Marines prepare to deploy to Afghanistan




WASHINGTON &

Military officials said that about 3,200 Marines are being told to prepare to go to Afghanistan &

a move that will boost combat troop levels in time for an expected Taliban offensive this spring.




Once complete, the deployment would increase U.S. forces in Afghanistan to as much as 30,000, the highest level since the 2001 invasion after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.




The notices come as explosions rocked Kabul's most popular luxury hotel Monday, killing at least six people, including one American and a journalist from Norway. Officials said the assault on the Serena Hotel by militants may signal a new era of Taliban attacks.




The military began notifying the Marines and their families over the weekend, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates was expected to sign the formal deployment orders. It was not clear Monday whether the orders had been signed yet.




The proposal went to Gates on Friday, and while he told reporters that afternoon that he had some questions about the move, there has been every indication he was poised to approve it.




Rice holds talks with Iraqi prime minister




BAGHDAD &

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise visit today to Baghdad, where Iraqi officials said she congratulated the premier on the passage of the so-called de-Baathification legislation and encouraged him to speed along other benchmark laws.




Rice flew from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where she was accompanying President Bush on a tour of the Middle East. Her trip was announced in the Saudi capital as Bush was holding talks with Saudi officials.




"President Bush and Secretary Rice decided this would be a good opportunity for the secretary to go to Baghdad to meet with Iraqi officials to build on progress made and to encourage additional political reconciliation and legislative action," National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.




He said Rice, who began talks with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in his office, would return to Riyadh tonight.




Ali al-Dabbagh, al-Maliki's spokesman, said Rice and the prime minister met for about 45 minutes, of which 30 minutes were one-on-one.




Afghan bomber wore police uniform




KABUL, Afghanistan &

Afghanistan's intelligence service arrested a man wearing a police uniform suspected of taking part in a multipronged attack on Kabul's main luxury hotel that killed eight, officials said today.




A militant leader believed to be based in Pakistan was accused of masterminding the assault, which left dead at least one American and a journalist from Norway.




Amrullah Saleh, the head of the Afghan intelligence service, said three militants stormed the Serena Hotel on Monday evening. A guard shot and killed one attacker at the gate to the hotel's parking lot, which triggered his suicide vest.




A second attacker blew himself up near the entrance to the hotel's lobby, and the third attacker made it inside the hotel and shot his way through the lobby and toward the gym, Saleh said.




He alleged the attack was masterminded by Siraj Haqqani, a well-known militant leader thought to be based in Pakistan's tribal area in Miran Shah, the main town in North Waziristan. The U.S. military has a $200,000 bounty on Haqqani.




Kenya parliament holds first session




NAIROBI, Kenya &

The government tightened security around Kenya's parliament today for its first session since a disputed presidential election, a fight that has provoked deadly violence and was expected to carry over to the selection of a house speaker.




President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga were both due to be sworn in as legislators during the session. It would mark the first time the two have been in the same room since Odinga accused Kibaki of rigging the Dec. 27 vote to win re-election.




Soldiers were deployed around the building and some roads in the area blocked off. Riot police were stationed along nearby thoroughfares.




A week of violence in the wake of the vote killed at least 612 people and displaced hundreds of thousands, according to a government commission.




Odinga's party spokesman, Ahmed Hashi, said that attending the parliament session convened by the president "does not mean recognizing the presidency of Kibaki."




Panel urges gas tax increase




WASHINGTON &

A special commission is urging the government to raise federal gasoline taxes by as much as 40 cents per gallon over five years as part of a sweeping overhaul designed to ease traffic congestion and repair the nation's decaying bridges and roads.




The two-year study being released today by the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, the first to recommend broad changes after the devastating bridge collapse in Minneapolis last August, warns that urgent action is needed to avoid future disasters.




"" The Associated Press




Under the recommendation, the current tax of 18.4 cents per gallon for unleaded gasoline would be increased annually for five years &

by anywhere from 5 cents to 8 cents each year &

and then indexed to inflation afterward to help fix the infrastructure, expand public transit and highways as well as broaden railway and rural access, according to persons with direct knowledge of the report, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the report is not yet public.




The report also calls for rebuilding and expanding the national rail network to meet a growing demand for alternatives to congested highways.




Continuing to apply patches to the nation's aging infrastructure is "no longer acceptable," and without dramatic changes, "the nation's system of transportation will further deteriorate," according to the report, portions of which were read to the AP.




Bobby Jindal begins term as Louisiana governor with promise to clean up corruption




BATON ROUGE, La. &

The dancing and celebrating behind him, new Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal moves into office with a slate of hefty promises to clean up the state's corrupt image, rebuild after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and reverse what he called "decades of failure in government."




Jindal, a Republican, took office Monday, putting a new public face on Louisiana politics, often stereotyped as a haven for backslapping good 'ol boys who hold office for decades.




The 36-year-old son of Indian immigrants, Jindal is the nation's first elected Indian-American governor and Louisiana's first nonwhite governor since Reconstruction. He is the nation's youngest sitting governor, and many of his top administrators are new to the halls of the Louisiana Capitol.




"We will come to this Capitol to make a clean break with the past," the new governor told the audience gathered to watch him take his oath of office.




He succeeds Democrat Kathleen Blanco, who had defeated him four years earlier but whose image was battered by the state's response to the hurricanes. She did not seek re-election.




Court maintains ruling against Spears, but she gets another chance for visitation next month




LOS ANGELES &

Britney Spears will get another chance next month to persuade a court commissioner to restore her visitation rights to see her two little boys.




The pop star went to a courthouse on Monday but never made it inside, leaving abruptly amid a swarm of paparazzi without attending a hearing in her child-custody battle with her ex-husband. A new hearing was scheduled for Feb. 19.




Superior Court commissioner Scott Gordon heard a day of closed-door testimony from ex-husband Kevin Federline and witnesses to a bizarre situation this month: Police took the pop singer to a hospital after a standoff in which she refused to return the boys to Federline's bodyguard after a visit.




Gordon ruled that a Jan. 4 emergency order suspending Spears' visitation rights and giving custody to Federline would remain in effect.




"The word victory is not something Mr. Federline or his counsel would ascribe to this. There is no joy. This is a grave situation for all," Federline's attorney, Mark Vincent Kaplan, said outside the courthouse.