Maliki marks end of U.S. occupation

BAGHDAD, Dec. 31 (UPI) — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki promised democracy Saturday as he celebrated the official end of the security agreement with the United States.

Maliki spoke for about 25 minutes at a ceremony held in a sports arena, The Washington Post reported.

“I’m telling you, Iraq is for all those who believe in the democracy,” he said.

The prime minister also sent a text message to Iraqis.

“All of us are for Iraq glory and pride in the nation. I congratulate you and our Iraqi people on this historic day. With love, and with my respect to you and your honorable family, your brother, Nouri al-Maliki,” he wrote.

U.S. troops pulled out two weeks ago. Since then, the country has shown some signs of fraying along sectarian lines.

Two provincial Shiite leaders announced Saturday they are withdrawing from the opposition al-Iraqiya bloc, which has the support of many Sunni Muslims. Both said they are considering joining Maliki’s coalition, the State of Law bloc.

Death toll from India cyclone climbs to 46

CHENNAI, India, Dec. 31 (UPI) — The death toll from Cyclone Thane on the southeastern coast of India climbed to 46 Saturday and the storm displaced at least 20,000 people, authorities said.

Relief operations were under way in the Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu and Union Territory of Puducherry, Press Trust of India reported.

At least 20,000 people were in relief camps in the Cuddalore district.

The Times of India said nine deaths caused by accidents related to heavy rains were reported Saturday — five in Cuddalore, three in Kanchipuram and one in Theni.

Thane crossed the coast between Cuddalore and Puducherry, bringing torrential rains and gale winds that uprooted hundreds of trees and took down utility poles, disrupting power.

In Cuddalore, the hardest-hit district, essential items such as milk had become scarce and officials began supplying water through 60 tankers.

Repairing roads and restoring the water supply, electricity and telecommunications would take a week, an official said.

“Major roads are being cleared of uprooted trees and traffic has resumed,” Cuddalore Deputy Superintendent of Police S. Vanitha said. “People are returning to their homes or going to the homes of their relatives from relief camps. Life is coming back to normalcy.”

Two students arrested for bullying

DAEGU, South Korea, Dec. 31 (UPI) — Two South Korean middle school students were arrested Saturday for bullying a classmate who committed suicide, police said.

On Dec. 20, the 14-year-old jumped off an apartment building in Daegu after being severely bullied by his classmates, Yonhap News Agency reported.

When issuing the arrest warrant, Daegu District Court Judge Kim Hyung-tae cited the seriousness of bullying and the possibility the students may flee.

After the suicide, Seoul’s Education Ministry promised to protect students from school violence by launching regular probes and sending counselors to schools across the country.

School violence in South Korea is high, Yonhap News Agency reported, with 735 students in primary and secondary schools committing suicide between 2006 and 2010 because of bullying.

Vancouver gives addicts free crack pipes

VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Dec. 31 (UPI) — Health officials in Vancouver say they have begun giving crack addicts free pipes as part of an effort to prevent the spread of disease.

About 60,000 kits — which include the pipes, mouthpieces, alcohol swabs and sticks used to push crack out of the inside of a pipe — are to be distributed at five locations during an eight-month trial period, Postmedia News reported.

The glass pipes are heat-resistant and shatterproof, which should reduce the risk of injury to users’ lips and mouths. Such injuries can make users more susceptible to diseases including HIV and Hepatitis B and C, experts say.

Trudi Beutel, a spokeswoman for the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, said the $60,000 program comes as crack is gaining in popularity.

“What this boils down to is it’s about disease prevention,” Beutel said. “It’s about preventing more communicable diseases which land these people in hospital on a frequent basis and clog up emergency rooms.”

The program also will help health officials determine the number of crack users in Vancouver and enable the officials to see whether distributing the kits proves an effective way to reach users and help get them into treatment, Beutel said.

But David Brener, director of the Drug Prevention Network of Canada, criticized the program.

