By BRIAN BAKST and CHARLES BABINGTON | Associated Press – 12 hrs ago WASHINGTON (AP) — Middle East violence is shaking up a presidential race that otherwise looks stubbornly stable, and tight. President Barack Obama holds a tiny edge, Republican Mitt Romney is seeking a breakthrough message, and three debates are ahead in the campaign’s final seven weeks.
Republicans and Democrats agree the election probably will be decided on Obama’s jobs-and-economy record. Both campaigns are gearing up for the new week by trying to shift the focus back to that issue. But foreign policy leaped to the forefront in recent days when protesters attacked U.S. diplomats and missions in the Middle East, and it’s unclear when it will recede.
Criticisms of Romney’s quick-draw response to the protests underscored both his foreign policy vulnerabilities and the difficulty in knocking off an incumbent, especially one who remains relatively well-liked despite a struggling economy. Obama used the trappings of the presidency to full advantage. He led somber events honoring the four U.S. officials killed in Libya. He also needled his challenger by saying that Romney „seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later.”
As unrest abroad continues, Obama is launching an aggressive effort to convince voters in the most competitive states — Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, and Virginia — that his economic policies are working and that Romney is risking the nation’s recovery with a plan that caters to multimillionaires over the middle class.
„They want to go back to the same old policies that got us in trouble in the first place,” former President Bill Clinton is shown saying in the 60-second TV ad.
Romney is trying to get back to the economy, his strength, even as a new national survey by The New York Times and CBS News finds that he has lost his longstanding edge on the question of whom voters view as most likely to restore the economy and create jobs. Voters are feeling slightly more optimistic that the president’s policies are helping. Still, that poll and others found the race narrowly divided.
„Beating an incumbent is never easy,” Romney told ABC on Friday. He dismissed polls that show Obama ahead. „I’m doing well … and this is a campaign which I think will come into focus as the debates occur.”
Frustration is showing in some GOP circles because Romney has failed to move ahead Obama despite months of highlighting the nation’s high jobless rate and the millions of dollars spent pushing an economic message on TV. Romney allies are urging him to find a message that will persuade disillusioned voters to give him a chance. They reject the notion that Romney is careening from topic to topic, despite recent emphases on Medicare and international leadership.
Diverse advice is pouring into Romney’s camp: Paint Obama as a weak leader at home and abroad; shift the focus firmly back to the economy; fire up the conservative base; concentrate on the relatively small number of undecided voters.
Some of Romney’s associates, including his running mate, say personality, not policy, may hold the key to reassuring wary voters.
„I’m not the only one who has told Mitt that maybe he needs to talk more about himself and his life,” Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP’s vice presidential nominee, told conservative activists Friday.
The buttoned-down Romney has relatively little time to show a warmer, more assuring side to voters. Three presidential debates in October may offer his best chance.
In the race to reach 270 electoral votes for victory, polls suggest Obama holds slight edges in the crucial states of Ohio, Florida, Virginia and New Hampshire. And internal polling by both campaigns shows close races in Colorado, Iowa and Nevada. Both sides agree that Romney is doing better in North Carolina, which Obama narrowly carried in 2008.
The wild card might be Wisconsin, Ryan’s home state, which Obama won by 14 percentage points over Arizona Sen. John McCain. Both campaigns are spending money there. Vice President Joe Biden visited Wisconsin on Thursday, and Obama is scheduled to go this coming week.
Ohio and Florida are the most coveted toss-up states. Romney’s election is not assured even if he wins both. A failure to carry either state would almost surely doom his chances.
Obama’s prospects in Ohio appear to have improved lately, perhaps because his rescue of the auto industry is generally popular. Still, Ohio Democrats are not celebrating.
„We’ve seen plenty of examples of how dynamic these races are,” said Greg Haas, Democratic chairman of Franklin County. „I don’t think anyone on our side is, or should be, taking it easy.”
