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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Obesity emerges as risk factor in severe flu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - People who are obese but otherwise healthy may be at special risk of severe complications and death from the new H1N1 swine flu virus, U.S. researchers reported on Friday.

They described the cases of 10 patients at a Michigan hospital who were so ill they had to be put on ventilators. Three died. Nine of the 10 were obese, seven were severely obese, including two of the three who died.

The study, published in advance in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's weekly report on death and disease, also suggests doctors can safely double the usual dose of oseltamivir, Roche AG's antiviral drug sold under the Tamiflu brand name.

"What this suggests is that there can be severe complications associated with this virus infection, especially in severely obese patients," said CDC virus expert Dr. Tim Uyeki.

"And five of these patients had ... evidence of blood clots in the lungs. This has not been previously known to occur in patients with severe influenza virus infections," Uyeki said in a telephone interview.

Dr. Lena Napolitano of the University of Michigan Medical Center and colleagues studied the cases of 10 patients admitted to the university's intensive care unit with severe acute respiratory distress syndrome caused by infection with H1N1.

"Of the 10 patients, nine were obese (body mass index more than 30), including seven who were extremely obese (BMI more than 40)," they wrote in their report.

Their study was not designed to see if obesity or anything else poses a special risk factor for flu. But the researchers were surprised to see that seven of the 10 patients were extremely obese.


Nine had multiple organ failure, which can be seen in influenza, but five had blood clots in the lungs, and six had kidney failure.

None has fully recovered, the researchers said.

The H1N1 swine flu virus first emerged in Mexico in March and was spreading out of control in the United States by the time it was identified at the end of April. The World Health Organization declared a pandemic in June.

While it is causing moderate illness, all influenza viruses can be deadly and this one is no exception. It has killed close to 500 people globally, more than 200 in the United States alone.

However, the new virus has a slightly different pattern from seasonal flu -- it spreads in the summer months, attacks young adults and older children, and may affect the body slightly differently.

As with H5N1 avian influenza, which only rarely attacks people, patients seem to survive better if they get Tamiflu for longer than the usual five-day treatment course, Uyeki said.

"We don't know if it is necessary for a higher dose of the drug to be given to patients who are obese," he said.

"The high prevalence of obesity in this case series is striking," the CDC's commentary accompany the report reads.

"Whether obesity is an independent risk factor for severe complications of novel influenza A (H1N1) virus infection is unknown. Obesity has not been identified previously as a risk factor for severe complications of seasonal influenza."

Omega-3 Fatty Supplements No Good for Alzheimer’s Disease Patients

Boston (DbTechNo) - Results of a new study find that omega-3 fatty acids to not reduce symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease in patients.

This study finding contradicts previous studies that suggested that omega-3 supplementation could actually slow down the progression of the disease.

The study was conducted over 18 months, and found when given to Alzheimer’s disease patients, the supplements did not slow down the progression of the disease.

“These trial results do not support the routine use of DHA for patients with Alzheimer’s,” said Dr Joseph Quinn of Oregon Health and Sciences University in Portland.

Another study just published found that healthy adults with slight memory loss did show improvement when treated with omega-3 fatty acids.

Both studies were to be presented at the international Alzheimer’s Association meeting in Vienna.

Omega-3 Fatty Acid Falls Short in Alzheimer's Trials

SUNDAY, July 12 (HealthDay News) -- Two trials that looked at whether the omega-3 fatty acid DHA might treat or prevent Alzheimer's disease have produced mixed results.

The studies were done because of "a long history of epidemiological studies that related fish consumption to cognitive function," explained Bill Thies, chief medical and scientific officer of the Alzheimer's Association. Fish is rich in DHA, but the research scheduled to be presented Sunday at the association's annual meeting in Vienna, Austria, used DHA derived from algae.

An 18-month study of people with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease "did not show treatment benefit in the study population as a whole, and does not support use of DHA for treatment of Alzheimer's disease," said study author Dr. Joseph Quinn, an associate professor of neurology at Oregon Health and Science University.

However, Quinn added that there was "an encouraging analysis of a subpopulation of the larger study," showing a slower rate of decline in mental function among those who did not have the e4 version of the APOE gene. That version is known to increase the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. Between 70 percent and 80 percent of people have that gene version, Quinn estimated.

Still, "we're not prepared to conclude that e4-negative people should be on DHA," Quinn said. "We don't know a mechanism that would account for a benefit in e4-negative people and we don't know if our exploratory analysis would be confirmed in future trials."

His study, funded by the U.S. National Institute on Aging, included 402 people, average age 76, with a daily dietary intake of less than 200 milligrams a day. Some took 2,000-milligram DHA supplements while others took a placebo. All underwent standard tests of mental function over the 18-month trial. The slower rate of decline seen in e4-deficient participants did not reach statistical significance.

The second study was a six-month trial of 900 milligrams a day of DHA in 485 people, average age 70, who did not have Alzheimer's disease but had mild complaints about memory loss. Those taking the supplement made fewer errors on one memory test.

That trial was funded by the Martek Biosciences Corp., which markets the DHA used in both studies.

The results indicate that DHA supplements are appropriate for "people who have very mild memory complaints, which applies to a large percentage of the population at this age," said Karin Yurko-Mauro, associate director of clinical research at Martek Biosciences. "We're not talking about a disease stage here."

The company is "looking at the potential for more trials," but is still evaluating data from the completed study, Yurko-Mauro said.

"The results are certainly interesting," Thies said. "There was some improvement in memory. Then you can get into a debate about what the real-world benefit would be of that improvement in memory."

What is needed, Thies said, is a major trial for people with no Alzheimer's disease but some memory problems. "DHA is a great candidate for such a trial because it is a food supplement that is currently available," he said.

