USA

President Bush will decide within "weeks, not months" on possible war with Iraq, press secretary Ari Fleischer said, describing him as engaged in "active diplomacy" on the matter. Bush meets Friday with his closest ally on Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, after talks with Italy's leader and Saudi Arabia's foreign minister. Secretary of State Powell, meanwhile, said the US would help to find a haven if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein agreed to go into exile.

The Senate Finance Committee endorsed Bush's choice for Treasury secretary, sending the nomination of railroad executive John Snow to the full Senate. The panel's top Democrat, Max Baucus of Montana, joined Republicans in urging party colleagues not to delay the confirmation. Adding to the sense of urgency, the Commerce Department reported that the economy slowed dramatically in the last three months of 2002.

Attempted shoe-bomber Richard Reid awaited a possible life term in prison at a sentencing hearing Thursday. Defense lawyers were seeking a delay, asking the judge to declassify documents that, they say, could help to explain their client's motive. Reid pleaded guilty last October to trying to blow up a Miami-bound American Airlines flight for Al Qaeda.

Plaintiffs claiming they were abused by priests filed 70 more suits against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, bringing the number of pending cases to about 470. The claims reportedly involve allegations against 13 new priests, three of whom are active in the ministry. The ongoing scandal prompted Boston Cardinal Bernard Law to resign last month. His interim replacement, Bishop Richard Lennon, said the church plans to sell 11 properties worth up to $15 million to help pay settlements to victims.

An explosion at a plastics factory in Kinston, S.C., killed at least three people and injured 37 others. A variety of federal and local investigators were searching the rubble and interviewing workers to determine the cause of Wednesday's blast at the plant operated by West Pharmaceutical Services of Lionville, Pa. The facility was fined $9,000 for safety violations after an inspection in October.

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