World

Opposition to US plans for Iraq by the nation's top Shiite Muslim cleric grew more open, with publication of a newspaper ad that said "outsiders" should not determine how the first postwar legislature should be chosen. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani said such a body chosen by regional councils, as the US wants, instead of by popular vote, would be illegitimate and would lead to a deteriorating "security situation."

Israel's invitation to peace talks in Jerusalem was spurned by the government of neighboring Syria, which called it "not serious" and a "media maneuver." Negotiations broke down four years ago over the future of the strategic Golan Heights, which the Jewish state seized in the 1967 war and then annexed. Syria demands their return. The invitation to Syrian President Bashar Assad came one day after Israel's foreign minister confirmed that the bitter enemies had had secret contacts last year on resuming peace efforts. Meanwhile, more than 100,000 Israelis marched Sunday night in Tel Aviv in protest of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to empty Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as part of an eventual peace with the Palestinians.

A national election in India, the world's largest democracy, appeared almost certain to be held in April, six months before Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's terms ends. Analysts said Vajpayee chose that time because it's the earliest an election can be organized and because he is riding the crest of a vigorous economy as well as the prospect of serious new peace negotiations with rival Pakistan.

Controversial President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela left home for the Summit of the Americas in Mexico, saying for the first time publicly that he'll quit if he loses a prospective referendum on his rule. But in a newspaper interview he repeated assertions that his opponents used fraud to collect almost 3.5 million signatures on petitions demanding such a referendum, which is deemed unlikely to be held before May. Up to now, Chávez has insisted he wouldn't accept a decision by the National Elections Council to approve a vote.

A massive fire roared through an overcrowded section of Manila, injuring at least 23 people. An estimated 25,000 lost their homes. The blaze was believed started by an exploding fuel tank. Access by firefighters was restricted by passageways too narrow for their trucks, and it took almost eight hours for crews to put down the flames.

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