“Programs like this ignore the problems of addiction,” Brener said. “All this does is aid and abet. What we should do is put that same amount of money into treatment and prevention because treatment and prevention work.”

Skier killed in British Columbia avalanche

REVELSTOKE, British Columbia, Dec. 31 (UPI) — A skier buried by an avalanche in British Columbia died Friday — the second skier in two days to die in of an avalanche in the area, authorities said.

The victim Friday, one of four people who had been buried by the human-triggered avalanche about 22 miles southeast of Revelstoke, was on a heli-skiing excursion in which downhill skiing is accessed by a helicopter, not a ski lift, the Revelstoke Times Review reported.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said the victim was not from the Revelstoke area, in southeastern British Columbia.

On Thursday, a veteran skier with the Whistler ski patrol died north of Pemberton, B.C., after being swept through rough terrain and trees in an avalanche, Postmedia News reported.

RCMP identified the victim as Duncan MacKenzie, 30, of Whistler.

Postmedia News said avalanche warnings had been in effect since Wednesday.

Gingrich says Palin could be running mate

WASHINGTON, Dec. 31 (UPI) — Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said he would consider former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as a potential running mate.

Gingrich also said Palin, the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee, would be an ideal candidate for energy secretary, The Hill reported.

During a conference call Wednesday with conservative voters held by Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, Gingrich was asked if he would consider Palin as a running mate.

“She is certainly one of the people you would look at. I am a great admirer of hers and she was a remarkable reform governor of Alaska, she’s somebody who I think brings a great deal to the possibility of helping in government and that would be one of the possibilities,” Gingrich said.

Pa. hospital no longer hiring smokers

DANVILLE, Pa., Dec. 31 (UPI) — A Pennsylvania hospital will begin screening job applicants for nicotine early next year, claiming it will not hire smokers, a hospital spokeswoman said.

Geisinger Health System, a hospital in the eastern town of Danville, will put its no-nicotine policy into effect Feb. 1, 2012, CNN reported.

Applicants who test positive for nicotine will be offered help to quit smoking and are encouraged to reapply in six months, said spokeswoman Marcy Marshall.

The move is part of a plan to make the hospital staff smoke free, Marshall said. The plan is not retroactive, protecting existing staff members who smoke.

“We wanted to create a culture of wellness, and the testing was just a part of the overall mission,” said Dr. Paul Terpeluk, medical director of Employee Health Services in Cleveland.

For some, the policy has encouraged behavioral changes.

“I told them I wanted to quit the right way,” said Cleveland Clinic receptionist Marti Auner, who said she was a 15-year smoker. “I wanted to finish my patches, and they held a job for me for a month.”

Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the measure is commonly used to reduce potential future healthcare costs.

Dr. Steven Bernstein, a professor at Yale University, added smokers take breaks more often, reducing hours worked.

Number of Japanese 20-year-olds hits low

TOKYO, Dec. 31 (UPI) — The number of 20-year-olds in Japan has fallen to an all-time low of 1.2 million, less than half its high of 2.4 million in 1970, the government said Saturday.

The number of 20-year-olds — the legal age of adulthood in the country — declined 20,000 from last year to a record low for the fifth straight year, the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry said, Kyodo News reported.

Of the 20-year-olds, 620,000 are men and 600,000 are women.

The new adults comprise 0.9 percent of the total population of 127.7 million, accounting for less than 1 percent for the second consecutive year.

GOP candidates gear up for Iowa caucuses

DES MOINES, Iowa, Dec. 31 (UPI) — Republican presidential candidates are gearing up for the Tuesday Iowa caucuses, campaigning through the holiday weekend, officials said.

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas is the only candidate who took off the weekend to spend New Year’s Eve with his family, CNN reported.

Paul has seen an increase in his poll standings in Iowa over the past couple of weeks, putting him in second place behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. His jump in the polls has also brought him under scrutiny of other candidates and some conservative groups, who say his views on foreign policy are dangerous.