Meanwhile, Thies said, "it is too early" to make a recommendation about use of DHA supplements to prevent loss of mental function. "You would want to see more information in normal people before you make a recommendation," Thies said. "In high doses, DHA does have side effects, so you would want to see a benefit to justify the risk you are taking. We need more work for that."

Swine Flu Kills Obese People: Is US Primed for a Pandemic Catastrophe?

The fact that nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults are clinically obese is worrisome for a whole new reason: Evidence emerging from a hospital in Michigan (and published by the CDC) appears to indicate that obese patients may be very easily killed by swine flu.

In the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's report on death and disease, researchers documented the case of ten swine flu patients at a Michigan hospital who became so ill they were put on ventilators. Three of the patients ultimately died from the infection. The kicker? Nine of the ten were obese, and two of the three who died were severely obese.

As reported by Reuters, CDC virologist Dr. Tim Uyeki said, "What this suggests is that there can be severe complications associated with this virus infection, especially in severely obese patients."

Notably, five of the patients showed evidence of blood clots in their lungs, indicating severe cellular trauma in the lungs. Nine of the patients suffered from multiple organ failure, and six experienced kidney failure.

What it means for the U.S. population

These findings are especially worrisome because nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults are now clinically obese. Combined with widespread vitamin D deficiency, nutritional deficiencies and pharmaceutically-induced immune suppression, the U.S. population is more vulnerable to a pandemic right now than any other population in the history of the world.

The American people, in other words, are primed for a pandemic. Virtually no one in America is both physically fit and nutritionally healthy anymore. Shockingly, most Americans don't even recognize physical fitness anymore, thinking that excess body fat is normal and that obese babies are just "chubby." Should the circulating swine flu combine with seasonal flu this fall, it could devastate the immunologically vulnerable U.S. population, potentially killing millions.

There's no mystery here

The number of patients reviewed in this study is quite small (only ten), but even so, this could be a warning sign of more deaths to come from infected, obese patients. Of course, there's really no mystery why obesity may cause extreme vulnerability to swine flu infections: The virus kills through an inflammatory process, and obesity is, itself, a highly-inflammatory condition that only exacerbates the deadliness of the H1N1 virus.

Patients who have made themselves obese -- for whatever reason -- have also unleashed a storm of inflammatory cytokines in their blood, and these cytokines are precisely what get over-excited during the body's response to a swine flu infection, leading to organ damage and death. This is precisely why people wishing to survive the coming pandemic must make a special effort to attain a high level of physical and nutritional health before such a pandemic arrives.

Being obese compromises your body's immune system, liver, heart, lungs and kidneys. This puts a serious additional burden on your body, leaving few spare resources for fighting off infections. That's probably why nine out of ten swine flu victims documented in the Michigan hospital were obese.

The bottom line in this study is quite clear: Don't be obese during the next pandemic. If you are obese now, let this bit of knowledge provide whatever extra motivation you need to drop some excess body fat and reduce the inflammatory burden on your body's organs. Obesity is, after all, readily reversed through simple changes in diet and exercise habits.

Zoos Fear Forced Closure, Destruction of Animals

Anyone want a giraffe?

A zoo operator says it will have to close a pair of Massachussetts zoos, lay off most of the 165 employees, find homes for some of the more-than-1,000 animals and possibly euthanize the rest of the animals unless the state restores millions of dollars in funding.

"It is believed that a minimum of 20 percent of the animals will not be able to be placed, requiring either destroying them or the care of the animals in perpetuity," read a statement from Zoo New England, which runs the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston and the Stone Zoo in Stoneham.

The Massachusetts legislature approved $6.5 million in state funding for the zoos in its fiscal year 2009 budget, but Gov. Deval Patrick's line-item veto reduced the figure to $2.5 million, according to Zoo New England.

The zoos' $11 million budget is funded by a combination of state funds, zoo revenue and private donations.

"$2.5 million is not sufficient to continue operations of the zoos and will actually cost the commonwealth [of Massachusetts] millions more in subsequent years" in shutdown costs and animal care, Zoo New England claimed. "For this reason, Zoo New England and many of its supporters are calling for the legislature to override this veto."

Messages left by Saturday with both Zoo New England and Gov. Patrick's office in Boston were not immediately returned, though a Patrick spokeswoman explained the zoo budget cuts in a statement to ABC News affiliate WCVB-TV in Boston.

"These are extremely difficult times across the state, and there have been tough cuts in every area," said the statement by spokeswoman Cyndi Roy. "This is an example of an unfortunate cut that had to be made in order to preserve core services for families struggling during the economic downturn."

Animals Joining the Ranks of the Unemployed?

In fact, the Massachusetts zoos are not the only ones facing tough times.

Animals at other zoos, including swans, deer and antelope, have essentially joined the ranks of the unemployed.

In April, one of the most renowned zoos in the country, New York's Bronx Zoo, which is run by the Wildlife Conservation Society, told New York City officials that as it copes with the economic downturn, it would have to relocate some of its animals to zoos and aquariums around the country.

Councilman Domenic M. Recchia Jr., chairman of the City Council's Cultural Affairs Committee, said the 114-year-old institution was on the verge of losing potentially hundreds of animals.

"This is how severe it is," he told "It's all about jobs. They're going to have to lay off 80 people -- they're giving 80 pink slips. ... We have to save our animals. We have to save our cultural institutions."

Recchia said he would be devastated if the world-famous zoo became known as "a zoo without animals."

In early April, the Wildlife Conservation Society announced that "in light of the challenges facing wildlife conservation and the changing nature of the global economy" it would realign its people and programs to accommodate a $15 million budget reduction.

Mary Dixon, a spokeswoman for the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Bronx Zoo, did not say how much of these cuts the zoo would have to absorb.

She also said the zoo had not yet determined the number of animals it would relocate.

"There is no set number decided upon what animals will be moved within the Bronx, to other WCS facilities and to other facilities that meet or exceed AZA [Association of Zoos and Aquariums] accreditation," she told in April.