In Florida, the biggest battleground prize, Republicans worry that Romney can’t seem to close the deal in a state hampered by high unemployment and home foreclosures. Democrats, however, fear Obama’s edge in the state may be fleeting and they fret about Florida’s undecided voters. They’re also nervous about legal battles over state voter laws that could cut into Obama’s support among minorities.
Scott Arceneaux, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, said fears about turnout keep him up at night.
„It’s a huge state, requiring a massive effort,” Arceneaux said. „It’s the largest and strongest ground game this state has ever seen. But knowing what we have to get done in the next eight weeks, we worry about it.”
The campaign’s final seven weeks will dump new torrents of TV ads on the few competitive states, fueled by the eye-popping fundraising of Romney, Obama and their supporters. In a single visit to New York City last week, Romney collected $7.5 million at three events, his campaign said.
The TV spots’ effectiveness could fade as weary viewers tune them out. That would elevate the importance of the „ground game” — the phone calls and door-to-door contacts the parties use to bring their voters to the polls.
In an election this tight, virtually any factor — turnout, a debate gaffe, an economic surprise — might decide the outcome. Or it might turn on a mundane, hard-to-measure event, such as Romney suddenly finding ways to connect with voters who are within inches of abandoning the president.
„A lot of them I talk to are tired of Obama, but they’re not sure they like Mitt Romney either,” said Deb Gann, head of the Fayette County Republican Party in Iowa. „A lot of people I talk to just don’t know who is the lesser of two evils.”
For now at least, Democrats are buoyed by what they see as Romney’s lurches from subject to subject. They pointed to his quick denunciation of the Cairo embassy’s appeal for calm last week when Muslims began rampaging in protest of an amateur video that denigrates Islam.
Democrats accused Romney of politicizing a tragedy. Hawkish conservatives cheered Romney’s claims that Obama shows weak, halting leadership overseas.
Obama aides said Romney has miscalculated, failing to assure Americans he would respond in judicious, level-headed ways to crises. Other Democrats said Romney is grasping for any rung that might move him up the ladder.
„The central premise of his candidacy – that he will be better than President Obama in dealing with the economy — just isn’t working,” said Democratic consultant Jim Manley. „They keep on allowing themselves to be distracted by divisive social policy issues that are really out of the mainstream. And if Romney really is relying on foreign policy as his best shot to oppose the president, he’s in deep, deep trouble.”
Not so, said veteran GOP strategist Terry Holt.
„It’s absolutely vital that our nominee speak to the issues that people are watching and talking about,” Holt said of the Middle East violence.
„The challenge for Romney is to be a safe and credible alternative to the president,” Holt said. „The chaos in the Middle East could be a game-changer in this election,” he said, if it raises new questions about Obama’s leadership and allows Romney to present a stronger, more resolute approach.
Bakst reported from Wisconsin. Associated Press writers Steve Peoples, Beth Fouhy, Kasie Hunt, Julie Pace and Ben Feller contributed to this report.
Al-Qaida praises Libya consulate attack as anti-American protests subside By JOEL SIEGEL | ABC News – 10 hrs ago
Al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen praised the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya as a „great event” Saturday, and urged followers to kill other American diplomats across the Muslim world.
But the violent anti-American protests that rocked the capitals of some 20 nations from northern Africa to southeast Asia on Friday, causing at least six deaths, largely subsided.
In Egypt, where Islamic fury first erupted over a crude amateur film produced in the United States denigrating the Prophet Muhammad, security forces moved on Saturday to end the demonstrations around the American embassy in Cairo.
They cleared the streets around the U.S. compound and nearby Tahrir Square, using tear gas and arresting scores of protesters who refused to disperse. They also expanded barriers blocking access to the embassy.
The Egyptian interior minister inspected the area for himself and said „our presence here is to clear the square of people who are breaking the law,” adding, „We must preserve the square as a symbol of the revolution. That is the aim of our operation.”
Issuing a stern warning, he said measures would be taken to ensure „those breaking the law” do not return.