“I think going up in the polls all of a sudden, they came out of political necessity for them to find something. They couldn’t find any flip-flops so they had to work on something else,” he told a crowd in LeMars.

“Those people who say that these ideas that I express are dangerous, it sort of baffles me a whole lot because I think big government is dangerous. I think wars fought endlessly are dangerous. I think printing money and expanding government at will, that is what is dangerous. Attack on personal liberty, that is what’s dangerous.”

Romney, who is polling at first place in Iowa, will be back in the state Saturday for some last-minute campaigning.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie joked with a crowd in West Des Moines Friday to back Romney — or else.

“I want to tell you something. I want to tell you something really clearly. I am in a good mood this morning. I am feeling happy and upbeat. I love being with Mitt and Ann but let me tell you — you people disappoint me on Tuesday? You don’t do what you are supposed to on Tuesday for Mitt Romney? — I will be back Jersey-style, people. I will be back.”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich teared up at a campaign stop Friday when talking about his mother, who struggled with bipolar disorder and depression.

“See how I’m getting emotional?” he said.

Gingrich is currently battling former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Texas Gov. Rick Perry for third place.

Santorum has seen his numbers in grow significantly in Iowa.

“A week ago, we were in last place. Right now, people are thinking we might finish third,” said Santorum at an event at a sports bar in Ames.

“I think we’ve got a very strong message and we’ve very effectively been able to communicate that. I’m sure the scrutiny will come,” he said.

The scrutiny is already coming from Perry.

“He voted to raise the debt ceiling eight times, eight times while he was in the United States Senate — more than doubling our debt, putting on the backs of these young people, from some $4.1 trillion to $9 trillion,” Perry said about Santorum. “How can you say that is fiscally conservative?”

Meanwhile, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota is campaigning across Iowa but is seeing smaller crowds at her stops. Her poll numbers have remained in the single digits.

New Year starts in Samoa for first time

For the first time, the western Pacific countries of Samoa and Tokelau marked the beginning of a new year Saturday as the rest of the world geared up for 2012.

The world has at least 24 time zones and since the two island countries opted to skip Dec. 30 to switch zones to align with larger neighboring countries, they heralded the beginning of 2012.

As the globe turned, the new year came next to New Zealand, where heavy rain canceled many outdoor festivities, the BBC said. Regardless, a fireworks display was fired from Auckland’s Sky Tower in heavy fog, CNN said.

In Australia, a multimillion-dollar fireworks extravaganza went off at midnight over Sydney Harbor.

Asian countries undertook various traditions, CNN said. Monks in Buddhist temples in Cambodia and Laos ring bells 108 times to signify that number of human faults, while some Japanese shared a meal of long noodles, symbolizing the span of time.

European traditions include one in Spain in which a bell is rung 12 times and revelers eat a grape with each ring in hopes of 12 months of health and prosperity, CNN said.

In London, a massive fireworks display over the River Thames was scheduled not only to herald the new year, but to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s 60th year as monarch known as the Diamond Jubilee and the Summer Olympics in the city, the BBC said.

In Moscow, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told ITAR-Tass he intended to stay at home with his wife and son, “a custom practically in every Russian home.”

North and South America are last to see the new year. Brazilians were expected to throng to the beaches in Rio de Janeiro for fireworks, the reports said.

In a decades-old tradition, hundreds of thousands of people were expected at Times Square in New York to watch and cheer as a giant glittering ball descends to close out 2011. At least a billion people watch the New York event on television, CNN said.

Kim Jong Un named head of armed forces

PYONGYANG, North Korea, Dec. 31 (UPI) — North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong Un, has been named supreme commander of the country’s armed forces, strengthening his authority, state media reported.

The Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party “underlined the need to hold Kim Jong Un in high esteem as the only center of unity, cohesion and leadership of the WPK [Workers’ Party of Korea], devotedly defend him politically and ideologically, and give fuller play to the might of the political and ideological power,” Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency said.