Among the animals that might get the ax: bats, porcupines, antelope and the camel-like guanaco. Dixon said the zoo will close the World of Darkness, home to a two-toed sloth, broad-nosed caimans and other nocturnal animals. She also said it will move some animals out of the Rare Animal Range and the southeastern corner of the zoo.

Zoos in Kansas, Connecticut, Missouri and Maryland have found themselves in similar economic situations.

Attendance Up but Public Funding Down

Though healthy attendance across the board is keeping private zoos and aquariums above water, those that rely heavily on state and city funding have had to make creative compromises and, in some cases, drastic cuts.

At the Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Mo., long-standing budget issues in the city compounded with the economic downturn have forced the zoo to make do with less and less.

First, the humans felt the pinch: Travel and training, advertising and marketing, and professional services and supplies were reduced.

Then the animals took a hit. The zoo cut some extra treats out of animals' diets and also moved a few animals to other institutions.

Streamlining Diets, Relocating Animals to Save Money

"We have never had to do this before and certainly not for these reasons," said Melinda Arnold, a spokeswoman for the Dickerson Park Zoo. "We're keeping our main priorities -- the health and well-being of the animals and the experience of guests -- and trying to balance and do what's best for both."

Although animal care is the zoo's No. 1 concern, she said they were able to streamline their diets in subtle ways.

"We still provide enrichment and variety but maybe not as much variety," she said. Given how expensive produce is, the zoo, like many families, she said, looks for less expensive kinds.

Pushed to the wall, the zoo sent a pair of hyenas packing to a zoo in Boise, Idaho. Some swans, a pair of lovebirds and an antelope were also sent to zoos around the country.

"In the grand picture of things, that's really all that people will notice," she said, adding that to do much more could threaten attendance and earned revenue, which is the last thing it needs when its other revenue stream is already so impaired.

"Our first priority is we don't want to do anything that will impact the guest experience," she continued. "That would be shooting ourselves in the foot."

Option of Last Resort

Facing a $1 million shortfall, the Kansas City Zoo in Kansas City, Mo., is doing all it can to avoid Dickerson's situation.

"We just tried everything to not have to send animals out of here," said Randy Wisthoff, the zoo director.

In addition to instituting the equivalent of a hiring freeze and trimming its marketing budget, it has cut zoo hours enough so that it only needs one shift of animal keepers per day. It has also cut travel expenses.

Anything but animal care, Wistoff said. "You can't lessen your care -- the care and quality of care you provide for the animals. If you can do it in other ways, that's what you do."

Not only does moving out animals dilute the value of the zoo, it's not an easy task to find new homes.

Moving Animals Could Be 'Monumental' Task

"My assumption would be that it's as difficult as it's ever been. There's only so many cages, so much holding space," he said. "With the budget crisis I have here, I couldn't take anything else in."

As for the Bronx Zoo's restructuring plan, he said, "I would assume it's going to be a monumental task for them to do that."

For other zoos around the country, the Bronx Zoo's decision to move out hundreds of animals is disturbing, especially since many rare animals are among the targeted group.

At a recent hearing in New York City, zoo officials said the closed exhibits were selected based on maintenance costs and popularity among visitors, the New York Post reported.

Bronx Zoo's Decision Should 'Sound an Alarm'

"The Bronx Zoo has been a leader in conservation," said Gregg Dancho, zoo director at the Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport, Conn. "I think it should sound an alarm. I think people should be very concerned."

With donations down 25 percent and its state contribution in jeopardy, Dancho's zoo is in a kind of purgatory, waiting for a finalized budget to determine its fate. But as it adapts to a new economic reality, losing animals is not an option. "For our size facility, any kind of moving animals would be a detriment for us," Dancho told "For a small zoo like we are, that would be a downward spiral. Moving animals out decreases reasons for coming to the zoo."

And though the "charismatic mega-vertebrates," like elephants, rhinos and giraffes, are crowd-pleasers, he said part of a zoo's mission is caring for and introducing the public to smaller, rare animals.

"I'm going to say that probably over 50 percent are species you've never heard of before," he said about his own zoo's roughly 80 species. "That's very important. All species need our help."

Still, he said, it's a "balancing act" for all zoos that is made especially difficult in this economic climate.

Zoos, Aquariums Well-Positioned for Success in Economic Downturn

However, even as public aid for zoos from states and cities dwindels, public interest from families looking for affordable outings is surging.

"They are well-positioned to succeed in a down economy," said Steve Feldman, spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the accrediting institution for the industry.

As families opt for "staycations" over more expensive travel vacations, he said, the zoos across the country are seeing very strong attendance.

At the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, N.C., good weather combined with people staying close to home has contributed to record weekend attendance. Dogged by financial troubles for years, the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore is also experiencing a bounce in attendance and private support.

"With limited resources, zoos have to make choices," Feldman said. "But I think they'll still be able to fulfill that mission even with those difficult choices having been made."

Does Obama Have a Friend in the Vatican?

President Obama received a warm welcome at the Vatican on Friday in his first meeting with Pope Benedict XVI. Indeed, the Vatican has generally seemed more eager to form a relationship with Mr. Obama than many American bishops, who have been cooler because he differs from the church on abortion and other reproductive issues. The invitation Mr. Obama received to deliver the commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame, for instance, triggered strong public condemnation from conservative bishops.

Why does the American Catholic leadership seem to be focused on abortion, while the Vatican appears willing to view that issue as merely one among many on which to judge a political leader?

A Difference in Catholic Cultures

John L. Allen Jr. is the senior correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter and author of “The Rise of Benedict XVI.”

Pope Benedict XVI today used his first-ever meeting with President Barack Obama to deliver a strong pro-life message, even pointedly offering President Obama a copy of a recent Vatican document on bioethics. In effect, Benedict made clear that he backs the American bishops in their challenge to President Obama over matters like abortion and embryonic stem cell research.