PHOTOS: Protest Spread Across Middle East
Egypt’s new president and his ruling party, the Muslim Brotherhood, angered President Obama and the State Department by not moving swiftly to stop the siege of the U.S. Embassy on Tuesday and to condemn the violence. Egypt’s new rulers have since acknowledged that they should have done more.
Meanwhile, state news media in Egypt on Saturday gave the first full accounting of casualties caused during the four days of clashes: A man was killed by shotgun fire and more than 224 people were injured, including at least 99 Egyptian security officers.
One of the few reports of violence Saturday came from Australia, where 200 protesters clashed with riot police outside the U.S. Consulate in Sydney. Demonstrators chanted „Obama, Obama, we love Osama” and waved signs declaring, „Behead all those who insult the Prophet.”
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the terror group’s Yemen branch is known, sought to ride the wave of anger in the Arab street with its web posting that urged Muslims to step up their demonstrations and violence.
The group said the killing of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens on Tuesday by a mob that stormed the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and set it on fire was the „best example” for Muslims in other nations to follow.
„What has happened is a great event, and these efforts should come together in one goal, which is to expel the embassies of America from the lands of the Muslims,” the web statement said.
The group urged protesters in Muslim nations „to set the fires blazing at these embassies.”
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula consists mostly of militants from Yemen and Saudi Arabia and is regarded by the United States as the most dangerous arm of the network founded by Osama bin Laden.
Muslims have blamed the U.S. government for the film — even though Washington has condemned the movie and explicitly denounced insults to any religion.
Obama focused on the death of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans in the Benghazi attack in his weekly address on Saturday.
„We must … send a clear and resolute message to the world: those who attack our people will find no escape from justice. We will not waver in their pursuit. And we will never allow anyone to shake the resolve of the United States of America,” Obama said.
„This tragic attack takes place at a time of turmoil and protest in many different countries. I have made it clear that the United States has a profound respect for people of all faiths. We stand for religious freedom. And we reject the denigration of any religion — including Islam,” he said.
„Yet there is never any justification for violence,” he said. „There is no religion that condones the targeting of innocent men and women. There is no excuse for attacks on our Embassies and Consulates. And so long as I am Commander-in-Chief, the United States will never tolerate efforts to harm our fellow Americans.”
In the Republican response, Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., called the attacks „stark, horrific reminders that freedom remains under siege by forces who relish terror and violence over freedom and free expression. Remember how critical it is that the United States projects strength, that we remain vigilant and resolute in the defense of our liberties and way of life.”
He went on to criticize the president for not speaking out against massive defense cuts that would automatically take effect next year as part of a broader reduction in spending agreed to by White House and Republicans in 2011 in exchange for raising the nation’s debt ceiling.
Ambassador Stevens, a graduate of the University of California at Berkley, was remembered today with a moment of silence before the Ohio State-Cal football game.
Teen charged with trying to blow up Chicago bar By JASON KEYSER and MICHAEL TARM | Associated Press – 1 hr 39 mins ago HILLSIDE, Ill. (AP) — Undercover FBI agents arrested an 18-year-old American man who tried to detonate what he believed was a car bomb outside a downtown Chicago bar, federal prosecutors said Saturday.
Adel Daoud, a U.S. citizen from the Chicago suburb of Hillside, was arrested Friday night in an undercover operation in which an agent pretending to be a terrorist provided him with a phony car bomb and watched him press the trigger, prosecutors said.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago, which announced the arrest Saturday, said the device was harmless and the public was never at risk.
Daoud is charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and attempting to damage and destroy a building with an explosive. He remains in custody pending a detention and preliminary hearing set for Monday in federal court.
A person who answered the phone Saturday at the home where Daoud and his family live and identified herself as his sister, Hiba, declined to discuss Daoud, the family or the arrest.
„We don’t even know anything. We don’t know that much. We know as little as you do,” she said. „They’re just accusations. … We’d like to be left alone.”
Later Saturday, no one answered the door of the family’s two-story home, which had a well-kept garden in the yard and a basketball hoop in the driveway. The house faces a Lutheran church; a Greek Orthodox church also is nearby.
