A new proposal to end the confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program will offer incentives to the Islamic republic instead of threatening punishment and should be ready for presentation by Monday, Western leaders said. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told NBC's "Today" show that attempting to coerce Iran to halt enrichment of uranium is on hold, while new British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said, "There is no intention to use military force." Instead, the US, Britain, France, and Germany are preparing a list of options to be offered to the Iranians, such as access to civil nuclear technology, new avenues for trade, and perhaps security guarantees. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Wednesday that Western leaders only pretend to be concerned about his nation's nuclear program while expanding their own "day by day."

Calling the US a "fortress," Russian President Vladimir Putin said it is premature to speak of ending the arms race because the Bush administration spends 25 percent more on defense than his government does. In his State of the Nation address, Putin said Russia would strengthen its nuclear deterrent and conventional military forces, but without repeating mistakes of the cold war era. Striking back at recent criticism by Vice President Cheney that Russia has retreated on democratic reforms and has been strong-arming its former Soviet neighbors, he also questioned American "pathos about protecting human rights and democracy" in the face of an aggressive course in global affairs.

The Hamas-led Palestinian Authority government has until Dec. 31 to show its willingness to negotiate a final peace agreement with Israel, an aide to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said. Otherwise, he said, Israel will "take fate into our own hands" and unilaterally impose a new border in the West Bank, to include the Jordan River Valley, within two years. Olmert has made the matter the No. 1 priority of his government. Hamas has steadfastly refused to negotiate with Israel, and Palestinians regard much of the West Bank as integral to their future state.

Protestant hard-liner and bitter rival Ian Paisley will be nominated by Sinn Fein, the political ally of the Irish Republican Party, to be first minister of Northern Ireland's self-rule government, reports said. The decision, announced by Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, comes amid new efforts by Britain and the Irish Republic to jump-start the power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly later this month. McGuinness will be nominated as Paisley's deputy, the Sinn Fein chiefs said. Paisley, an ordained clergyman, heads the Democratic Unionist Party, the largest in the North. He has staunchly refused to participate in government with Sinn Fein.

Fighting for control of Somalia's capital eased Wednesday, but showed no sign of stopping, and the casualty count rose to at least 90 deaths and almost 200 wounded. Most of the casualties have been civilian noncombatants, reports said. Secular militias said they were suspicious of the unilateral cease-fire declared late Tuesday by the rival Islamic Court Union, maintaining that it was called only because the latter "have run out of ammunition and [want] breathing space" in which to rearm. For their part, the Islamists accuse the secular Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism of being a pawn of the US.

A member of parliament and former communist was elected president of Italy, setting in motion the process that will allow Prime Minister-designate Romano Prodi to take office. But Senator-for-life Giorgio Napolitano was accepted only grudgingly by Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister who narrowly lost Italy's April 9-10 national election. Berlusconi, who refused to concede defeat for three weeks, said of Napolitano's elevation by fellow members of parliament, "We are still convinced that half of the country has been excluded." Napolitano is expected to be sworn in Monday and Prodi two days later.

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