That said, it remains the case that many senior Vatican officials have long been intrigued by Barack Obama, and they often seem warmer toward him than some commentary from leading American Catholics. Explaining that contrast pivots on a key difference in the Catholic cultures on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the U.S., the abortion debate remains open, in part because the current national policy was established by a Supreme Court decision rather than popular vote. Many Catholics have come to see abortion as the towering moral issue of the day in the stark choice it poses: Yes or no to the idea that all human life is sacred?

In most European nations, meanwhile, the abortion debate is basically closed. In Italy, for example, legalization of abortion was approved by national referenda in 1978 and 1981 despite bitter Catholic opposition. Today, even the most conservative Catholics therefore tend to invest their energies elsewhere, such as anti-European Union activism and alarm over rising Muslim immigration.

As a result, it doesn’t come naturally for many European Catholics, including many Vatican officials, to evaluate politicians exclusively on the basis of their abortion policies. That doesn’t make those Catholics any less pro-life, but it can make them less instinctively leery of pro-choice figures like President Obama.

Friday’s meeting, however, makes one thing clear: However real this cultural difference may be, it doesn’t imply a free pass from the Pope.

From Charlemagne to Obama

Father James Martin is a Jesuit priest and author of “My Life with the Saints.”

In the past few decades, the U.S. Catholic bishops have focused increasingly on what are called pro-life issues. In 1980s, Catholic leaders like Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago proposed a “seamless garment” or “consistent ethic of life” approach that linked together a wide variety of life issues, including contraception, abortion, war, peace, euthanasia and an emphasis on poverty issues as they related to human dignity.

Recently, however, U.S. bishops, in light of increasing support among the American electorate for abortion, have focused more and more on that single issue — abortion. Today most bishops see that as the “preeminent” life issue in the church. In the last election, some bishops went as far as to say that voting for Barack Obama would be a form of sinful behavior, because of what the bishops perceived as an approach to abortion that did not square with their pro-life goals. This is a reflection of the general narrowing of life issues into the single issue of abortion. Most American Catholics are familiar with that approach today, and many support it.

This is one reason why many observers are probably surprised at the warm welcome given to President Obama at the Vatican by Pope Benedict. Why is this?

One obvious reason is that the Vatican has centuries of experience in dealing with politicians and political leaders with whom it disagrees on fundamental issues. Perhaps more than many American Catholics, the Vatican understands that politics is often the art of the possible and that any real political dialogue means working with political figures with whom you disagree even on the most fundamental issues regarding human life.

This is not say that the Vatican is “soft” on abortion. “By no means!” as Saint Paul would say. But for the Vatican, single issue politics makes no more sense with Barack Obama than it did with Charlemagne.

Points of Agreement

M. Cathleen Kaveny is John P. Murphy Foundation Professor of Law and professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. She is currently completing a book entitled “Prophetic Rhetoric in the Public Square: An Ethics of Discourse.”

Pope Benedict XVI gave President Obama a cordial welcome at the Vatican on Friday — a welcome that seemed sharply to contrast with the cooler reception he received from some American Catholics since his election. Most recently, almost 80 bishops, about one-third of the episcopacy, argued that the University of Notre Dame ought not to have invited Mr. Obama to deliver its 2009 commencement address and receive an honorary degree, because he is pro-choice. Pope Benedict, of course, is not pro-choice. So why the warm welcome? Despite their differences, the two men actually have a lot in common, as you can see if you compare the Pope’s recent encyclical on social issues, Caritas in Veritate (Love in Truth) with the President Obama’s commencement address at Notre Dame.

From different vantage points, they are both grappling with the same challenge: how to protect and promote human dignity in an era of increased globalization, how to work together to solve the problems like the worldwide economic crisis, global warming, and food insecurity.

Moreover, the Pope and the president agree that solving the problems is going to require both technical competence and moral wisdom: we need the contributions of both head and heart. Recognizing human dignity means that we can’t simply fix problems for other people - or other nations - without treating them as morally responsible agents. Third, both men emphasize finding common ground without shying away from the expression of clashing moral convictions.

In a recent article, Cardinal Georges Cottier, O.P., for many years the theologian of the papal househhold, approvingly observed that Mr. Obama refused to take a “clash of civilizations” approach in his relations with the Muslim world. Instead, he respectfully challenged all parties “to rediscover the core values and shared interests on which to build mutual respect and peace.” He noted that Obama clearly condemned terrorism, but also opened the way for a positive relationship with Islamic peoples and nations.

The Chasm Is There

Colleen Carroll Campbell is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the author of “The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy” and host of “Faith & Culture,” a TV and radio show that airs on EWTN.

Given President Barack Obama’s recent clashes with American bishops and pro-life Catholics, it’s understandable that his administration has sought to cast today’s meeting with Pope Benedict XVI as evidence of a papal endorsement. In reality, Benedict’s decision to welcome President Obama for a 25-minute encounter in the papal library is hardly remarkable.

It’s unsurprising that Benedict would welcome an opportunity to chat face-to-face with the leader of the world’s sole remaining superpower. He did the same with President George W. Bush three times, most recently in 2008, when Benedict took the unusual step of welcoming Mr. Bush to the Vatican Gardens, a site traditionally reserved for intimate meetings with friends.

As with George W. Bush, Benedict can find points of convergence between his priorities and those of President Obama. But the points of divergence between the two men — namely, on the “life issues” of abortion, embryonic research and euthanasia — are more fundamental than his differences with George Bush.

As the future pope explained in a letter to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick during the 2004 election, the defense of innocent human life from conception to natural death is a non-negotiable moral imperative in the eyes of the Church. “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia,” he wrote. “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”

Anyone who regards focus on the life issues as a peculiar concern of American bishops should read Benedict’s new encyclical, “Charity in Truth,” which he presented to President Obama on Friday, along with a Vatican document on bioethics. Although intended to address the global economic crisis, the encyclical includes nearly a dozen passages reiterating Catholic teaching that the right to life of the innocent human person — both born and unborn — is the foundational principle upon which all other social policy must rest.

