---- — Rowhani takes wide lead in Iran
TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s reformist-backed presidential candidate surged to a wide lead in early vote counting Saturday, a top official said, suggesting a flurry of late support could have swayed a race that once appeared solidly in the hands of Tehran’s ruling clerics.
The strong margin for former nuclear negotiator Hasan Rowhani may be enough to give him an outright victory and avoid a two-person runoff next Friday.
Rowhani had just over 50 percent of the more than 12 million votes tallied, the Interior Ministry reported, well ahead of Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf with about 15.3 percent. Conservative Mohsen Rezaei was third with about 12.6 percent.
It was unclear when the final count would be known. Iran has more than 50 million eligible voters, and turnout in Friday’s election was believed to be high.
Many reform-minded Iranians who have faced years of crackdowns looked to Rowhani’s rising fortunes as a chance to claw back a bit of ground.
Google unveils Internet beaming balloons
CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — Wrinkled and skinny at first, the translucent, jellyfish-shaped balloons that Google released this week from a frozen field in the heart of New Zealand’s South Island hardened into shiny pumpkins as they rose into the blue winter skies above Lake Tekapo, passing the first big test of a lofty goal to get the entire planet online.
It was the culmination of 18 months’ work on what Google calls Project Loon, in recognition of how wacky the idea may sound. Developed in the secretive X lab that came up with a driverless car and web-surfing eyeglasses, the flimsy helium-filled inflatables beam the Internet down to earth as they sail past on the wind.
Still in their experimental stage, the balloons were the first of thousands that Google’s leaders eventually hope to launch 20 kilometers (12 miles) into the stratosphere in order to bridge the gaping digital divide between the world’s 4.8 billion unwired people and their 2.2 billion plugged-in counterparts.
If successful, the technology might allow countries to leapfrog the expense of laying fiber cable, dramatically increasing Internet usage in places such as Africa and Southeast Asia.
“It’s a huge moonshot. A really big goal to go after,” said project leader Mike Cassidy. “The power of the Internet is probably one of the most transformative technologies of our time.”
Turkish activist: Protesters to stay
ISTANBUL — Protesters have agreed to press on with their 2-week-long sit-in at an Istanbul park, despite government appeals and warnings for the standoff with authorities to end, an activist said Saturday.
Tayfun Kahraman made the comment to The Associated Press after a series of discussions among the protesters in Gezi Park to decide on their next move.
He was one of two activists in Taksim Solidarity, an umbrella group of protest movements, who had met with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday.
The protesters are angry about government plans to pull down trees and redevelop the park area. An initial sit-in drew a forceful police response on May 31, setting off a wave of protests — Turkey’s biggest in decades.
Saturday’s announcement is likely to return the spotlight on Erdogan’s government, which in recent days offered to defer to a court ruling on the legality of the redevelopment plan and possibly hold a referendum on it. But on Thursday, he issued a “final” warning that the protesters must leave the park.
Guantanamo ex-prisoner talks
GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — For more than three months, the U.S. military has faced off with defiant prisoners on a hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay, strapping down as many as 43 each day to feed them a liquid nutrient mix through a nasal tube to prevent them from starving to death.
The standoff, which prompted President Barack Obama to renew his call to close the detention center, has grown to involve 104 of the 166 prisoners as of Friday, and may be nearing a crisis point. Yet the experience of a former detainee demonstrates that a hunger strike at Guantanamo can be as indefinite as the open-ended detention that is at the heart of essentially every conflict at the military prison.
The men undergoing forced-feeding aren’t permitted to speak to journalists, but Ahmed Zuhair knows what the experience is like. Until he was released from U.S. custody in 2009, he and another prisoner had the distinction of staging the longest hunger strikes at the prison. Zuhair kept at it for four years in a showdown that at times turned violent.
The military acknowledges a “forced cell extraction team” was repeatedly used to move him when he refused to walk on his own to where striking detainees were fed. He says his nasal passages and back are permanently damaged from the way he was strapped down and fed through a nasogastric tube.
Court papers show that Zuhair once racked up 80 disciplinary infractions in four months, refusing to be force-fed among them, and that he and fellow prisoners smeared themselves with their own feces for five days to keep guards at bay and protest rough treatment.
Obama faces stiff resistance from Democrats on proposed free-trade pacts with Europe and Asia
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is aggressively pushing an ambitious agenda to liberalize global trading.
But already political trade wars are forming, and they’re with fellow Democrats rather than with Republicans, his usual antagonists.
Obama is promoting free-trade proposals with Europe and Asia that could affect up to two-thirds of all global trade.
The ambitious deals would reduce or eliminate tariffs and other trade barriers. But there’s trouble ahead for both the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership — at the negotiating table and from Congress.