Kim Jong Un, who succeeded his late father, Kim Jong Il, as the country’s leader, is expected to assume other posts as well, Yonhap News Agency reported.

The North Korean military, with 1.19 members, is one of the world’s largest.

Yonhap noted Kim Jong Il had been preparing his youngest son, who is believed to be in his 20s, as a successor, promoting him to four-star general and making him vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party.

As Kim Jong Un was named supreme commander, North Korea also made threats against South Korea.

The Central Committee and the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party said the North would turn South Korea’s presidential office “and the stronghold of aggression into a sea of fire and accomplish the historic cause of national reunification without fail if the enemies dare mount an attack,” KCNA said.

The threat came a day after North Korea’s National Defense Commission said in a statement it would “have no dealings with the [South Korean President] Lee Myung-bak group of traitors forever.”

Yonhap said the statement was an indication the North’s policy toward the South would not change.

British soldier killed in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan, Dec. 31 (UPI) — A British soldier on foot patrol in Afghanistan was killed by a roadside bomb, the Ministry of Defense announced Saturday.

The unidentified soldier was a member of the Yorkshire Regiment, working as part of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, the BBC said.

The blast happened in the southwestern province of Helmand, west of Kandahar, the ministry said.

There was no report of others being injured in the explosion.

Two other British soldiers died after a bombing south of Kabul Dec. 22.

Since the Afghan mission began in 2001, 394 British troops have been killed.

Prime Minister David Cameron said earlier this week he plans to begin withdrawing at least 500 troops in 2012 and more in 2013, although he didn’t indicate when a complete withdrawal was planned.

Search called off for California kayaker

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 31 (UPI) — The sea and air search for a missing kayaker off the California coast near Malibu has been called off, Coast Guard officials said.

Coast Guard spokesman Seth Johnson told the Los Angeles Times the 87-foot cutter Halibut and county boats and a helicopter suspended searching for 66-year-old Louis Piatt Friday afternoon.

Piatt rented the kayak at the Malibu pier Thursday afternoon and a while later made a 911 call from a cellphone, saying he was short of breath and having chest pains.

A county lifeguard boat was dispatched, and a half hour later the crew found an empty kayak with its life jacket and paddle attached 2 miles off the coast, sheriff’s spokeswoman Lt. Mary Leaf said.

The Coast Guard said the search was called off because of the water temperature and time elapsed.

Somali troops retake key central town

MOGADISHU, Somalia, Dec. 31 (UPI) — A central town in Somalia held by al-Qaida-associated fighters was taken back Saturday by some 3,000 Somali and Ethiopian forces, residents said.

The town of Beletweyn had been under the control of the militant al-Shabab group since 2008 until troops backed by heavy artillery closed in from several directions, Somalia’s Shabelle news agency said.

Town resident Ilyaas Abdiweli told China’s Xinhua news agency the militants apparently knew an attack was coming.

“The fighters fled before the government forces and the Ethiopians arrived,” he said.

Early reports said 20 Ethiopian soldiers and militants had been killed in the fighting, the BBC said.

Beletweyn is a major trading hub near the Ethiopian border 180 miles north of Mogadishu.

Ethiopia withdrew thousands of its troops from Somalia in 2009 as some 9,000 African Union troops guarded Mogadishu under a United Nations Security Council mandate.

The easternmost African nation hasn’t had a stable government for more than 20 years because of sectarian and tribal fighting, the BBC said.

GOP lays out top 3 resolutions for 2012

WASHINGTON, Dec. 31 (UPI) — The Republican Party has three political goals for the New Year that all fall under the goal of job creation, Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia said Saturday.

In the party’s final weekly media address of 2011, the senator said Republicans had set their goals on making it easier for small businesses to create jobs.

“We’ll accomplish this by focusing on three things: fundamental tax reform, regulatory reform and energy security,” Isakson said. “In 2012, Republicans will continue to fight to remove the shackles of onerous federal regulations on American small businesses.”

