Blackwater guards given immunity

WASHINGTON &

The State Department promised Blackwater USA bodyguards immunity from prosecution in its investigation of last month's deadly shooting of 17 Iraqi civilians, The Associated Press has learned.

The immunity deal has delayed a criminal inquiry into the Sept. 16 killings and could undermine any effort to prosecute security contractors for their role in the incident that has infuriated the Iraqi government.

"Once you give immunity, you can't take it away," said a senior law enforcement official familiar with the investigation.

State Department officials declined to confirm or deny that immunity had been granted. One official &

who refused to be quoted by name"" said: "If, in fact, such a decision was made, it was done without any input or authorization from any senior State Department official in Washington."

Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd and FBI spokesman Rich Kolko declined comment.

Dems question approval of war funds

WASHINGTON &

Democrats are debating whether to approve $50 billion to $70 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan, less than half of President Bush's $196 billion request but enough to keep the wars afloat for several more months.

Such a move would satisfy party members who want to spare the Pentagon from a painful budget dance and support the troops as Congress considers its next major step on Iraq.

But it would also irritate scores of other Democrats, who want to pay only to bring troops home and who say their leadership is not doing enough to end the war.

"I cannot vote for another dollar that will be used to continue the president's occupation of Iraq," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif.

Democratic leaders caution that no decisions have been made, including whether to approve any money for the wars at all. Also uncertain is which spending bill might contain the war money.

Loved ones remember 7 fire victims

COLUMBIA, S.C. &

They included an aspiring attorney, a high school homecoming queen, fraternity men and sorority women. They were ardent University of South Carolina football fans, out for a good time at a beach house.

On Monday, the day after a fire at the home took the lives of the seven young people, their friends and loved ones helped give public faces to the names of those who died.

"It's an awful loss for someone that had a pretty good future in front of her," Terry Walden said of his daughter, Allison, from his Ohio home. "It sounded like they were having a good time. Unfortunately, the fire didn't show any mercy."

Six of those killed attended the University of South Carolina. A seventh went to Clemson. Officials have said many were members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and Delta Delta Delta sorority &

and some had gone to high school together in Greenville.

In addition to the seven who died, six were injured escaping from the blaze.

Astronauts prepare for spacewalk

HOUSTON &

Astronauts embarked on a high-stakes spacewalk today to install a solar power tower on the international space station, a job that must be completed to prevent malfunctioning equipment from delaying the addition of a much-anticipated European research lab.

The spacewalkers began their 7-hour jaunt nearly an hour early, eager to begin the daunting construction work.

"Another great day at the office," spacewalker Scott Parazynski told Douglas Wheelock as they floated out of the shuttle's hatch.

Parazynski will conduct a brief inspection to help engineers understand what's wrong with a gear that controls the station's solar wings.

The rotary joint, which was installed in June, makes sure the huge solar panel wings on the right side of the space station are facing the sun. It has been experiencing electrical current spikes for nearly two months.

Tasered Fla. student won't be charged

ORLANDO, Fla. &

A University of Florida student who was shocked with a Taser after persistently questioning Sen. John Kerry won't face criminal charges and has apologized for his actions, his attorney said today.

Andrew Meyer, 21, yelled "Don't Tase me, bro!" as he scuffled with officers during the campus speech last month. In letters to the university, its president and the campus police department, he apologized, attorney Robert Griscti said.

"I made the decision to supersede the rules, and for that I apologize," Meyer wrote. "I should have acted calmer and obeyed the directives of the officers. If I had, none of the subsequent issues would ever have arisen."

Prosecutors had no immediate comment.

Meyer demanded a chance to question the former Democratic presidential candidate about the 2004 election and his and President Bush's alleged involvement in the secret Skull and Bones society when they were students at Yale University in the 1960s.

Officers rushed Meyer after he kept shouting questions, finally shocking him in a scuffle captured in at least 19 video clips. Segments distributed online won widespread attention.

The officers involved returned to work last week after the Florida Department of Law Enforcement determined it was an appropriate use of force.

University police had recommended Meyer be charged with resisting arrest with violence, a felony, and disturbing the peace and interfering with school administrative functions, a misdemeanor.

Homeowners offer post-mortem cash back

WEXFORD, Pa. &

It's the deal of a lifetime.

Bob and Ricki Husick of Pittsburgh are offering anyone who buys their home a full refund when they die.

The Husicks have been trying to sell their suburban home for almost a year, but have failed to do so in the current shaky market.

Some area homeowners have lowered prices, offered free trips and tried a variety of other gimmicks, but the Husicks came up with their own unique incentive.

The couple have no heirs and built the house in 1993. They want $399,900 for the four-bedroom, — 1/2-bath home, which is located about 20 miles north of Pittsburgh.

Under the Husicks' offer, the buyer would get the sale price back when they die.

Wait, there's more: If the buyer agrees to care for the couple in old age, he could also inherit their retirement home in Arizona.

"Why not go for the works? So if we're worth $2.5 million, you get it all," said Husick, 55.

— The Associated Press