Benedict’s meeting with President Obama cannot erase the deep chasm that exists between them on the question of which human lives deserve protection. That chasm was not created by the American bishops, and it cannot be repaired by mere photo ops or facile talk of “common ground.”

Istanbul Demonstrators Protest Violence in Western China

Thousands of people have demonstrated in Turkey in support of China's ethnic Uighur minority, a week after ethnic violence left at least 184 people dead in western China.

Witnesses say at least 5,000 people took to the streets of Istanbul Sunday in a demonstration organized by an Islamic party.

The protesters denounced China's treatment of the Uighurs, whose Muslim religion and Turkic language link them more to their Central Asian neighbors than to China's ethnic Han majority.

A similar demonstration took place in the Japanese capital, Tokyo, Sunday.

The plight of the Uighurs drew international attention after clashes erupted between Uighurs and Han Chinese in China's Xinjiang province on July 5.

China's official Xinhua news agency reported Sunday that 1,680 people were wounded in the violence.

Chinese officials have blamed the unrest on what they call separatist and terrorist groups. The Uighurs say the violence erupted when authorities provoked a peaceful demonstration, turning it into a riot.

Chinese authorities say 137 of the victims were Han, but Uighurs say many more of their people died than is being reported.

Clerics in Iran condemned Beijing on Sunday for its treatment of the Muslims in Xinjiang.

Iran is a close ally of China. But Grand Ayatollah Makarem-Shirazi said this should not keep Tehran quiet about what he called the "brutal suppression" of its Muslim brothers and sisters.

China's Uighurs have complained for years of religious and cultural persecution, and say an influx of Han Chinese in the area is taking away their economic opportunities.

2 US Marines Die in S. Afghanistan Bomb Blasts

A bomb blast killed two U.S. Marines in Afghanistan's dangerous south, where thousands of American troops have deployed in a massive operation to oust Taliban fighters from the country's opium poppy region, officials said Sunday.

Some 4,000 Marines moved into Helmand province this month, the largest Marine operation in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S. invasion. They have met little head-on resistance but remain vulnerable to guerrilla tactics like suicide and roadside bombs.

"These terrorist attacks are hard to prevent, can be carried out by a few individuals, and do not require a military force capable of confronting the Marines," said Arturo Munoz, an expert on the tribal environment in Helmand province with the Washington-based RAND Corp.

"I would expect the Taliban to avoid pitched battles with the Marines in order to avoid a large number of casualties," he said. "This does not mean they will avoid violence."

The two Marines were killed Saturday in Helmand. Military officials did not release any other details nor give a specific location. The military initially reported four Marines had died but later corrected the figure, saying the deaths were mistakenly double-counted.

The American casualties come after eight British deaths in Helmand in a 24-hour period ending Friday, triggering debate in Britain about its role in Afghanistan. Britain has now lost more troops in Afghanistan than in Iraq.

In an interview broadcast Sunday, President Barack Obama called Britain's contribution critically important and said U.S. and British troops face a difficult summer ahead of elections in Afghanistan late next month.

"We've got to get through elections," Obama told Sky News. "The most important thing we can do is to combine our military efforts with effective diplomacy and development, so that Afghans feel a greater stake and have a greater capacity to secure their country."

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan will help keep extremist groups from launching attacks inside Britain. And he told Afghan President Hamid Karzai in a telephone call Sunday that Britain would stand "shoulder-to-shoulder with the people of Afghanistan for the long haul," according to a statement by the Afghan presidency.

The embattled prime minister told his troops in an interview Sunday with the British military radio network that it was proving to be a "difficult summer" in Afghanistan but that operations in Helmand were making "considerable progress" toward defeating the Taliban.

But in an editorial Sunday, The Observer newspaper predicted the British public will soon decide the war is not worth the casualties.

"Lives saved by bringing soldiers home will seem a surer benefit than the unproven hypothesis of preventing terrorism with a war thousands of miles away," the newspaper said.

Another American service member died Friday in the U.S. of wounds suffered in Afghanistan in June, said Lt. Cmdr. Christine Sidenstricker, who confirmed the deaths of the two Marines.

The three deaths bring to 104 the number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan this year, a record pace. Last year 151 U.S. troops died in the country. Overall, 193 international troops have died in Afghanistan this year, according to an Associated Press count based on official announcements.

Obama ordered 21,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan earlier this year to help put down an increasingly violent Taliban insurgency. Some 10,000 Marines and 4,000 soldiers from the Stryker Brigade — the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division based in Fort Lewis, Wash. — are deploying in the south, the Taliban's spiritual birthplace and stronghold.

The troops will help provide security for the Aug. 20 election, when Afghans will choose a president and provincial councils, and help train army and police units that the U.S. hopes one day can provide security for the country. By fall, a record 68,000 U.S. troops will be in Afghanistan.

Violence flared elsewhere around the country over the weekend, illustrating again that security is deteriorating. At least 22 people were killed, including seven police officers, officials reported on Sunday.

— In southern Uruzgan province, international troops and Afghan police killed 12 militants in a gunbattle Saturday, police spokesman Mohammad Musa said.

— In Logar, four policemen died when a roadside bomb hit their car in Charkh district Saturday, said provincial police chief Gen. Mustafa Mosseini.

— In Helmand, two police were killed in a roadside bombing in the Helmand provincial capital of Lashkar Gah late Saturday, said Dawood Ahmadi, the governor's spokesman.

— In a gunbattle in eastern Paktia province between insurgents and Afghan police, two militants and one police officer were killed, said Rahullah Samon, a spokesman for the governor.