Within the regulatory and energy areas, Isakson reiterated Republicans’ support for the Keystone XL pipeline project, which would carry crude oil from Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the Gulf coast.

“This project would give America a reliable source of oil from our largest trading partner, and it would create tens of thousands of jobs for the American people,” he said. “The Keystone pipeline is exactly the type of energy project this country needs.”

President Barack Obama said he would put off approving the environmentally controversial project until late next year.

Isakson said while 2012 was an election year, his party had no intention of putting issues on hold in deference to campaigning.

“Americans cannot wait until after the November election,” the senator said. “They need us to do our job and do it right now to create an economic climate that makes it easier to put people back to work.”

Bird flu death reported in southern China

SHENZHEN, China, Dec. 31 (UPI) — A 39-year-old man in southern China near the Hong Kong border has died of avian flu, the first such death in more than a year, health officials said Saturday.

The man went to a hospital in Shenzen on Dec. 21 and tested positive for bird flu, caused by the highly contagious H5N1 virus, the BBC reported.

Regional health officials said the man was a bus driver who hadn’t had any direct contact with live poultry or other birds and hadn’t traveled outside the city.

The same day the man was hospitalized, nearby Hong Kong ordered 17,000 chickens culled after one at a market tested positive for the virus, which has a 60 percent human mortality rate, CNN reported.

Officials said they had so far been unsuccessful at tracking where the infected bird originated.

World Health Organization statistics indicate 573 people are known to have been infected with H5N1, of which 336 died since 2003. The peak of infections was in 2006 and affected 63 countries.

Health officials say the virus also infects migratory birds such as ducks and geese, making containment difficult.

Obama: Public made ‘the difference’ in ’11

KAILUA, Hawaii, Dec. 31 (UPI) — President Barack Obama said Saturday the American public “made all the difference” in getting Congress to take steps to help the middle class in 2011.

In his final weekly radio and Internet address of the year, Obama wished Americans Happy New Year and said the United States made “great progress” during 2011, ending the war in Iraq and winding down the war in Afghanistan.

“We dealt a crippling blow to al-Qaida and made America more secure,” he said. “We stood by our friends and allies around the world through natural disasters and revolutions. And we began to see signs of economic recovery here at home, even as too many Americans are still struggling to get ahead.”

Citing congressional action before Christmas to extend the payroll tax cut and renew unemployment benefits, Obama said he expects Congress “to finish the job by extending these provisions through the end of 2012.”

“It was good to see members of Congress do the right thing for millions of working Americans,” the president said. “But it was only possible because you added your voices to the debate. Through e-mail and Twitter and over the phone, you let your representatives know what was at stake.

“You had the courage to believe that your voices could make a difference,” he said. “And at the end of the day, they made all the difference.”

Obama said the United States will have “some difficult debates and some tough fights to come.”

“There’s no doubt that 2012 will bring even more change,” the president said. “And as we head into the New Year, I’m hopeful that we have what it takes to face that change and come out even stronger — to grow our economy, create more jobs, and strengthen the middle class.

“And I’m confident that if we work together, and if you keep reminding folks in Washington what’s at stake, then we will move this country forward and guarantee every American the opportunities they deserve,” he said.

Memo: Bobby Sands rejected papal order

LONDON, Dec. 31 (UPI) — Northern Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands refused to follow an order from Pope John Paul II to stop his fast, newly released documents show.

The pope’s directive was delivered by the Rev. John Magee, a papal secretary who later became bishop of Cloyne in Ireland, The Irish Times reported. The papal order was reported in a memo from the British embassy in Dublin to the Irish government that detailed a conversation between Magee and Humphrey Atkins, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland in 1981.

Magee told Atkins he had given Sands “a personal message from the pope telling Mr. Sands that it was his duty to stop.”

“Father Magee said he had asked Sands to provide time for possibilities to be explored by ending his hunger strike, if only temporarily — say for three days,” the document said. “Sands said that he would end it immediately for five days provided that certain conditions were satisfied.”

