---- — Kerry: US and Afghanistan agree on security pact language
WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that the U.S. and Afghanistan have agreed on the language of a bilateral security pact that could clear the way for thousands of U.S. troops to train and assist Afghan forces after the NATO combat mission ends in 2014.
The agreement is far from complete. The document now goes to the Loya Jirga, a 3,000-member council of elders that has the right to revise or reject any clause of the draft agreement. Whatever they agree upon then goes to the Afghan parliament, which could make still more changes before the agreement is approved.
On the U.S. side, only the Obama administration needs to approve the agreement, but it could reject changes made by Afghan officials. If it does, that leaves open the option for the U.S. to pull all troops out of Afghanistan. Such was the case in Iraq, when the U.S. and Iraq couldn’t agree on terms of a security arrangement. Sectarian violence has plagued Iraq since, and some fear Afghanistan could head down that path without a continued U.S. presence if Afghan forces cannot defend the country themselves.
Kerry said the language, agreed to after about a year of tense on-again, off-again negotiations, will be reflected in the draft proposal presented Thursday to the Loya Jirga, in Kabul.
“There were some people who may have questioned or doubted whether that was going to happen. Well, it’s happening tomorrow, and it’s happening tomorrow with agreed-upon language between us,” Kerry said during a news conference at the State Department with Australian officials and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
Study ties nuts to a lower risk of death
DALLAS (AP) — Help yourself to some nuts this holiday season: Regular nut eaters were less likely to die of cancer or heart disease — in fact, were less likely to die of any cause — during a 30-year Harvard study.
Nuts have long been called heart-healthy, and the study is the largest ever done on whether eating them affects mortality.
Researchers tracked 119,000 men and women and found that those who ate nuts roughly every day were 20 percent less likely to die during the study period than those who never ate nuts. Eating nuts less often also appeared to lower the death risk, in direct proportion to consumption.
The risk of dying of heart disease dropped 29 percent and the risk of dying of cancer fell 11 percent among those who had nuts seven or more times a week compared with people who never ate them.
The benefits were seen from peanuts as well as from pistachios, almonds, walnuts and other tree nuts. The researchers did not look at how the nuts were prepared — oiled or salted, raw or roasted.
Obama honors JFK legacy
WASHINGTON (AP) — Honoring the legacy of John F. Kennedy, President Barack Obama laid a wreath at the assassinated president’s gravesite as a nation remembers that terrible day in Dallas a half-century ago Friday. Obama also recognized a group of distinguished Americans — including Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey — with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an award created by Kennedy.
Obama was joined at Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday by Clinton, and each president held hands with Ethel Kennedy, widow of Robert F. Kennedy, as they climbed a flight of stairs to the burial site on a steep hillside overlooking the nation’s capital.
First lady Michelle Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton helped their husbands place a large wreath of white flowers in front of the roped-off gravesite of America’s 35th president, which is marked by an ever-burning flame.
Both couples placed their hands over their hearts as taps sounded near a U.S. flag at half-staff before greeting Kennedy relatives, including some who arrived in Obama’s motorcade, before Friday’s 50th anniversary of the assassination.
The day of tributes began at the White House, where Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 16 living and deceased Americans for their contributions in fields ranging from sports and entertainment to science and public service.
Iran nuclear talks resume
GENEVA (AP) — A new round of Iran nuclear talks began in fits and starts Wednesday, with the two sides ending a first session just minutes after it began amid warnings from Iran’s supreme leader of “red lines” beyond which his country will not compromise.
Still, both sides indicated a first-step agreement was possible on a deal to roll back Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief, despite strong opposition from Israel and unease in both Congress and among Iranian hard-liners.
President Barack Obama appears determined to reach such an agreement, which could be a major step toward reconciliation between the United States and a former ally that turned adversary after the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
But America’s longtime allies Israel and Saudi Arabia fear a deal will fall short of ending the Iranian threat and that a resurgent Iran will transform the balance of power in the Middle East.
A senior U.S. official said Wednesday’s brief plenary was only a formality and that bilateral meetings would continue through the evening to try to hammer out the first steps of a deal. She demanded anonymity under U.S. government briefing rules.
Illinois becomes 16th state to allow gay marriage
CHICAGO (AP) — Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation Wednesday allowing same-sex weddings starting this summer, making President Barack Obama’s home state the 16th overall — and largest in the nation’s heartland — to legalize gay marriage.
The festivities at the University of Illinois at Chicago featured a family-friendly crowd, musical performances and a stage lined with American, Illinois and rainbow flags.
“We understand in our state that part of our unfinished business is to help other states in the United States of America achieve marriage equality,” Quinn said before he signed the bill on a desk once used by President Abraham Lincoln. He said part of that mission was to ensure that “love is not relegated to a second class status to any citizen in our country.”
References to freedom, equality, fairness and Lincoln — the desk was where he penned his 1861 inaugural address — were peppered throughout the event. In attendance were top elected officials, including Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Organizers estimated roughly 2,300 attended, including activists and members of the public.
Illinois, where Democrats lead both legislative chambers and the governor’s office, legalized civil unions in 2011, but the road to same-sex marriage was bumpy.
Narrow choices of seen in health overhaul plans
WASHINGTON (AP) — After they get the website fixed, then what? Keeping your doctors and hospitals may be the next vexing challenge for Americans in the new health plans created by President Barack Obama’s law.
Obama promised people could keep their doctors. But in many states the new plans appear to offer a narrow choice of hospitals and doctors. Overall, it’s shaping up as less choice than what people get through Medicare or employer-based coverage. Also, it can get complicated tracking down which medical providers are in what plans.
“The next shoe is going to drop sometime after Jan. 1, when people actually start using their plans,” said health economist Gail Wilensky, who ran Medicare for President George H.W. Bush. “Whether or not they can keep their doctor is going to depend on whether their doctor was chosen — or wanted to be — part of a plan on the (insurance) exchange.”
Concerns are already being raised from New Hampshire to Kentucky, and Chicago to New York.
Narrow networks are part of the economic trade-off for keeping premiums under control in Obama’s health insurance markets, the new gateway to coverage for people who don’t have job-based plans. Technical problems with the website HealthCare.gov have dampened initial signups, but 7 million people are expected to participate in the insurance exchanges next year. Some of those people already have coverage through individual plans.
Turmoil at UN climate talks as question of who’s to blame for global warming heats up
WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Rich and poor nations are struggling with a yawning rift at the U.N. climate talks as developing countries look for new ways to make developed countries accept responsibility for global warming — and pay for it.
With two days left, there was commotion in the Warsaw talks Wednesday after negotiators for developing nations said they walked out of a late-night meeting on compensation for the impact of global warming.
“We do not see a clear commitment of developed parties to reach an agreement,” said Rene Orellana, head of Bolivia’s delegation.
U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern downplayed the dispute, saying American negotiators who had attended the meeting were surprised to hear of a walk-out.
“The meeting ended with everyone leaving,” Stern told reporters.