A terrorist bomber killed himself and at least 34 other people Thursday in Najaf, Iraq, outside one of the most revered shrines in Shiite Islam. More than 120 others were wounded in the attack, for which a Sunni resistance group calling itself Soldiers of the Prophet's Compan- ions claimed responsibility. Reports said the bomber was being patted down by police at a checkpoint when he set off an explosive belt. The attack came as thousands of Iraqi and US soldiers sealed off one of the most volatile neighborhoods in Baghdad in an effort to regain control of security.

Citing specific threats to security, Israeli authorities ordered the border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt closed again Thursday, only hours after it had opened for the first time in weeks. The opening had been allowed so that Palestinian students, businessmen, and medi-cal patients could enter Egypt for their respective needs. Israel shut the crossing after Hamas militants seized soldier Gilad Shalit June 25, triggering an ongoing military offensive in Gaza.

Heavy new fighting erupted Thursday between government forces and Tamil separatist rebels in northeastern Sri Lanka, and the latter claimed that 50 civilian noncombatants had been killed and roughly 200 more were hurt. An Army spokesman said he was unaware of such casualties, but that the rebels "are known for using civilians as human shields." The clash broke what had appeared to be the settlement of a dispute over the July 20 shutdown of a vital irrigation system by the rebels.

Eight opposition candidates for president bowed out of Sunday's primary election in Venezuela, making it unnecessary as they swung their support to a popular state governor, Manuel Rosales. He will challenge leftist incumbent Hugo Chávez, who is seeking a third term in the Dec. 3 national election. At a meeting in Caracas Wednesday, he slammed Chávez for overspending on a military buildup and for the repeated claims that the US intends to go to war against him. "Our only war," Rosales said, should be against rampant street crime.

Saomai, the eighth major storm of the typhoon season, was pounding southeastern China Thursday, and forecasters said it would dump torrential rains on the region through most of the weekend. Its 135 m.p.h. winds made it the most powerful storm to make landfall there since the communist revolution in 1949, the Xinhua news agency said. More than 1.3 million people were evacuated from its path. Saomai arrived a week after Prapiroon, which was blamed for at least 80 deaths, and a month after Bilis, which killed more than 600 people.

Gunmen dressed in uniforms of Nigeria's Army seized two more foreign oil company employees a day after four others were kidnapped en route to pumping platforms at sea. The latest hostages include a Belgian, a Moroccan, two Norwegians, and two Ukrainians. A German oil worker and two Filipinos also were taken hostage last week. The kidnappings have cut the production of crude, Nigeria's principal export, by almost 25 percent. The captors usually demand a greater share of that wealth for residents of the delta region, the release of militant leaders from prison, or both.

The embrace of Western values – and especially business models – is responsible for a "soaring" problem of mental illness and the declining birthrate in Japan, government officials told The Times (London). The Mental Health Institute cited merit-based pay and promotions, both of which run counter to the traditional seniority-based system, as particular concerns. Meanwhile, the Institute for Population and Social Security said workplace pressures leave young couples too insecure financially to start families. Sixty-five percent of employers report "soaring levels of mental illness" and that Japan's suicide rate is the highest among industrialized nations, The Times said.

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