Next-door neighbor Harry Pappas said he was shocked by the arrest, calling Daoud’s parents „wonderful” people and him a quiet boy who played basketball in the driveway with friends.
„I heard maybe he had a little trouble in school,” Pappas said. „He was quiet, didn’t talk much, but he seemed like a good kid.”
Pappas said Daoud spent a lot of time at home and that months would go by sometimes before the teen would surface.
„But I was never suspicious,” he said.
Then on Friday night, a dozen unmarked cars drove up to the family’s house and several agents went inside, Pappas said.
The FBI began monitoring Daoud after he started using an email account to get and distribute material about violent jihad and the killing of Americans, prosecutors said.
In May, two undercover FBI agents contacted Daoud in response to the material and exchanged electronic messages with him in which he expressed an interest in violent jihad in the United States or abroad, according to an affidavit by an FBI special agent.
Prosecutors say one of those agents introduced Daoud to a third undercover agent who claimed to be a terrorist living in New York.
Over the summer, the third agent and Daoud met six times in the suburb of Villa Park and exchanged messages, the affidavit said. Daoud then set about identifying 29 potential targets, including military recruiting centers, bars, malls and tourist attractions in Chicago, the document said.
He is accused of settling on a downtown bar and conducting surveillance on it using Google Street View and visiting the area in person to take photographs.
Describing the target to the agent, Daoud said it was also a concert venue by a liquor store, the affidavit says.
„It’s a bar, it’s a liquor store, it’s a concert. All in one bundle,” the document quotes him as saying. It said he noted the bar would be filled with the „evilest people … kuffars.” Kuffar is the Arabic term for non-believer.
The affidavit said that shortly after 7 p.m. Friday, Daoud met with the undercover agent in Villa Park and they drove to downtown Chicago, where the restaurants and bars were packed. They entered a parking lot where a Jeep Cherokee containing the phony bomb was parked, the document says.
Daoud drove the vehicle and parked it in front of the bar, then walked a block away and attempted to detonate the device by pressing a triggering mechanism, the affidavit says. He was then arrested.
Court documents don’t identify the bar.
The FBI has used similar tactics in other counterterrorism investigations, deploying undercover agents to engage suspects in talk of terror plots and then provide fake explosive devices.
In a 2010 case, a Lebanese immigrant took what he thought was a bomb and dropped it into a trash bin near Chicago’s Wrigley Field. In a 2009 case, agents provided a Jordanian man with a fake truck bomb that he used to try to blow up a 60-story office tower in Dallas.
Prosecutors said Daoud was offered several chances to change his mind and walk away from the plot.
The affidavit said Daoud was active in jihadist Internet forums and was accessing articles written by Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born radical cleric who became a key figure in the Yemen-based al-Qaida offshoot known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.Al-Awlaki was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen last year.The FBI says he also was searching online for information on making bombs and reading „Inspire,” the English-language online magazine published by Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.In his conversations with the undercover agent, Daoud explained his reasons for wanting to launch an attack, saying the United States was at war „with Islam and Muslims,” the affidavit said.According to the document, he said he was trying to recruit others and that he was confronted by leaders of his mosque who warned he should stop talking about jihad. The affidavit said Daoud’s father also had been informed that Daoud was debating jihad and told Daoud to stop talking about it.Daoud also told the agent he wanted an attack that would kill many people, the document said.”I want something that’s gonna make it in the news,” he said, according to the affidavit. „I want to get to like, for me I want to get the most evil place, but I want to get a more populated place.”_Keyser reported from Chicago._Follow Michael Tarm at www.twitter.com/mtarm .
Chicago teachers rally after tentative labor deal By Adam Kirby | Reuters – 2 hrs 8 mins ago
CHICAGO (Reuters) – Thousands of striking Chicago teachers rallied on Saturday to keep the pressure on Mayor Rahm Emanuel to wrap up an agreement with their union to end a strike that closed the nation’s third largest school district for a week.
The rally brought labor leaders, community activists and striking teachers to Chicago’s Union Park for one of the largest demonstrations against Emanuel’s education reforms since the strike began on Monday.
