Surprise visits to their troops in Iraq were made by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his new Polish counterpart, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz. Blair told reporters he saw improvement over the past year in Iraq's security and political situations, but he pointedly refused to set "an arbitrary timetable" for the pullout of his nation's forces. Marcinkiewicz wished the 1,400 Polish troops "a peaceful, happy, and quick homecoming," although his government has hinted it may extend their mission beyond January, the month in which its predecessor pledged to withdraw them.

Confronting public relations woes on multiple fronts, China's government defended its handling of the toxic chemical spill that now has reached the Russian Far East, sought to reassure other nations that its rapid economic growth is no threat, and denounced Japanese criticism of its 17 successive years of military buildup. A 32-page policy paper, released Thursday, argued that "China's development ... can bring more development opportunities and bigger markets for the rest of the world." Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry expressed regret for the chemical slick but said China has been "very quick ... to minimize the pollution's impact" on Russia. It also protested the criticism of the military buildup by Japan's foreign minister as "groundless" and "highly irresponsible."

Some of the anti-immigration methods that Mexico's leaders harshly criticize the US for using are employed by their own government, the national Human Rights Commission acknowledged in a new report. Commission officials said Wednesday that Mexican law allows for heavy fines and prison sentences of up to two years for illegal migrants. And, although "technically" illegal, the government orders army troops and local police to help stop the flow of Central Americans across the border with Guatemala en route to hoped-for jobs in the US. The report also said a survey of 51 detention centers and 68 other holding facilities for such migrants found overcrowding, inadequate food and medical care, and a lack of working bathrooms in almost three-quarters of them. President Vicente Fox and Foreign Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez recently have slammed US legislation and proposals on illegal immigration as "disgraceful" and "stupid."

In a rare display of anger, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan upbraided reporters in a year-end news conference, calling one "an embarrassment" to his profession. The eruption came amid questioning about Annan's role in the Iraq oil-for-food scandal. He said reporters should "do some reflection on [their] own" about allowing themselves to be led by "deliberate leaks" and "people with agendas" that resulted in what he called a "missed story." He took particular offense to questioning about whether his son, Kojo, who also has been linked to the scandal, had imported a luxury car into their native Ghana, using Kofi Annan's diplomatic status to avoid taxes. The reporter, he said, had "been behaving like an overgrown schoolboy for many, many ... years." Annan was criticized by the independent commission investigating the scandal for his bad management of the oil-for-food program.

For the first time on record, the population of Japan fell this year, the Health Ministry reported. It said deaths outnumber births - already recorded or expected by Dec. 31 - by 10,000. Some of the decline was linked to an increasingly dim view of marriage among young people and to the fact that child-bearing out of wedlock is rare. Analysts said the trend, if continued, could lead to labor shortages, a shortfall in tax collections, and ultimately an overburdened pension system.

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