The deal with Europe will be a top item this coming week in Northern Ireland at the Group of Eight summit of major industrial democracies. But French and other objections have recently surfaced which could delay the planned launch of the negotiations.
Facebook, Microsoft says they have new permission to talk about government’s user surveillance
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Facebook and Microsoft Corp. representatives said that after negotiations with national security officials their companies have been given permission to make new but still very limited revelations about government orders to turn over user data.
The announcements Friday night come at the end of a week when Facebook, Microsoft and Google, normally rivals, had jointly pressured the Obama administration to loosen their legal gag on national security orders.
Those actions came after Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old American who works as a contract employee at the National Security Agency, revealed to The Guardian newspaper the existence of secret surveillance programs that gathered Americans’ phone records and other data. The companies did not link their actions to Snowden’s leaks.
Ted Ullyot, Facebook’s general counsel, said in a statement that Facebook is only allowed to talk about total numbers and must give no specifics. But he said the permission it has received is still unprecedented, and the company was lobbying to reveal more.
Using the new guidelines, Ullyot said Facebook received between 9,000 and 10,000 government requests from all government entities from local to federal in the last six months of 2012, on topics including missing children investigations, fugitive tracking and terrorist threats. The requests involved the accounts of between 18,000 and 19,000 Facebook users.
With flames in check, some evacuation orders lifted in devastating Colo. wildfire
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Firefighters advanced against a monstrous wildfire outside of Colorado Springs, expanding containment lines and lifting evacuation orders for thousands of anxious residents in the most destructive blaze in state history, which has destroyed nearly 500 homes and killed two people.
“I think if you look at it as a fight, we got our tails kicked for a couple of days,” El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said Friday afternoon. He called Thursday a “draw,” then gave what’s been one of the most optimistic updates since the wildfire exploded this week. “I think today we delivered some blows, and we’ve got some good news to give out.”
Aided by a surprise rain shower and slower fire movement, crews increased containment to 30 percent, up from the 5 percent the previous day. That meant evacuation orders could be lifted for neighborhoods east, north, and west of the fire — areas where as many as 5,000 people are estimated to live, Maketa said.
The fire began Tuesday during record-setting heat and tinder-dry conditions. Officials have warned it still could flare up again if the weather shifts. So far, 473 homes have been destroyed.
Crews say they were better prepared to take on the flames because of lessons learned fighting last year’s Waldo Canyon Fire, a similarly devastating blaze that devoured hundreds of homes and killed two people only a few miles away.
Senate Democrats in GOP-leaning states double down on support of health care law
ATLANTA (AP) — Far from reversing course, Senate Democrats who backed President Barack Obama’s health care law and now face re-election in GOP-leaning states are reinforcing their support for the overhaul even as Republicans intensify their criticism.
Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina will face voters in 2014 for the first time since voting for the Affordable Care Act — also known as “Obamacare” — three years ago. They aren’t apologizing for their vote, and several are pursuing an aggressive strategy: Embrace the law, help voters use it and fix what doesn’t work.
“I don’t run from my votes,” Begich told The Associated Press. “Politicians who sit around and say, ‘That’s controversial so I better run from it,’ just ask for trouble. Voters may not always agree with you, but they respect people who think about these issues and talk about them.”
That means, Begich said, reminding voters that as a candidate in 2008 he called for prohibiting insurers from denying coverage based on existing health problems, ending lifetime coverage limits and making it easier for workers to leave a job and still have insurance, an option they’ll have under new exchanges that consumers can begin using to buy individual policies this fall.
“There’s a lot of good that people will realize as this all comes online,” the first-term senator said.
Quite the pair: Phil Mickelson, Billy Horschel share lead nearing halfway point of US Open
ARDMORE, Pa. (AP) — Phil Mickelson has won four majors. Billy Horschel has won once on the PGA Tour, and that was less than two months ago.
Mickelson was displaying his usual take-a-chance flair Friday. His round at the U.S. Open was the full package of par saves and makeable birdie putts that all went awry — until he finally sank one from 20 feet at the 18th, the hardest hole on the course, to tie him with Horschel for the lead seconds after the horn sounded to suspend play for the day.
Dramatic stuff, Lefty.
“On 18, when you don’t really expect to get one, I put the ball in a good spot and was able to roll one in,” Mickelson said.
Horschel’s approach to top of the leaderboard was much more straight-forward. He merely put the ball on the green in regulation 18 times out of 18, a stellar achievement for regular tour event, much less a U.S. Open. His 3-under 67 was the best round of the day, and he and Mickelson had a 1-under 139 total that made them the only players under par nearing the halfway point of the championship.