Led by Chicago Teachers Union president and former high school chemistry teacher Karen Lewis, 29,000 unionized teachers, counselors, nurses and support staff staged their first strike in 25 years, leaving 350,000 Chicago students out of school.
„You have proven to the world that you’re not going to take it anymore,” Lorretta Johnson, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, told demonstrators the day after the two sides reached a tentative deal to end the strike.
Emanuel angered the Chicago teachers by trying to push through proposals to radically reform their performance evaluations and weaken job protection for those teachers whose schools are closed or perform poorly academically.
The mayor retreated from some of his proposed reforms, although details of what he has agreed to with the union have not been made public.
Many Democratic mayors and politicians have supported Emanuel, a former White House chief of staff for President Barack Obama. Other Democrats have sided with the unions, which are major financial supporters of the party and are needed to help Obama win re-election on November 6.
Emanuel denied that there had been any pressure from the White House to settle the strike.
„The short answer is no,” said his spokeswoman, Sarah Hamilton. „There was no pressure, and no pressure would have worked, because they know that the mayor firmly believes that what we are doing to reform and improve our schools is the right thing.”
The union is wary of Emanuel, whom Lewis has called a „bully” and a „liar.”
Organizers hoped Saturday’s rally would rival some of the huge demonstrations last year against the efforts of Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker to curb the power of unions. The Wisconsin protests were unsuccessful, but drew tens of thousands of government workers, including teachers.
Activists and supporters from other unions joined the sea of strikers wearing red T-shirts at the rally.
„This is not just a Chicago struggle, this is a struggle for workers everywhere,” declared civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. „You’ve led a new struggle for courage.”
Che „Rhymefest” Smith, a rapper turned community activist, told the crowd that a Chicago teacher had fought for him to go from dropout to a high school graduate.
„A lot of our dropout students are not students who don’t want to get a diploma, they’re students who were failed by the system, not by our teachers,” Smith said. „I see a system that is not only failing our students, it is failing our teachers.”
‘IT’S BEEN DRAINING’
If all goes well in the negotiations between the Chicago School Board and the union this weekend, Lewis said she would ask some 800 union activists on Sunday to suspend the strike and teachers would return to classrooms on Monday morning.
Lewis told reporters on Friday that the union was making sure all of its „i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed.”
Gideon MacKay, who teaches on Chicago’s West Side, said he hoped Sunday’s meeting would lead to a new contract, or at least a suspension of the strike. „It’s been draining,” he said. „We’re teachers. That’s what we do, we teach.”
The strike is the biggest U.S. labor dispute in a year and has galvanized the national labor movement. It also has shone a light on a fierce debate over how to reform struggling urban schools across the country.
High school teacher Colleen Murray said the rally was meant to send the message that teachers were united. „I’m hoping to see a fair evaluation process that recognizes that teachers cannot control all of the variables that go into student achievement,” she said.
Both sides agree Chicago public schools are not doing well. Students perform poorly on standardized tests of math and reading, and the high school graduation rate is 60 percent, compared with 75 percent nationally and more than 90 percent in some affluent Chicago suburban high schools.
The union has railed against Chicago’s unelected school board, which is stacked with representatives of business such as Penny Pritzker, an executive of Chicago’s billionaire Pritzker conglomerate and a major Obama fundraiser. They say the board is trying to privatize and corporatize the public school system.
They have criticized Chicago’s effort to open more publicly funded non-union charter schools, sometimes run by philanthropists, while some poor-performing community public schools are being closed.