— In eastern Kunar province, one civilian was killed and five wounded when shells from a gunbattle between insurgents and Afghan and coalition forces hit a house. Provincial Police Chief Gen. Abdul Jalal Jalal said it was unclear which side fired the shots that hit the house.


Associated Press writers Amir Shah in Kabul and Noor Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.

Two US Soldiers Killed in Southern Afghanistan

The U.S. military says bomb blasts killed two soldiers Saturday in southern Afghanistan, where U.S. and British troops launched an offensive against Taliban insurgents earlier this month.

Military officials initially reported four U.S. Marines had died in Helmand province, but they later corrected the figure, saying the deaths were double-counted by mistake.

More than 100 U.S. troops have died this year, which is on pace to be the deadliest since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban from power in 2001.

Meanwhile, Afghan officials say coalition forces and local police killed 12 suspected militants during overnight operations in southern Uruzgan province Saturday.

Officials say the clashes took place hours after fighting in the area left some 19 militants dead.

Elsewhere, a roadside bomb killed four police officers in Logar province. Another roadside bomb killed two Afghan police officers in Helmand province.

Public support for war in Afghanistan is firm, despite deaths

The mounting number of casualties in Afghanistan has not led to increased public hostility to the war, according to a new ICM poll for the Guardian and the BBC's Newsnight.

Research carried out as news broke of the deaths of eight soldiers in 24 hours – taking the British death toll in Afghanistan past the total for Iraq – shows support for the war remains firm while backing for UK involvement in the conflict has grown.

People appear reluctant to turn against a conflict while soldiers are fighting and dying on the front line, and the increasingly high-profile nature of the war appears to be strengthening public backing.

Opposition to the war, at 47%, is just ahead of support, at 46%. And backing for Britain's role in the conflict has grown since 2006, the last time an ICM poll was conducted on the subject – up 15 points from 31%. Opposition has fallen over the same period by six points, from 53%.

The poll findings come as ministers are drawing up plans to devote more troops and resources to Afghanistan after dismissing repeated requests from defence chiefs for reinforcements. The shift in approach follows the rising death toll, outspoken criticism from opposition politicians, and the prospect of a long period of intense fighting against the Taliban.

Gordon Brown will update MPs tomorrow on the recent deaths in Afghanistan in a Commons statement on the G8 summit. The prime minister will confirm that the number of British troops is increasing to 9,000 from a base of 8,300. One favoured option, which has not been agreed, is for the number of troops to be kept at 9,000 after the next general election.

However, John Maples, the Tory deputy chairman, told the Guardian today: "Increasingly, people are starting to ask whether this war is winnable and whether our military objectives are sensible given the number of troops and the amount of equipment we are prepared to commit."

Lord Ashdown, the ex-Liberal Democrat leader who nearly became the UN special representative in Afghanistan last year, was scathing about British and US conduct. "The army were persuaded, for political reasons, to follow a Beau Geste strategy – putting our people out in forward forts largely because the politicians were persuaded by [Afghan president Hamid] Karzai that this was where his supporters and family lived. It led to a military error of major proportions. The army's job in a war is to find and kill the enemy."

After previously blocking requests by the chiefs of staff for 2,000 more troops to be deployed in southern Afghanistan, Gordon Brown has said in a letter to senior Commons committee chairmen: "We will of course continue to review our force levels based on the advice of commanders and discussions with our allies."

The Treasury has previously blocked the defence chiefs' request on the grounds of cost. However, the chancellor Alistair Darling said over the weekend: "If [British troops] need equipment, whatever it is, to support them in the frontline then of course the government, through the Treasury, is ready to help." He told the BBC: "You can't send troops into the frontline and not be prepared to see it through in terms of the … resources they need."

Significantly, given the government's past decisions to cap resources for Afghanistan, Darling added: "You've got to listen to what the chiefs of staff tell us."

Commanders on the ground have made no secret of the fact that they want more helicopters and more British troops. General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the army, was reported yesterday to have told a private dinner of MPs that there were too few troops and helicopters available.

In an interview with the British Forces Broadcasting Service yesterday Brown paid tribute to the "sacrifice" of the 15 troops who had died since the start of the month – and eight in a 24 hour period – in the bloodiest fighting Britain has seen in the Afghan campaign. "I know that this has been a difficult summer – it is going to be a difficult summer," he said.

He said he had been assured in a lengthy briefing by commanders that the Operation Panther's Claw offensive to drive the Taliban from central Helmand province was making "considerable progress".

Bob Ainsworth, the defence secretary, said: "We are making progress. We are attacking the Taliban in one of their heartland areas. The reason they are standing and fighting is they know that what we are doing potentially hurts them seriously and strategically."

Today's poll findings show that 42% are in favour of the immediate withdrawal of British troops, and a further 14% want them home by the end of the year.

These figures are almost identical to the results when ICM last asked the question in 2006. A further 36% want troops to stay as long as they are needed, again a similar proportion to 2006, when British casualties were lower.

Democrats slam Dick Cheney over secret CIA program

By Julian E. Barnes
Sen. Richard Durbin says Congress should investigate whether Cheney ordered the counter-terrorism program not be disclosed to lawmakers. Republicans counter that critics are undermining the CIA.

Reporting from Washington -- Democratic lawmakers today criticized former Vice President Dick Cheney for allegedly ordering a CIA counter-terrorism program be kept secret from congressional leaders, as a top senator called for an investigation.

Although Republican senators were far more circumspect, some GOP lawmakers acknowledged the White House should have briefed Congress on the secret program.
At least two Democratic senators said they believe the Bush administration's failure to inform Congress about the intelligence program violated the law. Although it is unclear how wide an investigation lawmakers would like to see, the latest controversy could add fuel to calls for a broader look into the CIA's relationship with Congress during the Bush administration.

There have been increasing criticisms by congressional Democrats -- in particular House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) -- that the CIA misinformed Congress about key elements of its now-canceled harsh interrogation program.

