Saying failure of democracy in Iraq "would embolden terrorists around the world," President Bush again defended his Iraq policy and called for reforms across the Middle East. The US and other Western nations share part of the blame for the region's instability, Bush said, for "excusing and accomodating" regimes that oppressed their citizens for decades. The speech at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington came shortly before Bush was to sign an $87.5 billion funding bill for military and rebuilding efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, meanwhile, was outlining a troop-rotation plan for Iraq. Military officials indicated the force will drop from the current 130,000 to 105,000 by May. But the Pentagon is also notifying 43,000 reservists and 20,000 Marines to be ready for one-year deployments.

A major labor union reportedly was poised to endorse Howard Dean's bid for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. The Service Employees International Union represents 1.6 million janitors, healthcare workers, and others, and could prompt other groups to follow suit, analysts said. After days of controversy, the ex-governor of Vermont apologized for saying the party should court Southern whites who fly the Confederate flag on pickup trucks, saying the remark inflicted "a lot of pain."

Wisconsin Gov. James Doyle (D) came out firmly against a bill redefining marriage as a contract between one man and one woman, saying it's designed to "divide" and "anger people." Current state law says marriage is a contract between husband and wife, but supporters of the revision say it is needed to ensure that same-sex unions cannot be recognized there. The state Senate approved the bill by a 22-10 margin Wednesday. That, and the lower house's previous 68-29 vote, are large enough to override a gubernatorial veto.

A man armed with two handguns went on a shooting spree at a trucking company in suburban Cincinnati, killing one employee and wounding four others. Police were searching for the suspect, who reportedly fled in a white van after the morning rampage at Watkins Motor Lines.

The late Johnny Cash swept top honors at the Country Music Awards, winning album, single, and music video of the year at the nationally televised ceremony in Nashville, Tenn., Wednesday. Cash passed on in September. Alan Jackson took entertainer of the year and two other awards.

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