Declaring that "The era of bullying and brutality is over," Iran's leaders ratcheted up the rhetoric Thursday over their nuclear program. In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice responded by saying that no nation poses a greater challenge to the US than the Islamic republic. The UN Security Council is expected to open debate on the matter next week, although critics say its ultimate decision could result in little more than a mild urging that Iran comply with demands to freeze its enrichment of uranium and disclose fully the plans and details of its nuclear program. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said "enemies cannot force the Iranian people to relinquish their rights" and Western countries "will suffer" more than Iran unless they halt the campaign against its nuclear development.

Prospects that the new parliament of Iraq will meet for the first time this weekend were set back again when members of its largest bloc failed to agree to the date - even though they accept that Sunday is the constitutional deadline to do so. The Shiite Alliance of more than a dozen political parties is expected to take up the matter again Friday. The sticking point, reports said, is how to respond to pressure from Sunni and Kurdish leaders to consider a replacement for Prime Minister Ibrahim al- Jaafari. Without the alliance, the legislature could still meet, but might be unable to reach a quorum.

The campaign to oust Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand turned violent again Thursday, with a bomb exploding in Bangkok outside the residence of one of his predecessors. A passerby was hurt, although his wounds were not serious. The predecessor, Prem Tinsulanonda, now serves as chief adviser to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and the blast came one day after reports surfaced that the king wants the political crisis resolved soon. Meanwhile, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Embassy of Singapore, demanding its intervention in the $1.9 billion sale of the Thaksin family's communications empire. But a source close to the Singaporean buyer said it considers the deal final. Other bombs have been exploded since the campaign against Thaksin began, but always at night and with no injuries reported.

Hundreds of police and customs agents conducted a raid at dawn Thursday on properties along the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, apparently focusing on alleged Irish Republican Army chief Thomas Murphy. Three people were arrested, but it was not immediately clear whether Murphy was among them. A source close to the matter told The Times (London), however, "It doesn't get any bigger than this." And, on condition of anonymity, a police detective said the raiders were seeking evidence of money-laundering by the outlawed IRA.

The federation representing 4,000 oil industry workers in Ecuador vowed to continue a strike that has disrupted production all week, despite a state of emergency imposed by President Alfredo Palacio. Army troops reportedly had regained control of the five largest fields and production was slowly returning to normal. No serious injuries were reported, although the strikers and soldiers fought running battles Wednesday. The workers demand back pay and other concessions from Petroecuador, the state oil company. The government has blocked payment, insisting that the company first enact accounting reforms. As of Wednesday night, Petroecuador was estimating $10 million in lost production. Oil is Ecuador's top income-earner.

A criminal investigation opened into the collapse of a large church in Uganda's capital Wed-nesday night that killed at least 23 people and injured 96 others. Construction on the church in a poor neighborhood of Kampala was not yet complete when one wall caved in on parishioners in a thunderstorm, bringing the roof down as well. If the probe uncovers poor workmanship, the builders will be prosecuted, officials said.

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