Republicans, who have attacked Democrats for criticizing the CIA, probably will be dead set against any such probe.

Today, Republicans uniformly criticized Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. for reportedly considering the appointment of a special prosecutor to look into accusations that CIA interrogators exceeded the rules laid out by the Bush administration's Justice Department when using abusive techniques against terrorism suspects.

While Democrats expressed support for Holder, some lawmakers continued to push their own alternative plans to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by the Bush administration.

But Democrats were united in condemning Cheney for allegedly ordering the CIA not to reveal details of a still-secret intelligence program.

CIA Director Leon E. Panetta ordered the program halted shortly after learning about it, then immediately called special sessions with lawmakers to discuss the terminated initiative.

Sources have refused to provide any details about what the program involved or what it was meant to achieve. It was put in place in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, but never became fully operational.

Appearing on Fox News Sunday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Panetta had told congressional leaders that Cheney had ordered the agency to withhold details of the program from Capitol Hill.

Feinstein said it was a "big problem" that the congressional intelligence committees were not briefed on the program.

"I think if the intelligence committees had been briefed, they could have watched the program, they could have asked for reports on the program, they could have made judgments about the program as it went along," Feinstein said. "That was not the case because we were kept in the dark. That is something that should never happen again."

Although the law requires that congressional committees be "kept fully and currently informed" on intelligence activities, there is some latitude for both highly sensitive programs and routine ones.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the Senate's majority whip, told ABC's "This Week" that Congress should investigate whether Cheney or others ordered that the program not be disclosed to lawmakers.

The existence of secret programs can be protected by congressional leaders, Durbin said. Not disclosing the program, he added, violated the constitutional system of checks and balances.

"To have a massive program that is concealed from leaders in Congress, it is not only inappropriate; it could be illegal," Durbin said.

Responding to Durbin, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the Republican whip, said lawmakers must not "jump to any conclusions" and remember that Cheney had a responsibility to protect the national security.

Appearing on CNN, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said it was not appropriate to fail to notify top congressional leaders about an intelligence program. But he accused Democrats of undermining the CIA through constant criticism of the agency.

"We have to have an extraordinarily robust and strong CIA, an extraordinarily and robust intelligence-gathering organization," Gregg said. "And this national attempt by some of our colleagues on the other side of the aisle to basically undermine the capacity to protect and develop intelligence is, I think, going to harm us in the long run."
Republicans also argued that a decision to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate CIA interrogators also risked undermining American security by unnecessarily weakening the intelligence community.

"This is high-risk stuff," Sen. John Cornyn (R- Texas) told Fox News. "Because if we chill the willingness of our intelligence operatives to get information that is necessary to protect America, there could be disastrous consequences."

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the former Republican presidential nominee who has been very critical of the Bush administration's interrogation practices, also said a special prosecutor should not be appointed.

"We all know bad things were done. We know the operatives were under orders to do so," McCain said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "For us to continue this and harm our image throughout the world, I agree with the president of the United States. It is time to move forward and not go back."

Among Democrats speaking today, Durbin voiced the most unequivocal support for appointing a special prosecutor.

"We don't want the attorney general to be afraid to ask questions when it comes to violations of the law," he said. "Those who followed the law, followed their directions, did it appropriately whether at intelligence agency [or] military agencies certainly shouldn't be prosecuted. But those who went beyond it, those who broke the law, need to be held accountable. No one is above the law."

But other Democrats continued to advocate different kinds of investigations. Feinstein spoke in favor of the intelligence committee's review of the interrogation of the so-called high-value detainees once held by the CIA.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the judiciary committee, said a special prosecutor could make it difficult to establish an independent committee to investigate allegations of wrongdoing during the Bush administration.

An independent commission would work only if some witnesses were given immunity, which could hamper a special prosecutor's investigation, Leahy said. He added that he would not interfere with Holder if he was to appoint a prosecutor, but he remained worried that such an investigation would target only low-level interrogators and ignore senior policymakers.

"I just do not want to see an instance where the higher-ups gave the order to break the law [but] the ones who get punished are the people on the front line, the lower-level troops," Leahy said.

Some human rights groups praised Holder for considering appointing a prosecutor. Jameel Jaffer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, said publicly available evidence showed that the Bush administration violated domestic and international law by authorizing torture.

"It is time to finally confront the gross human rights abuses of the last administration," Jaffer said in a statement. "Initiating a criminal investigation is a crucial step towards restoring the moral authority of the United States abroad and restoring the rule of law at home."

Democrats Call for Probe Over Canceled CIA Program Never Reviewed by Congress

Some Democratic senators are calling for an investigation after learning Congress wasn't briefed about an covert CIA counterterrorism program allegedly ordered to be kept secret by former Vice President Dick Cheney.

CIA Director Leon Panetta briefed Congress about the still classified program on June 24, a day after learning about it and immediately canceling it. Intelligence sources noted that the program never got off the ground and wasn't instituted.

Nonetheless, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told "FOX News Sunday" that Congress should have been informed about the eight-year program sooner so that it could have oversight of the spy agency's actions.

"This is a big problem, because the law is very clear," Feinstein said. "And I understand the need of the day, which was when America was in shock, when we had been hit in a way we'd never contemplated, where we had massive loss of life, where there was a major effort to be able to respond.

"I think you weaken your case when you go outside of the law. And I think that if the Intelligence Committees had been briefed, they could have watched the program. They could have asked for regular reports on the program. They could have made judgments about the program as it went along. That was not the case because we were kept in the dark. That's something that should never, ever happen again," Feinstein added.

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, called the failure to inform Congress "illegal."

"We have a system of checks and balances. There is accountability in our Constitution. The executive branch can not create these kind of programs ... and leave Congress in the dark. (It) is not only inappropriate, it is illegal."

A source at the CIA told FOX News that "it seems reasonable" that any action to withhold information on a classified program of this nature would have to come from someone as senior as Cheney. The source also suggested the leak came directly from Capitol Hill.

