The holiday shopping season got off to a strong start, with large crowds gathered before dawn in search of bargains at Toys "R" Us, Wal-Mart, Sears, and other retail chains Friday, the traditional start of the gift-buying period. Wal-Mart, the world's leading retailer, reported $1.52 billion in sales, a one-day record. Shoppertrak, a company that compiles retail sales data, said stores took in $7.2 billion nationwide, a 4.8 percent jump from last year. Many analysts anticipate a 5 percent to 7 percent jump in consumer spending for the season as a whole.

President Bush received assurances of Spain's ongoing military support in Iraq after calling Prime Minister José Maria Aznar Saturday to express sympathy for seven intelligence officers killed in an ambush south of Baghdad, White House spokesman Allen Abney said. Attacks are increasingly targeting allies of the US-led occupation force, but also killed 72 American servicemen in November, the deadliest month since the Iraq war began.

Calling a Massachusetts high court decision on gay marriage "a national tragedy," Roman Catholic bishops in the state urged parishioners to complain to Gov. Mitt Romney (R) and state legislators. In a strongly worded message being read at churches over the weekend, the bishops said the Supreme Judicial Court's May deadline for new laws granting the rights and benefits of marriage to homosexual couples is too hurried. In addition, the bishops said, the ruling promotes social division "by villainizing as bigotry the legitimate defense of thousands of years of tradition."

The fatal shooting of a female motorist on I-270, which circles Columbus, Ohio, is related to at least one of nine other attacks in the area since May, authorities confirmed Saturday. Gail Knisley, who died Nov. 25, was the first person killed in the attacks.

Eight midsize sport utility vehicles received "good" ratings - the highest - in a high-speed crash test by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an insurer-funded group. The rating, which means a driver wearing a seat belt probably would not incur serious injury in a 40 m.p.h. crash, went to the Lexus RX330, the Infiniti FX, the Cadillac SRX, the Toyota 4Runner, the Nissan Murano, the Chrysler Pacifica, the Honda Pilot, and the Mitsubishi Endeavor.

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