U.S. envoy to Iraq sees

'reconciliation' as '08 goal

BAGHDAD - The U.S. ambassador to Iraq said yesterday that recent successes such as reducing violence have created a new set of challenges for 2008 - the most important being the return of refugees and the struggle for political reconciliation.

An equally significant factor, Ryan Crocker said, will be whether neighboring Iran uses its considerable influence among the Shiite majority to ease the strife that has torn this country apart - or instead create further instability.

As he spoke to reporters in the capital, Turkey was bombing positions held by the Kurdistan Workers' Party for the third time since Dec. 16.

In other developments, a roadside bomb targeting an Iraqi army patrol in Baghdad killed two civilians yesterday, as attacks claimed the lives of at least five people.

Bhutto, U.S. officials see

need for change in Pakistan

LARKANA, Pakistan - Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto accused the government yesterday of failing to crush Islamic militants, days after a suicide bombing killed 56 people during prayers in a mosque.

Meanwhile, an army statement said a suicide bombing of a military convoy yesterday killed five civilians and four soldiers in the troubled northwest.

It said 13 civilians and 10 soldiers were also wounded in the attack in the town of Mangora in Swat district, where security forces have carried out several operations against followers of a pro-Taliban radical Islamic cleric.

Bhutto spoke as the campaign heated up for next month's parliamentary elections, the Associated Press noted, with politicians addressing rallies around the country.

_ Also yesterday, the New York Times reported that some American officials now admit that there was too little oversight on the more than $5 billion the U.S. has spent in a largely failed bid to bolster Pakistani military efforts against Islamic militants.

The Times said Bush administration and military officials said they believed that much of the American money was not making its way to frontline Pakistani units.

Money has been diverted to help finance weapons systems designed to counter India, not al Qaeda or the Taliban, the officials said, adding that the United States has paid tens of millions of dollars in inflated Pakistani reimbursement claims for fuel, ammunition and other costs.

Anti-Muslim riots a backdrop for win by Hindu nationalists

AHMADABAD, India - Hindu nationalists won a crucial test of political support yesterday with a resounding victory in a state election, fought in the shadow of anti-Muslim riots that left more than 1,000 people dead in 2002.

The vote in Gujarat, in western India, was a personal victory for Narendra Modi, arguably India's most divisive politician, who was re-elected to the state's top job.

Modi cast the election as a referendum on his rule - a tenure best known for the riots, which began after a mysterious train fire killed 59 Hindu pilgrims. Many in India say Modi stood idly by as Hindu mobs butchered Muslims, who were blamed for the fire. The United States has refused to renew his visa because of the riots.

"This vote is a positive vote to bring back the government," he told thousands of supporters yesterday. "All the negative propaganda used in the campaign has been rejected by the people."

Thai voters send message

to generals: Cool the coups

BANGKOK, Thailand - A party that backs former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra won a parliamentary election yesterday, defeating a party backed by the generals who ousted him in a coup 15 months ago.

The election result was a repudiation of the generals, who had worked hard to discredit Thaksin and neutralize his supporters. But the shape of the next government remained in question.

With 95 percent of the votes counted, the pro-Thaksin People Power Party had won 228 of the 480 seats in parliament, less than a majority but enough to try to form a coalition government.

The Democrat Party, backed by the generals and the political establishment, won 166 seats.

The strong showing means that Thaksin and his supporters will remain a force in Thai politics whether or not they form a government, and ensures that a struggle for power will continue in this deeply divided country.

The military and political establishment oppose the pro-Thaksin party, known as the PPP, meaning that other parties might come under intense pressure not to join it in a coalition.

The PPP leader, Samak Sundaravej, said that he had received congratulations by telephone from Thaksin and that he had already approached smaller parties to discuss forming a coalition government. One message of the vote, he said, is that if anyone is thinking of staging another coup, "please think carefully." *

-Daily News wire services