Ethnic and sectarian leaders in Iraq set aside their differences and formed a 27-member committee to consider amending the Constitution. The move was seen as a political victory for Sunnis, who posed the strongest opposition to the charter on grounds that it would splinter the nation and deny them a share of its oil wealth. The new panel will have a year to review proposed changes and then move for approval, first by parliament and then in a nationwide referendum. Meanwhile, President Jalal Talibani told The Washington Post that Iraq will need two US air bases and 10,000 American troops "for a long time ... to prevent foreign interference" – a presumed reference to neighboring Iran.

Israel's government did not deny a published report that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met secretly earlier this month with a high-level official from Saudi Arabia in an apparent effort to reinvigorate the peace process in the region. But a Saudi spokes-man dismissed the report as "a figment of their imagination." The two do not have diplomatic relations, and Olmert's predecessor, Ariel Sharon, rejected a 2002 Saudi initiative that would have traded Arab recognition of Israel for the latter's withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip and a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the assassination Monday in southern Afghanistan of a provincial director of the Ministry of Women's Affairs. Safia Ahmed-jan was en route to her office in Kandahar when a gunman on a motorcycle fired on her. Authorities speculated that the attack came in retaliation for her work in promoting women's rights. She had opened at least six schools in Kandahar Province to teach females such vocational skills as baking and tailoring. The BBC reported that the central government had not acted on her request for guards.

Islamist militiamen seized another strategic port in Somalia without firing a shot, but then turned their guns on residents protesting their arrival. A teen-age boy was killed and two others were wounded, reports said Monday. The violence apparently began when the militiamen burned the national flag and raised their own over Kismayo, near the border with Kenya. The incident came as the UN Security Council was preparing to consider lifting the 14-year-old embargo on supplying weapons to Somalia. Meanwhile, witnesses said they saw a convoy carrying hundreds of soldiers from neighboring Ethiopia toward Baidoa, the base of Somalia's internationally recognized interim government. Ethiopian troops previously have helped to prop up the government.

A powerful protege of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin was stripped of his post in an apparent bid by the nation's new leader to remove a potential rival. Chen Liangyu, the Communist Party secretary for Shanghai and a member of the Politburo, was accused of graft. Analysts said his removal by President Hu Jintao almost certainly would be welcomed by the public, which has grown cynical over widespread corruption. The dismissal was the first involving such a senior official in 11 years.

Another 4,000 peacekeeping troops from the African Union will be added to its mission in Sudan's volatile Darfur region, the organization announced Monday. It also said its mandate there has been extended to Dec. 31. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has refused all efforts to deploy a 20,000-man UN mission in Darfur, said he'd send an unspecified number of government forces to serve with the AU troops. He challenged critics to prove claims that as many as 300,000 Darfurians have died in the conflict.

All signs point to a favorable report on admitting Romania and Bulgaria to the European Union Jan. 1 as its executive commission meets Tuesday to announce a decision on the matter. But commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso said he'll recommend a halt to further expansion of the bloc after that. He told reporters that the EU must address the issue of its stalled constitution before accepting new applicants. The recommendation would appear to spell indefinite delay for Turkey and Croatia, which are in negotiations for membership.

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