Letters of resignation by 12 senior Iranian government officials are ready and will be submitted if the nation's hard-line Muslim clerics don't reverse their ban on thousands of candidates for next month's parliamentary election, colleagues said. The threat appeared to raise the stakes in the struggle between the clerics, who rule with an iron grip, and would-be reformers, who want political and social change. Analysts said it also increases pressure on President Mohamad Khatami, who was elected with the votes of reform supporters, to quit in solidarity. In barring the candidates, the unelected Guardian Council accused many of them of showing insufficient commitment to Islam and to clerical rule.

Confusion reigned over the possibility of new peace talks between Israel and Syria as the latter's government denied that President Bashar Assad was ready to negotiate without preconditions. That claim was made by US Sen. Bill Nelson (D) of Florida, who met with Assad in Damascus last weekend and said the latter was showing flexibility. The two enemies have appeared to edge closer to peace talks in the past month, although Syria demands the return of the strategic Golan Heights, as offered by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Barak's successor, Ariel Sharon, has said he considers that offer null and void.

Massive foreign debt is keeping Argentina's economy from growing, so only 25 percent of it will be paid back, Economy Minister Roberto Lavagna announced at the summit of hemisphere leaders in Mexico. The struggling South American nation already has defaulted on $100 billion in obligations and struck a deal with the International Monetary Fund last fall to roll over $21 billion in repayments due by the end of 2006.

One hundred military bases will be closed and 35,000 soldiers will lose their jobs, the German government announced in a drive to balance its shortage of funds with growing demand to contribute to peacekeeping operations abroad. But Defense Minister Peter Struck said $33 billion in new spending cuts wouldn't affect procurement contracts the government already has signed, such as for 180 new combat aircraft.

The personal legal troubles of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a key ally of the US, deepened as a new law blocking his trial on bribery charges was ruled unconstitutional by the nation's highest court. The law was passed last spring, as Berlusconi's eighth such trial in 10 years neared a verdict. It shields senior members of government from prosecution while in office. The court decision clears the way for the trial to resume, but it was unclear when that might happen. Berlusconi maintains he is the victim of a witch-hunt by his leftist opponents.

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