The news of Cheney's potential involvement in withholding information from Congress on a covert program, which an unnamed official hinted to The Washington Times may have involved assassinations overseas, came the same day that it was reported Attorney General Eric Holder is leaving open the possibility of prosecuting Bush-era officials who approved of enhanced interrogation techniques against terror detainees.

It also came as former CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden angrily struck back at critics who said he did not fully brief lawmakers about surveillance operations after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Hayden told The Associated Press that he personally kept top members of Congress well-informed throughout his tenure.

"One of the points I had in every one of the briefings was to make sure they understood the scope of our activity 'They've got to know this is bigger than a bread box,' I said," said Hayden, who also previously headed the National Security Agency.

Panetta's June 24 briefing to lawmakers led Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee to demand the CIA director retract his May 15 claim that the CIA never lied or misled Congress, a remark Panetta made in May after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused the CIA of lying to her about the now-defunct enhanced interrogation program.

Republican lawmakers suggested that the recent barrage of complaints about congressional oversight is an attempt to divert attention from Pelosi's accusation.

"This, of course, comes on the heels of a statement -- unproven, by the way -- of Speaker Pelosi that the CIA had lied to her about enhanced interrogation techniques, and this looks to me suspiciously like an attempt to provide political cover to her and others," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, adding that he thinks Congress should have been briefed about any new CIA programs.

"To trot out the vice president and say he's the one that's at fault -- this is -- unfortunately sounds like a new theme where they still want to blame the Bush-Cheney administration for the economy and for other things," Cornyn told "FOX News Sunday."

"I don't think we should be jumping to conclusions," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., on ABC's "This Week." "The president and the vice president are the two people who have responsibility, ultimately, for the national security of the country. It is not out of the ordinary for the vice president to be involved in an issue like this."

Mike Ackerman, a former CIA operations officer, said it's "thoroughly demoralizing" to agents in the field to see Congress bickering over their activities. Ackerman said he doesn't think lawmakers are "trying purposefully to destroy the agency, but we've gotten into a practice of politicizing it."

"There's no western intelligence agency other than CIA that has ever been led by a political figure and we've got to stop doing this," he said, noting that the agency has been led by former congressional members, including Panetta, Porter Goss and George H.W. Bush.

Ackerman also said claims that the program dealt with the assassination of foreign leaders is unlikely and speculation "not grounded in fact."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told NBC's "Meet the Press" he doesn't know the details of the situation, but suggested Cheney should respond since the accusations are aimed squarely at him. He added that while it's too early for him to reach any conclusion on the claims, he's certain he'll hear more about it soon.

GOP: Sotomayor must assure she can be neutral


WASHINGTON (AP) — Two Republican senators on Sunday said they will press Sonia Sotomayor at her Supreme Court confirmation hearings this week to explain public comments that they say raise doubts about her ability to judge cases fairly.

Yet the GOP is unlikely to be able to derail Sotomayor's confirmation in the Democratic-controlled Senate, and Republicans acknowledged they must be careful in their approach to the veteran federal judge who rose from poverty in a New York City public housing project to the verge of being the first Hispanic justice on the high court.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that in speeches over the past 10 years, Sotomayor has said repeatedly that personal experiences influence a judge's decisions.

"She has criticized the idea that a woman and a man would reach the same result. She expects them to reach different results. I think that's philosophically incompatible with the American system," Sessions said.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, also a committee member, said he plans to ask Sotomayor about her comment in 2001 that she hoped a "wise Latina" would often reach better conclusions than a white male without similar experiences. The statement, he said, "was not an isolated comment" and that it is "antithetical to the whole idea of the rule of law."

Cornyn also pointed up the potential political pitfalls for Republicans in confronting Sotomayor too aggressively. "A third of my constituents are Hispanic, and I understand that what they want, and what every nominee deserves, is for the nominee to be treated with respect. And we will," he said.

Cornyn and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who also represents a sizable Hispanic population, described Sotomayor's life in identical terms as a great American success story.

The chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said Sotomayor's 17-year record on the bench shows her to be a "mainstream judge."

Also Sunday, Sotomayor picked up the endorsement of the International Association of Police Chiefs, adding to the show of support from the nation's major law-enforcement organizations.

Hearings on her confirmation begin Monday.

Sessions and Leahy spoke Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation" while Cornyn appeared on "Fox News Sunday." McCain appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Senior Chinese leader pledges to ensure basic livelihood in Xinjiang

URUMQI, July 12 (Xinhua) -- Senior Chinese leader Zhou Yongkang called on government departments at all levels on Sunday to ensure the basic livelihood of people and the industrial and agricultural production in Xinjiang "by all means".

Zhou, Standing Committee member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, made the remarks on the fourth day of his visit to Xinjiang.

He is here to visit the region on behalf of President Hu Jintao after the July 5 riot in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, which caused at least 184 deaths and injured 1,680 others.

Zhou stressed that to maintain social stability was the top concern of the livelihood of the people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang for the time being.

Zhou visited a food company and urged the company's leaders to guarantee the safety of the products and at the same time accelerate production to ensure the supply.

During his visit to the city center of electric power supply, Zhou expressed his appreciation for the hard work of all electric workers in the region to repair damaged power facilities.

Currently, the power consumption in the city already went back to the ordinary standard before the unrest.

"Everyone should do what they can to build together a concrete foundation for ethnic unity," Zhou said during a group talk with local residents of Han, Uygur and Hui.

Zhou was told the stories of a 81-year-old Uygur old man risking his life to save 18 people, and a Han boy named Li Huan who saved more than 10 people and even seized a rioter.

"Our country is a big family consisting of many ethnic groups. We've been going through all kinds of hardships and supporting each other... Your heroic behaviors proved that any attempt to induce ethnic conflicts will end in vain," Zhou said.