Kyrgyzstan president's party

gains in parliamentary vote

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan - President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's party seemed headed for an overwhelming victory in parliamentary elections in this strategically important Central Asian nation, the election authority said today.

With nearly 70 percent of ballots counted from yesterday's vote, Bakiyev's Ak Jol party was leading with 46 percent, the election commission said. Ak Jol is followed by the opposition Ata Meken party of former parliament speaker Omurbek Tekebayev with 9.7 percent.

Kyrgyzstan is important to several global powers. Russia has an air base here and the U.S. military base outside the capital Bishkek helps support operations in Afghanistan. It is the last U.S. base left in Central Asia. Neighboring Uzbekistan booted U.S. forces in 2005.

The United States, Russia and China, another neighbor, are competing for access to Central Asia's oil, hydropower potential, strategic metals, pipelines and transit routes.

Bakiyev has worried many with his increasingly authoritarian policies, and allegations of vote rigging dogged the parliamentary elections, heightening worries about the stability of the nation.

U.S. general says violence in Iraq is at 2003 war levels

BAGHDAD - Violence in Iraq is at its lowest levels since the first year of the American invasion, finally opening a window for reconciliation among rival sects, the second-ranking U.S. general said yesterday as Iraqi forces formally took control of security across half the country.

Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the man responsible for the ground campaign in Iraq, said that the first six months of 2007 were probably the most violent period since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The past six months, however, had seen some of the lowest levels of violence since the conflict began, Odierno said.

"I feel we are back in '03 and early '04. Frankly I was here then, and the environment is about the same in terms of security in my opinion," he said. "What is different from then is that the Iraqi security forces are significantly more mature."

Violence killed at least 27 Iraqis yesterday - 16 of them members of a U.S.-backed neighborhood patrol killed in clashes with al Qaeda in a volatile province neighboring Baghdad. Thirty-five al Qaeda fighters also died in that fighting, Iraqi officials said.

_ Al Qaeda's No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri warned of "traitors" among insurgents in Iraq and called on Iraqi Sunni Arab tribes to purge those who help the Americans in a new videotape posted today on the Web.

Al-Zawahri's comments were aimed at undermining so-called "awakening councils" - the groups of Iraqi Sunni tribesmen that the U.S. military has backed to help fight al Qaeda in Iraq and its allies.

_ In Afghanistan yesterday, a top American general said attacks along the Afghan-Pakistan border have dropped more than 40 percent since July and the U.S. and its allies are making progress in the fight against the Taliban.

Brig. Gen. Joseph Votel said the decrease in insurgent activity along the border could be attributed to the onset of winter, a rise in insurgent attacks in Pakistan and an increase in communication and coordination among NATO, Afghan and Pakistani forces.

Rice rips Hamas, pledges

$550M to West Bank gov't.

PARIS - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that militant Palestinians, not Israel, are to blame for deteriorating conditions in the sealed-off Gaza Strip, as the United States announced it intends to donate $550 million to the impoverished Palestinians next year.

The U.S. pledge would include $150 million in direct aid to the Palestinian government in the West Bank that, despite a history of corruption, is the Bush administration's hope for new peace talks with Israel launched last month in Annapolis, Md.

There is nothing for the rival Hamas leadership in Gaza, where 1.5 million people live, although U.S. officials are quick to say that food and medical aid to the area has increased. *

- Associated Press