Setting aside recent French and American differences, special US envoy James Baker and President Jacques Chirac said in Paris they agree that a deal to ease Iraq's massive foreign debt must be reached - and by next year, if possible. On the first day of his mission to Iraq's major creditors, Baker said he and Chirac believe forgiving much of the $120 billion debt is necessary so that Iraq's "people can enjoy freedom and prosperity. But they did not announce any change in the US decision to bar France or other nations that opposed the war in Iraq from bidding for reconstruction contracts.

Expressions of sympathy for Saddam Hussein and concern that he may be subjected to the death penalty by an Iraqi tribunal were growing from high-profile international organizations. A senior Vatican official told a news conference of his compassion for the former dictator, whom he called "a man in his tragedy." The Vatican opposed the war to free Iraq. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said his organization opposes bringing Hussein before a tribunal that could sentence him to death.

The strongest hint yet that Israel will evacuate Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and some in the West Bank came from senior political sources in Jerusalem. Quoting them, the Maariv newspaper said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's eagerly awaited speech Thursday night on his plan for peace is expected to say Israel must be ready to act alone on abandoning the settlements because a Palestinian government may last only six months. The 7,000 Jewish settlers in Gaza are guarded heavily but live in exposed positions surrounded by 1 million or more Palestinians.

Al Qaeda operatives have been scoping out prospective targets for attack in South Korea, a member of parliament told Agence France-Presse. He said the National Intelligence Service reported Al Qaeda suspects have examined security at airports and at US military installations there and have observed troop movements. About 100,000 American civilians also live in South Korea and a wide range of US business interests operate there.

Organizers of the petition drive to recall Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez disputed claims that it is a fraud, contending that the signatures have yet to be turned in because their own staff is examining them for accuracy. Chávez dared his opponents to "tell the truth: 'Look, we've failed.' " Organizers say they've collected at least 3.6 million signatures, more than the required minimum to trigger a recall referendum. There is no deadline for presenting them to the national elections council.

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