(Additional reporting by Mary Wisniewski, Eric Johnson, Greg McCune and Renita Young; Editing by Peter Cooney and Christopher Wilson)
Anti-Putin protest draws tens of thousands By LYNN BERRY and VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV | Associated Press – 54 mins ago MOSCOW (AP) — The first major protest against President Vladimir Putin after a summer lull drew tens of thousands of people, determined to show that opposition sentiment remains strong despite Kremlin efforts to muzzle dissent.The street protests broke out after a December parliamentary election won by Putin’s party through what observers said was widespread fraud, and they grew in strength ahead of Putin’s effectively unopposed election in March to a third presidential term.Huge rallies of more than 100,000 people even in bitter winter cold gave many protesters hope for democratic change. These hopes have waned, but opposition supporters appear ready to dig in for a long fight.”We have to defend the rights that we were deprived of, the right to have elections. We were deprived of honest elections and an honest government,” opposition activist Alexander Shcherbakov said. „I’ve come to show that and to demonstrate that the people are opposed. I’m opposed to the illegitimate government and illegitimate elections.”Leftists, liberals and nationalists mixed with students, teachers, gay activists and others as they marched down Moscow’s tree-lined boulevards chanting „Russia without Putin!” and „We are the power here!” Many wore the white ribbons that have become the symbol of the protest movement.About 7,000 police officers stood guard along the route of the march, and a police helicopter hovered overhead. A protest rally, held on a wide street named for the late Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, remained peaceful as it stretched into the evening. As the 10 p.m. deadline neared, a couple of hundred people were still on the street and police herded them toward a subway station. One of the opposition leaders, Sergei Udaltsov, was detained along with a handful of his supporters when he tried to lead a group of about 50 on a new protest march.Putin has shown less tolerance for the opposition since his inauguration in May. New repressive laws have been passed to deter people from joining protests, and opposition leaders have been subject to searches and interrogations. In August, a court handed down two-year prison sentences to three members of the punk band Pussy Riot for performing an anti-Putin song inside Moscow’s main cathedral.Big balloons painted with the band’s trademark balaclava masks floated over the crowd on Saturday, while some rally participants wore T-shirts in support of Pussy Riot.Many demonstrators targeted Putin with creative placards and outfits. Some mocked Putin’s recent publicity stunt in which he flew in a motorized hang glider to lead a flock of young Siberian white cranes in flight.One protester donned a white outfit similar to the one worn by Putin on the flight with a sign reading: „Give up hope, each of you who follow me.” Another person held a placard that said: „We are not your cranes.”Alexei Navalny, a charismatic anti-corruption crusader and a popular blogger, remains the rock star among the protest leaders. When he took the stage, young people in the crowd held up their phones to record the moment.Navalny urged the demonstrators to show resolve and keep up the pressure on the Kremlin with more street protests.”We must come to rallies to win freedom for ourselves and our children, to defend our human dignity,” he said to cheers of support. „We will come here as to our workplace. No one else will free us but ourselves.”The rally appeared as big as the last major protest in June, which also attracted tens of thousands. More of the demonstrators, however, came not as members of the varied political organizations that make up the protest movement, but with groups of friends and co-workers, some of them organizing on social networks.As part of a new initiative, activists collected contact information and addresses from demonstrators to make it easier to organize civic actions on a neighborhood level.Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin political consultant, who attended Saturday’s rally, estimated that up to 500,000 people have taken part in the protests in Moscow, a city of 11.5 million.He said the Kremlin has not figured out how to deal with the protest movement.”Therefore, they alternate between taking tough action and stepping back from confrontation,” Pavlovsky said. „For the Kremlin, it is very worrying that Moscow no longer supports Putin, but it is very important that this is purely a Moscow phenomenon.”Although opposition protests also were held Saturday in several other Russian cities, the largest, in St. Petersburg, drew only a few thousand people. Protests elsewhere attracted only hundreds or even dozens. About 100 attended an unsanctioned rally in Nizhny Novgorod and about 20 of them were detained.The Moscow organizers had spent days in tense talks with the city government over the protest route for Saturday, typical of the bargaining that has preceded each of the opposition marches.A protest on the eve of Putin’s inauguration ended in clashes with police, and the Kremlin responded by arresting some of the participants and approving a new draconian law that raised fines 150-fold for taking part in unsanctioned protests. The city, however, granted permission for the subsequent opposition rally in June, which was peaceful.A day before the weekend rally, parliament expelled an opposition lawmaker who had turned against the Kremlin and joined the protest movement. Anger over the ouster of Gennady Gudkov may have helped to swell the ranks of the protesters.”Russia no longer has a constitution,” Gudkov told the rally. „Russia no longer has rights, and Russia no longer has a parliament worthy of respect. Shame on this parliament, and shame on this government!”Gudkov’s expulsion also means he loses his immunity from prosecution, and his supporters fear he could face arrest.His son, Dmitry Gudkov, also a lawmaker, said he hopes the Kremlin will think twice about arresting his father after seeing the size of the protest. „They will either have to think about serious reforms and end their repressions, or they will come to a very bad end,” he said as marched with a column of protesters.”It’s necessary right now for all Russians to come out into the streets to show the regime that changes are needed in our country, and that without them our country can’t develop,” said teacher Valentina Merkulova, who participated in Saturday’s protest. „The most important thing is that, the more Russians come out, the less bloody the change of regime, the change of power. A change of power is necessary.”
