With five days to go until Iraq's first national election in almost half a century, speculation centered on whether a Shiite coalition will win enough seats in the National Assembly to ensure that the next prime minister comes from its ranks. The United Iraqi Alliance, which has the blessing of top Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is running 228 candidates, but doubters say it may fall far short of a majority in the 275-seat parliament because not all Shiites look to him for guidance. An alliance of Kurdish parties is projected to finish a distant second, with a secular party led by interim prime minister Iyad Allawi in third place. Allawi, however, is generally expected to keep his post.

On the orders of their new president, workers from the Palestinian Authority were tearing down buildings erected illegally in cities in the northern Gaza Strip - another move to restore order before Israel withdraws its settlements and the military forces who protect them. President Mahmoud Abbas also was awaiting the go-ahead from Israel to add to the Palestinian police presence in Gaza, currently limited to the northern sections. The new deployment would come in southern Gaza, where most settlers live. Meanwhile, Hamas said it was ready to suspend attacks against Israeli targets in exchange for a halt in assassinations of its leaders and the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israel's jails. The declaration raised hopes of a deal with Abbas for a formal truce that would lead to new peace negotiations with Israel.

A major change in the way victims of last month's earthquake and tsunami are counted was announced by Indonesia's Health Ministry. A spokesman said the new procedure involves tallying only those whose remains have been buried. All others will be listed as missing for a year. The move lowers the ministry's casualty count from about 170,000 to 96,232. It also brings the ministry into agreement with figures issued by the National Disaster Relief Coordinating Board. Previously, there had been a 70,000-person discrepancy between the two. Meanwhile, firefighters in Aceh Province's devastated capital were struggling to control a massive blaze apparently begun by residents burning debris from their former homes.

Religious pilgrims slipping and falling on wet steps triggered a stampede on a steep path outside a Hindu shrine in western India, and authorities estimated as many as 300 people died in the panic. In the chaos, an overhead cable carrying electricity to food vendors' stalls outside the shrine short-circuited, starting a fire that engulfed many of those trying to flee, the officials said. The annual pilgrimage attracts hundreds of thousands of Hindus to the site.

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