Sands asked for negotiations on the demands of IRA prisoners in the Maze Prison in Belfast in the presence of “guarantors,” including two priests. Atkins said the British government would not negotiate.

The memo was given to the Irish prime minister’s office April 29, 1981, a week before Sands died May 5. It is among British government documents released this week under the 30-year rule, a law that requires cabinet documents to become public 30 years after they were written.

LA police on tactical alert after arsons

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 31 (UPI) — The Los Angeles Police Department went on tactical alert after a string of arsons early Friday, with officers remaining on duty after their shifts ended.

By the time the sun came up Friday, 21 fires had been reported in Hollywood and West Hollywood, the Los Angeles Times reported. Most were started in parked cars and, in many cases, spread to houses or apartment buildings.

The Hollywood Hills house where Jim Morrison, lead singer of the Doors, once lived was among the damaged buildings. The house inspired his song “Love Street.”

Investigators questioned Samuel Arrington, 22, who was arrested Thursday on suspicion of starting three fires on Sunset Boulevard early Friday. They were trying to determine whether someone with ties to Arrington was responsible for the new arsons.

“It’s too early to say whether we have a copycat,” Fire Capt. Jaime Moore said.

Fire officials said more than one person may have been involved because some of the fires were reported within minutes of each other and several miles apart.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has joined the city and Los Angeles County in offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arsonist.

Police: Ayla case a criminal matter

WATERVILLE, Maine, Dec. 31 (UPI) — Police in Maine said the search for a missing 20-month-old girl has been classified as a criminal investigation and is being handled by Maine State Police.

Waterville Police Chief Joseph Massey said in a statement Friday investigators believe someone took Ayla Reynolds from her home, CNN reported. Ayla was last seen Dec. 16 when her father, Justin Dipietro, said he put her to bed.

Dipietro later reported his daughter missing.

He issued a statement Wednesday through police saying he has “no idea what happened to Ayla.” He said he would never do anything to hurt his daughter and asked that whoever has his child will find “the courage to do the right thing and find a way to return her safely.”

Massey said the case “has evolved from the search for a missing child to a criminal investigation.”

“We base our conclusions on evidence gathered by investigators during the past two weeks,” he said.

Police said Wednesday investigators had received about 370 leads, which have been assigned to detectives for follow-up. A $30,000 cash reward was being offered for information leading to the location and return of Ayla to her family.

Trista Reynolds, the toddler’s mother, had filed for sole custody the day before the little girl disappeared.

“I trusted (DiPietro) him to keep her safe and now she is missing,” she told NBC’s Today show. “I don’t know where she is and I blame him right now, because he did not protect her the way that he was supposed to.”

Reynolds told CNN she had left Ayla with DiPietro while she underwent rehab.

Animal rights group gets $1.5M donation

DETROIT, Dec. 30 (UPI) — An animal-rescue group in Detroit has received a $1.5 million gift to be used to help build the city’s first no-kill dog shelter, the group said.

The gift, in the form of stock options from a woman inspired by a news report on Detroit Dog Rescue’s work locating and rehabilitating stray dogs in Detroit, the Detroit Free Press reported. The donor did not want her name to be reported.

TV producer Monica Martino and hip-hop artist Daniel (Hush) Carlisle founded the group nine months ago.

The donor had seen the group’s work with Ace, a pit bull that was found, emaciated, outside a hardware store. DDR tried to get the dog released from the city’s Animal Control Pound and got a temporary restraining order from a judge — and people identified themselves as its owners — but the dog was euthanized nonetheless.

That drew protests from Detroit City Council members and others.

“This donation is just the beginning,” Martino said in a statement Thursday. “While Hush and I were working on the streets of Detroit, we saw firsthand the true scope and scale of the stray dog situation. This problem in Detroit is an epidemic and the system that is in place to control it is broken. The first step is to build a no-kill shelter.”

About 50,000 stray dogs live in Detroit, the group estimates.