Iraqi politics appeared to be coming to a head Sunday as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw paid a surprise visit to Baghdad to press for faster action in forming a unity government. As they did, a crack opened for the first time publicly in the ranks of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's Shiite alliance, two of whose senior members asked him to "set a fine example by stepping down" so that a candidate acceptable to both Kurds and Sunnis could be found. Those groups remain adamantly opposed to Jaafari. Previously the alliance had said it would not withdraw his name from the nomination process. A Jaafari aide rejected the call for him to go.

Secret strategy meetings between defense chiefs and the British government leaders are scheduled for Monday to consider the consequences of a military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, the Sunday Telegraph (London) reported. The newspaper said the meetings would "undermine the claim" last month by Foreign Secretary Straw that a military strike against Iran was "inconceivable." It also said any such attack would center on the use of US cruise missiles and stealth bombers carrying satellite-guided ordnance, but that Britain could provide assistance through its early-warning aircraft. Before leaving Britain Sunday, Secretary Rice said the US is committed to pursuing a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear standoff.

The controversial law that has triggered angry demonstrations by young people across France was signed Sunday by President Jacques Chirac. He called the signing a gesture of respect, since the measure had been passed by parliament and declared constitutional by France's highest court, but asked that it not be enforced. Despite that, unions and protesting students called for new demonstrations Tuesday to demand that the law be rescinded. Meanwhile, senior legislators were arranging to consult Tuesday with union leaders on the language of a replacement law that would be softer in tone.

Results are expected Monday from the early national election in Thailand. Embattled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai Party appeared certain to score an easy victory, since 276 of its candidates had no challengers due to a boycott by the main opposition parties. Thaksin has promised to resign if his party does not attract 50 percent of the vote. But political analysts were predicting that the outcome would be "protracted deadlock" because candidates in uncontested races must win 20 percent support, which appeared unlikely in districts - such as the major cities - where Thaksin is unpopular.

The first peace negotiations in eight months between defense forces and antigovernment rebels in Ivory Coast opened Saturday, with the former saying it was "very satisfied" with the progress. The talks are to resume Tuesday. They are aimed at achieving a disarmament by the rebels as well as on how they'd be integrated into the leadership of the armed forces. Efforts to unite the deeply divided one-time economic powerhouse have been hobbled by delay, squabbling, and sporadic fighting. But the two sides are agreed on trying to hold a national election later this year.

Emergency crews were racing to stack sandbags, reinforce dams, and evacuate residents as rivers in the Czech Republic and Germany rose above flood levels from melting snow and weeks of rain. Half of the 14 Czech regions were under a state of emergency. Conditions were most acute in the Elbe River city of Melnik, 19 miles north of the capital, Prague. In 2002, the Elbe overflowed in the worst flooding in a century, killing 16 people and causing an estimated $3 billion in property damage. Meanwhile, residents of northwestern Australia were cleaning up damage from cyclone Glenda, which battered the region Thursday. But the storm missed all major population centers and there were no reports of deaths or injury.

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