Al-Qaida calls for more attacks on embassies By AYA BATRAWY and LEE KEATH | Associated Press – 8 hrs ago CAIRO (AP) — Al-Qaida’s most active branch in the Middle East called for more attacks on U.S. embassies Saturday to „set the fires blazing,” seeking to co-opt outrage over an anti-Muslim film even as the wave of protests that swept 20 countries this week eased.
Senior Muslim religious authorities issued their strongest pleas yet against resorting to violence, trying to defuse Muslim anger over the film a day after new attacks on U.S. and Western embassies that left at least eight protesters dead.
The top cleric in U.S. ally Saudi Arabia denounced the film but said it can’t really hurt Islam, a contrast to protesters’ frequently heard cries that the movie amounts to a humiliating attack that requires retaliation. He urged Muslims not to be „dragged by anger” into violence. The head of the Sunni Muslim world’s pre-eminent religious institution, Egypt’s Al-Azhar, backed peaceful protests but said Muslims should counter the movie by reviving Islam’s moderate ideas.
In the Egyptian capital Cairo, where the first protests against the movie that denigrates the Prophet Muhammad erupted, police finally succeeded in clearing away protesters who had been clashing with security forces for days near the U.S. Embassy. Police arrested 220 people and a concrete wall was erected across the road leading to the embassy.
No significant protests were reported in the Mideast Saturday; the only report of violence linked to the film came from Australia, where riot police clashed with about 200 protesters at the U.S. Consulate in Sydney.
In his weekly radio and Internet address, President Barack Obama paid tribute to the four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, who were killed in an armed attack on the U.S. Consulate in the eastern Libyan city on Benghazi this week. He also denounced the anti-U.S. mob protests that followed.
„I have made it clear that the United States has a profound respect for people of all faiths. We stand for religious freedom. And we reject the denigration of religion — including Islam,” Obama said.
„Yet there is never any justification for violence. There is no religion that condones the targeting of innocent men and women.”
In Afghanistan, the Taliban claimed responsibility for an attack the night before by 20 insurgents on a sprawling British based in southern Afghanistan that killed two U.S. Marines. The Taliban said the attack was to avenge Muslims insulted by the film. It also said the attack came because Britain’s Prince Harry is serving at the base, though British officials said he was far from the site of the attack and was unharmed.
Friday’s demonstrations spread to more than 20 countries in the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. While most were peaceful, marches in several places exploded into violence.
In Sudan, crowds torched part of the German Embassy and tried to storm the American Embassy. Protesters climbed the walls into the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, torching cars in the parking lot, trashing the entrance building and setting fire to a gym and a neighboring American school.
Four demonstrators were killed in Tunisia, two in Sudan, one in Lebanon and one in Egypt — the first Egyptian protester to die in clashes with police since Islamist President Mohammed Morsi took up his post this summer. On Thursday, four Yemeni protesters were killed in protests that turned violent at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa.
The Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, considered the most dangerous of the terror network’s branches to the U.S., called the killing of Stevens „the best example” for those attacking embassies to follow.
