World

Iraq's most respected Shiite Muslim cleric retreated from his former insistence on a national election in June - a move that analysts said eases the risk that his followers may obstruct US plans for the nation's future. But Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said he wanted the UN to guarantee - via a resolution passed by the Security Council - that an election for the first postwar government would be held by year's end. The Bush administration has maintained that an election before 2005 isn't feasible and that US plans to transfer power to Iraqis by June 30 can't be changed.

Early optimism that the six- nation talks on North Korea's nuclear ambitions might result in a breakthrough waned after the Pyongyang government's delegation denounced the US for its "hostile attitude" and said it must "take all responsibility for the meeting not making progress." Earlier Thursday, the North offered a comprehensive "freeze" of all nuclear programs in exchange for guarantees by the US of its security. The US insists that the programs must be dismantled first. The two sides, plus South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China, go into Friday's session with the goals of issuing a joint statement and setting a date for their next talks.

Furious Palestinian leaders accused Israel of armed robbery and of trying to further cripple their economy after Wednesday's seizure of more than $8 million from banks in the West Bank city of Ramallah. They denied Israel's contention that the raid by soldiers was aimed at emptying accounts that were used by Palestinian militants to fund bombings and other terrorist attacks. Israeli officials said the money would be spent instead on health services, school transport, and food for Palestinians.

Except for panic buying of gasoline, the streets of Haiti's capital were mostly empty Thursday as the city braced for a threatened attack by insurgents seeking to topple President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Rebel chief Guy Phillipe warned Aristide to leave the National Palace "immediately" or "we will capture him." France, Haiti's onetime colonial ruler, also called for Aristide to resign and for the formation of a transitional government.

President Boris Trajkovski and other officials of Macedonia's government were killed when a plane carrying them to a conference in neighboring Bosnia crashed in bad weather. The accident came at an especially difficult time. The ex-Yugoslav republic was due to apply formally this week for membership in the European Union. And despite Trajkovski's image as a unifier, tensions remain high there following an armed insurgency by ethnic Albanians in 2001.

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