, according to MDA Weather Services in Bethesda, Maryland. Temperatures may drop to minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 23 Celsius) in the next few days in the central and southern Plains and minus 25 degrees in the Midwest.

“Snow cover will remain quite thin across much of Nebraska and north central Kansas, and some extensive winterkill damage is likely there,” Don Keeney, a senior agricultural meteorologist at MDA, said in a report.

Wheat futures for March delivery rose 1.3 percent to $6.0475 a bushel at 12:19 p.m. on the Chicago Board of Trade. A close at that price would mark the biggest gain for a most-active contract since Oct. 18. Yesterday, the grain touched $5.95, the lowest since May 2012.



McCain Says Netanyahu Has Serious Concerns on Kerry Plan

Source: Bloomberg

By Terry Atlas - Jan 3, 2014

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has grave doubts about elements of an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan being pressed by Secretary of State John Kerry, said U.S. Senator John McCain.

McCain, an Arizona Republican, spoke to reporters in Jerusalem following a meeting with Netanyahu. His remarks signal the hurdles facing Kerry both in Israel and among pro-Israel lawmakers at home as he seeks agreement on a framework accord to guide negotiations to a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Netanyahu has serious, serious concerns about the plan as it has been presented to him,” McCain said. The concerns, which the prime minister has also stated publicly, include defensible borders, the viability and actions of a Palestinian state, and the overall security provisions for Israel, McCain said.

Kerry, on his 10th visit to Israel since becoming Secretary of State last year, met today with Netanyahu for three hours following five hours of talks yesterday. Kerry goes to Ramallah, in the West Bank, for talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas later today.

Read more: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-01-03/mccain-says-netanyahu-has-serious-concerns-on-kerry-plan.html

Obama Seeks Tighter Mental Health Restrictions on Guns

By Margaret Talev - Jan 3, 2014

The Obama administration announced steps today aimed at keeping firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill, while President Barack Obama again urged Congress to pass broader gun control legislation.

The Department of Justice is proposing to change rules for the federal background check system to clarify who under U.S. law is prohibited from possessing a firearm because of mental health problems.

The Department of Health and Human Services is proposing a regulation aimed at making it easier for states to submit information about the mentally ill to the federal system, without blocking all people who seek mental health treatment from owning guns.

“The administration is committed to making sure that anyone who may pose a danger to themselves or others does not have access to a gun,” according to the White House statement. “The federal background check system is the most effective way to assure that such individuals are not able to purchase a firearm from a licensed gun dealer.”

Unable to win passage of gun-control legislation following the mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school in December 2012, Obama announced last year that he would begin using executive authority to tighten firearms regulation.



U.S. Crude Imports Fall to Lowest Level Since 1998

Source: Bloomberg

By Moming Zhou - Jan 3, 2014

U.S. crude-oil imports fell to the lowest level in almost 16 years as domestic output rose, the Energy Information Administration reported.

Overseas shipments, based on the four-week average through Dec. 27, fell 1.1 percent to 7.41 milion barrels a day, the fewest since January 1998, the EIA, the Energy Department’s statistical arm, said in a report today. Net imports were 7.35 million barrels a day, the least in data through November 2001.

“Imports are falling because we can produce more oil now,” said Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy & Economic Research in Winchester, Massachusetts. “That can save us tons of money and is good for the economy.”

Fracking and horizontal drilling have boosted output from shale formations, including the Bakken in North Dakota and Eagle Ford in Texas. Domestic production increased to 8.12 million barrels a day last week, the most since September 1988. Output surpassed imports in October for the first time since 1995, according to the EIA.

Read more: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-01-03/u-s-crude-imports-fall-to-lowest-level-since-1998.html

Green Bay Cold Threatens to Outfreeze NFL Ice Bowl Record

By Mason Levinson - Jan 3, 2014

The Green Bay Packers may be about to host the coldest game in National Football League history, eclipsing their own record set during the 1967 game known as the Ice Bowl.

The coldest air in 18 years might arrive in Wisconsin the night before the Jan. 5 first-round playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers at Lambeau Field, according to Cameron Moreland, chief meteorologist at TV channel NBC 26 in Green Bay. The forecast was a factor in slow ticket sales, according to resellers.

If an Arctic blast reaches the city before the 3:40 p.m. local time kickoff, the temperature will rival that of the Dec. 31, 1967, NFL Championship game between the Packers and the Dallas Cowboys, which started at the same stadium with the temperature at -13 degrees Fahrenheit (-25 Celsius), Moreland said. It felt like -48 degrees Fahrenheit with the wind chill for that game, which Green Bay won 21-17.

“The big question is which one of those computer forecast models are correct,” Moreland said in a telephone interview. “It’s a difference between a cold game and a historically cold game.”



Obamacare Medicaid Expansion to Worsen Hospital ER Burden

By Alex Wayne and Jeanna Smialek - Jan 3, 2014

Emergency rooms may be a preferred choice for care among 3.9 million people newly enrolled in the U.S. Medicaid program for the poor, according to a study that suggests Obamacare’s costs may be higher than expected.

The concern is being raised by economists who said a state Medicaid expansion in Oregon five years ago led newly insured patients to visit ERs 40 percent more often than the uninsured. That finding, published in the journal Science, runs counter to government assumptions that the newly insured would choose lower-cost options for care, such as doctors’ offices.

More than 19 million people nationwide are projected by the government to join Medicaid this year, a 35 percent jump from last year as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act broadens eligibility. The rising participation is projected by the Obama administration to boost spending on the program by 18 percent this year and almost double it to $957 billion by 2021.

“That leaves policymakers with the difficult evaluation of comparing the substantial real costs of the program, with the substantial benefits to enrollees of having the coverage,” Katherine Baicker, an economist at the Harvard School of Public Health who helped write the study, said in a phone interview.

Baicker and her fellow researchers found that people who gained Medicaid coverage used ERs more often for “a broad range of types of visits, conditions and subgroups,” including problems that could be treated in less costly settings.




Manhattan Home Sales Rise to Year-End Record in Deal Rush

By Oshrat Carmiel - Jan 3, 2014

Manhattan apartment sales surged in the fourth quarter, setting a record for year-end transactions, as the prospect of rising interest rates and prices pushed buyers to make deals before purchases became costlier.

Sales of condominiums and co-ops jumped 27 percent from a year earlier to 3,297, the highest fourth-quarter total in 25 years of record-keeping, according to a report today from appraiser Miller Samuel Inc. and brokerage Douglas Elliman Real Estate. The previous record was set in 2012, when sellers sought to finish deals before an expected jump in capital-gains taxes.

Buyers are rushing into Manhattan’s market after a jump in mortgage rates since May, heightening competition for properties at a time when supply is dwindling. The inventory of homes for sale at the end of December fell 12 percent from a year earlier to 4,164, the lowest since Miller Samuel began tracking that data 14 years ago. Demand is pushing values higher, with the median price for a condo reaching a record.

“There’s a concern that homeownership will be more expensive and therefore the time to act apparently is now,” Jonathan Miller, president of New York-based Miller Samuel, said in an interview. “It’s a combination of rising mortgage rates and concern that prices are going to rise.”


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