„What has happened is a great event, and these efforts should come together in one goal, which is to expel the embassies of America from the lands of the Muslims,” the group said. It called on protests to continue in Muslim nations „to set the fires blazing at these embassies.”
It also called on „our Muslim brothers in Western nations to fulfill their duties in supporting God’s prophet … because they are the most capable of reaching them and vexing them.”
The U.S called the Yemen al-Qaida branch the most dangerous threat after it plotted a series of attempted attacks , including the Christmas 2009 failed bombing of a passenger jet. It has suffered a series of blows since, including the recent killing in a drone strike of its number two-leader, Saeed al-Shihri. Yemen’s U.S.-backed government has been waging an offensive against the group, taking back territory and cities in the south that the group’s fighters seized last year.
So far, there has been no evidence of a direct role by al-Qaida in the protests.
U.S. and Libyan officials are investigating whether the protests were a cover for militants, possibly al-Qaida sympathizers, to carry out a coordinated attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi and kill Americans. Washington has deployed FBI investigators to try and track down militants behind the attack.
The United States sent an elite, 50-member Marine unit to Yemen’s capital to bolster security at the embassy there, which protesters broke into on Thursday and then tried again to assault Friday. A similar team was dispatched to Tripoli, Libya, on Wednesday after the deadly attack the night before on the Benghazi consulate.
But the Sudanese government said Saturday it had refused to allow a similar Marine deployment to the embassy in Khartoum. Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Karti declined the request, saying Sudan is capable of protecting diplomatic missions, the state news agency said.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Sudan’s government „has recommitted itself both publicly and privately to continue to protect our mission.” She said the U.S. has requested additional security precautions.
Later in the day, the State Department issued a travel warning for Sudan and Tunisia, ordering home non-essential personnel and family members of staff at posts in both countries over security concerns.
The department added that while Sudan’s government has taken steps to limit the activities of terrorist groups, some remain there and have threatened to attack Western interests. The terrorist threat level remains critical, it said.
Elsewhere in the region, security was increased Saturday at several spots that had been targeted.
Police in Lebanon beefed up their presence around U.S. fast food restaurants Saturday, after angry crowds Friday set fire to a KFC and a Hardee’s restaurant in the port city of Tripoli. In Tunisia, the U.S. Embassy compound and school were surrounded by police and army vehicles Saturday.
The protests were sparked by an obscure, amateurish movie called „Innocence of Muslims” that depicts Muhammad as a fraud, a womanizer and a pedophile. A 14-minute „trailer” for the movie, dubbed into Arabic, was posted on YouTube.
The top religious authority in Saudi Arabia, Grand Mufti Sheik Abdel-Aziz al-Sheik, condemned the movie on Saturday but said it „will not harm” Islam or Muhammad.
„Muslims should not be dragged by wrath and anger to shift from legitimate to forbidden actions. By this, they will unknowingly fulfill some aims of the film,” he said.
The head of al-Azhar, Sheik Ahmed al-Tayeb, called on the United Nations to take a stand against hate speech, pointing out that the world body has done so in defense of Jewish people.
He said that while defending the Prophet Muhammad is a duty for all Muslims — it should be „not only through peaceful protests … but also through reviving his teachings in all walks of life and spreading his moderate ideas.”
In the U.S., the man behind the movie was questioned at a California sheriff’s station early Saturday by federal probation officers investigating whether he had violated terms of his five-year probation. Nakoula Basseley Nakoula wasn’t arrested or detained.
Federal authorities have identified Nakoula, a self-described Coptic Christian, as the key figure behind the film. A federal law enforcement official told The Associated Press on Thursday that authorities had connected Nakoula to a man using the pseudonym of Sam Bacile, who claimed earlier to be writer and director of the film.
Nakoula was convicted of bank fraud in 2010 and is banned from using the computers and the Internet as part of his sentence.
Contributing to this report were Sarah El-Deeb in Cairo, Bouazza ben Bouazza in Tunisia and Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington