Israeli prime minister:

Not bound by 2008 target

JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday that Israel isn't bound by a December 2008 target for a peace agreement set at last week's U.S.-hosted Mideast summit, telling his Cabinet that progress will depend on the Palestinians' ability to rein in militants.

The comments reflected Olmert's internal political weakness. Hard-liners have threatened to bring down his coalition government if he makes too many concessions in peace talks with the Palestinians. Olmert spoke a day before Israel was set to release 429 Palestinian prisoners in a gesture to moderate President Mahmoud Abbas, a step that has drawn criticism from the same hard-line members of Olmert's Cabinet.

Although Olmert's coalition is strong on paper, commanding 78 of parliament's 120 seats, it threatens to collapse over peace talks. Two parties in the five-party team oppose almost all concessions to the Palestinians.

Get a move on, Negroponte

tells lawmakers in Baghdad

BAGHDAD - Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, in Baghdad after a week of meetings with provincial leaders in Iraq, said yesterday that lawmakers must take advantage of the decline in daily violence to pass crucial legislation.

Negroponte, a former ambassador to Iraq, said if Iraq's sharply divided Parliament didn't reach a consensus "in the near future" on matters that would improve the lives of Iraqis, it risked losing the gains in security that had come in part because of the increased number of U.S. combat troops.

"It's one thing to have brought the violence under some semblance of control," Negroponte said during a news conference in the heavily fortified Green Zone here, after meeting Iraqi officials in Baghdad and seven other provinces in Iraq's north, south and west. "But it's another matter now to follow up with the necessary reconstruction and stabilization projects that will safeguard regions and protect them from this type of violence."

In particular, he said, Washington was counting on Iraqi lawmakers to pass an oil revenue-sharing law, and a measure that would allow more former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to take government jobs.

At least 17 people were killed or found dead yesterday. The deadliest attack was a suicide car bomber who struck a highway police checkpoint northwest of the Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi, killing at least three officers and wounding one, police said. Roadside bombs also killed five Iraqi security forces in separate attacks in Baghdad and north of the capital in Samarra.

Bhutto launches campaign,

is set to meet with rival

PESHAWAR, Pakistan - Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto said yesterday she would use economic as well as military means to defuse Pakistan's pro-Taliban insurgency, warning "foreign forces" could invade unless the government curbs spreading militancy.

She was speaking to journalists in Pakistan's troubled northwest, where this weekend she launched her campaign for Jan. 8 parliamentary elections - ahead of key talks slated for today with another opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, who is urging a boycott of the vote.

Bhutto also raised the specter of militants moving on Islamabad and gaining control of a key nuclear installation - widely seen as an unlikely scenario. While playing on fears of a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty, her remarks also reflected her willingness to sustain President Pervez Musharraf's unpopular military operations against al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in its lawless tribal regions.

Global-warming parley

BALI, Indonesia - Delegates and scientists from around the world opened the biggest-ever climate conference yesterday, aiming to build a new international pact by 2009 to combat global warming.

The Bali meeting will be the first major climate-change conference since former Vice President Al Gore - due in Bali next week - and a U.N. scientific council won the Nobel Peace Prize in October for their environmental work, feeding the growing sense of urgency as ice caps melt, oceans rise and extreme weather increases. *

-Daily News wire services