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News Briefs

President Proposes New Elections To Break Political Stalemate

President Leonid D. Kuchma on Monday proposed holding a new election to end the political crisis threatening to tear the country apart, while Ukraine’s Supreme Court heard complaints of electoral fraud over last week’s presidential election.

Kuchma’s remarks represented the collapse of what had been a united government position that Prime Minister Viktor F. Yanukovich won the Nov. 21 presidential election, despite evidence of fraud and falsification involving perhaps millions of ballots.

“If we really want to maintain peace and accord and we really want to build a law-governed democratic society, of which we have been speaking so much, then let us hold new elections,” Kuchma said in televised remarks, after a meeting with city and regional leaders at his residence outside Kiev.

Much remained unclear, including whether Kuchma intended to hold a new runoff between Yanukovich and his challenger, Viktor A. Yushchenko, which the law does not permit, or a whole new election. Yushchenko’s campaign immediately ruled out the latter.

Heading off speculation long dogging him that he intended to somehow remain in power himself, Kuchma said he did not intend to run for what would be a third term. “It must be clear,” he said. “I have had enough.”

In The Tough Provinces, Iraqi Police Have Tough Going

Iraqi police and national guard forces, whose performance is crucial to securing January elections, are foundering in the face of coordinated efforts to murder and intimidate them and their families, say American officials in the provinces facing the most violent insurgency.

For months, Iraqi recruits for both forces have been the targets of assassinations and car bombs aimed at lines of applicants as well as police stations. On Monday morning, a suicide bomber rammed a car into a group of police officers waiting to collect their salaries west of Ramadi, killing 12 people, Interior Ministry officials said.

While Bush administration officials say the training is progressing and there have been instances in which the Iraqis have proved tactically useful and fought bravely, local American commanders and security officials say both Iraqi forces are riddled with problems.

In the most violent provinces, they say, the Iraqis are so intimidated that many are reluctant to show up and do not tell their families where they work, have yet to receive adequate training or weapons, present a danger to American troops they fight alongside, and are unreliable either because of corruption, desertion, or infiltration.

Given the weak performance of Iraqi forces, any major withdrawal of American troops for at least a decade would invite chaos, a senior official at the Interior Ministry, whose name could not be used, said in an interview last week.

Defense of Medical Marijuana Appears to Falter

The effort by advocates of the medical use of marijuana to link their cause to the Supreme Court’s federalism revolution appeared headed for failure at the court on Monday.

During a lively argument, the justices expressed little inclination to view drug policy as an issue of states’ rights by which California and other states that have adopted “compassionate use” marijuana measures can displace federal regulation of homegrown marijuana distributed to patients without charge and without crossing state lines.

The closely watched case, which drew a crowd to the court, is an appeal by the Bush administration of a ruling last December by the federal appeals court in California that the federal Controlled Substances Act was “likely unconstitutional” as applied to two women who used marijuana under their doctors’ care within the terms of Proposition 215, California’s Compassionate Use Act, adopted by the voters in 1996.

Nine other states have adopted similar measures that permit people with chronic pain or illnesses like cancer and AIDS to use marijuana under a doctor’s supervision.

Reeling Merck Offers Executives a Bonus Deal

With its stock plunging and its ability to thrive as an independent company uncertain, the drug giant Merck has adopted a plan that will give its top executives for big bonuses if the company is taken over.

Merck has been reeling since it withdrew its arthritis treatment Vioxx from the market on Sept. 30 after acknowledging that the drug can cause heart attacks. On Monday, Merck said in a federal securities filing that its board had decided to give its 230 most senior managers the opportunity for a one-time payment of up to three years of salary and bonus if another company bought Merck -- or merely bought more than 20 percent of its shares. Any executive who was fired or resigned for good cause would receive the payment.

Merck has said that it is committed to remaining independent, and a spokeswoman repeated that position on Monday. But the plan, which the board adopted last Tuesday, is the first formal acknowledgment that Merck is now so weakened that it may be vulnerable to a takeover.

Many other big companies have so-called golden parachute plans to protect top tiers of executives in the event of takeovers and to keep them from leaving if a takeover is looming. But experts on corporate governance said Merck’s decision to adopt such a plan was particularly ill timed. The board is rewarding its top executives for its problems with Vioxx and the company’s inability to bring new drugs to market, critics said.