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Security Progress in Iraq Is Significant But Fragile, Gates Says

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday that security progress in Iraq was significant yet still fragile, an assessment echoed by the senior U.S. commander in Baghdad, who strongly cautioned against a premature declaration of victory.

Completing his sixth visit to Iraq as defense secretary, Gates met Wednesday and Thursday with commanders in Mosul and in Baghdad, as well as with senior Iraqi officials. He said he left Iraq “encouraged.”

“I came away from all of it feeling very good about the direction of things in the security arena, about what is going on at the local and provincial level in terms of people reaching out to each other, crossing tribal, sectarian, and provincial boundaries to work together,” Gates said.

He spoke in Bahrain, where he will attend an annual conference on regional security.

He acknowledged that political reconciliation at the national level must accelerate and that it had not kept up with progress by local and provincial officials.

“I came away with a sense that there is growing pressure from below for the top levels of the government to replicate the kind of reconciliation that is going on in a variety of other places in Iraq,” Gates said.

House Sets Higher Goal For Vehicle Fuel Efficiency

Brushing aside a veto threat from the White House, the House passed a package of energy measures on Thursday that includes a 40 percent increase in fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks sold in the United States.

The bill’s supporters say it will reduce the nation’s dependence on imported oil, jump-start development of clean-energy technologies and sharply reduce the nation’s production of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide.

But the complex and costly bill is all but certain to be radically rewritten when it reaches the Senate because of opposition there to two provisions: $21 billion in new taxes, mostly on the oil industry, and a mandate that electric utilities must generate 15 percent of their power from alternative sources, like wind or solar. The White House threatened to veto the bill if the final version contains those or several other provisions passed by the House.

The House vote was 235-181, with 14 Republicans voting for it and seven Democrats voting against.

Environmental groups, consumer advocates, and alternative-energy companies hailed House passage of the bill, but a broad array of opponents, including cattlemen, coal producers, and multinational oil companies, are lining up to block it.

The centerpiece of the bill is a requirement that passenger vehicles sold in the United States achieve a fleet average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020, the first significant increase in mileage standards since 1975.

Former UnitedHealth Chief Will Forfeit $418 Million

In one of the largest corporate pay give-backs ever, Dr. William W. McGuire, the former chief executive of UnitedHealth Group, has agreed to forfeit at least $418 million to settle claims related to back-dated stock options.

The payback is on top of roughly $198 million that McGuire, an entrepreneur who built UnitedHealth, had previously agreed to return to his former employer.

The total — $618 million — includes money that McGuire will return as part of separate settlements reached Thursday with the Securities and Exchange Commission and UnitedHealth shareholders. The forfeitures are the first time regulators have successfully employed corporate governance rules put in place after the collapse of Enron that force executives to disgorge ill-gotten gains.

As part of the settlement with the SEC, McGuire will pay a $7 million fine and will be barred from serving as a director of a public company for 10 years. He will, however, be allowed to keep stock options valued at more than $800 million, including many that have been sharply criticized.

Bomb Kills One in Paris Law Office

An explosion from a bomb in a package delivered to a lawyers’ office in the heart of Paris killed one person and seriously wounded another on Thursday, the police said.

Paris’s chief prosecutor, Jean-Claude Marin, told reporters at the scene that a legal secretary in the law firm was killed after she opened the booby-trapped package delivered by a messenger and addressed to a lawyer in the firm.

He said that one of the firm’s lawyers had been hospitalized in serious condition from the explosion and that 10 people were being treated for shock.

The police were struggling to determine the motive behind the attack. The law firm of Catherine Gouet-Jenselme deals largely with commercial and personal matters, including real estate and insurance cases.

The building where the bomb exploded is located on the Boulevard Malesherbes near the 19th century Saint-Augustin Church.

The building contains several law firms, including one where President Nicolas Sarkozy was once a partner. It also houses the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah, which is dedicated to researching the Holocaust and Jewish culture, and apartments. French news reports say that Sarkozy still holds a 34 percent ownership share in the firm where he was partner.