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At The World Cup Draw,
There’s a Plot in Every Pot

It is anyone’s guess how the 32 teams in the 2010 World Cup will be grouped by the draw Friday in South Africa, but one thing is for sure: The event will elicit sightings of things as far-fetched as UFO’s and the Virgin Mary’s image on a potato chip.

Soccer luminaries, with the help of the honorary hostess Charlize Theron, will pull plastic balls out of pots to determine the eight first-round groupings of four teams each. Someone will inevitably claim that the draw was rigged. No proof? No problem. Not since “Forrest Gump” have table tennis balls supposedly been so vulnerable to manipulation and sleight of hand.

Television networks around the world will be on alert. They will replay the video forward and backward, in regular speed and slow motion, seeking evidence of plots and schemes, as if this were a sporting equivalent of the Zapruder film.

At the draw for the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Sophia Loren picked a ball that placed the United States in the host team’s group. Considering that the Americans had not played in the World Cup in 40 years, this struck some as akin to putting the Yankees in the same group as the winner of the Little League World Series.

Obama’s Afghan Decision Strains Democratic Ties

President Barack Obama’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan over the objections of fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill is straining a relationship already struggling under the weight of an administration agenda that some Democratic lawmakers fear is placing them in a politically vulnerable position. They face the prospect of enacting a health care bill that Republicans are using to paint them as fiscally irresponsible and intent on extending the government’s reach deeper into the economy and personal health decisions.

“They say you do the tough things early,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner, Democrat of New York. “Early 2010 is early for the White House, but it is perilously late for members of Congress. I don’t know if it’s a new tension, but it’s certainly something people are talking about on the Hill.”

Some Democrats worry that the administration is willing to sacrifice some House and Senate seats in the interest of accomplishing its broader goals. And some of the issues Obama is pressing could make Democrats vulnerable to attack not only by Republicans, but also by fellow Democrats in primaries.

In Pennsylvania, Sen. Arlen Specter has come out against Obama’s Afghanistan policy, setting up a clash against his Democratic primary opponent, Rep. Joe Sestak, who backs the escalation of the war. His move gives Specter, who switched parties earlier this year, a chance to win some support from the left, which has been the base of Sestak’s support.

Debt Crisis Tests Dubai’s Ruler and An Arab Vision

The ruler of this city-state, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, became renowned as a developer-king, an autocratic visionary determined to build a 21st-century Xanadu in the desert despite a legion of critics who said it could not be done.

“What I have achieved for Dubai is just 10 percent of my vision,” he would often tell visitors.

That vision took a beating last week after Dubai, struggling under $80 billion in debt, suddenly asked to delay interest payments for its flagship company, Dubai World, sending markets tumbling around the world.

Current and former advisers say they think Mohammed’s aides left him in the dark for several weeks or even months as Dubai’s problems mounted. Hundreds of property projects have been frozen, and the Western financiers who once flocked here have fled in droves.

Last week’s debt bombshell has raised questions about possible tensions with Abu Dhabi, the oil-rich sister emirate that many had expected to bail out Dubai.

Sheik Mo, as expatriates often call him, has dismissed those speculations, and last month he told journalists who asked about a rift with Abu Dhabi to “shut up.” He waves away predictions of Dubai’s collapse as envious carping.

New York Senate Turns Back Bill On Gay Marriage

The New York state Senate decisively rejected a bill on Wednesday that would have allowed gay couples to wed, providing a major victory for those who oppose same-sex marriage and underscoring the deep and emotional divisions surrounding the issue.

The 38-24 margin startled proponents of the bill, and signaled that political momentum, at least right now, has shifted against same-sex marriage, even in heavily Democratic New York. The vote followed more than a year of lobbying by gay rights organizations, who have poured close to $1 million into New York legislative races to boost support for the measure.

The defeat, which followed a stirring and at times deeply personal debate, all but ensures the issue is dead in New York until at least 2011, when a new Legislature will be installed.

Since 2003, seven states, including three that border New York, legalized same-sex marriage. But in two of the seven, including Maine last month, voters have reversed the decisions of lawmakers or judges in referendums, and effectively outlawed gay nuptials.

In Albany on Wednesday, proponents had believed going into the vote that they could attract as many as 35 supporters to the measure; at their most pessimistic, they said they would draw at least 26. They had the support from Gov. David A. Paterson, who has publicly championed the bill, along with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the Senate Democratic leadership.