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World Briefs

- - Sunday, January 29, 2012

IRAN

U.N. nuclear inspection gets under way in Iran

TEHRAN — U.N. nuclear inspectors began a critical mission to Iran on Sunday to probe allegations of a secret atomic weapons program amid escalating Western economic pressure and warnings about safeguarding Gulf oil shipments from possible Iranian blockades.

The findings from the three-day visit could greatly influence the direction and urgency of U.S.-led efforts to rein in Iran's ability to enrich uranium - which Washington and allies fear could eventually produce weapons-grade material.

Iran has declined to abandon its enrichment labs but claims it only seeks to fuel reactors for energy and medical research.

The International Atomic Energy Agency team is likely to visit an underground enrichment site near the holy city of Qom, 80 miles south of Tehran, which is carved into a mountain as protection from possible airstrikes.

Earlier this month, Iran said it had begun enrichment work at the site, which is far smaller than the country's main uranium labs but is reported to have more advanced equipment.

The U.N. nuclear agency delegation includes two senior weapons experts - Jacques Baute of France and Neville Whiting of South Africa - suggesting that Iran may be prepared to address some issues related to the allegations that it seeks nuclear warheads.

In unusually blunt comments ahead of his arrival, International Atomic Energy Agency Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts - who is in charge of the agency's Iran file - said he wants Tehran to "engage us on all concerns."

Iran has refused to discuss the alleged weapons experiments for three years, saying they are based on "fabricated documents" provided by a "few arrogant countries" - a phrase authorities in Iran often use to refer to the United States and its allies.

IRAQ

Sunni-backed lawmakers end parliament ban

BAGHDAD — Iraq's Sunni-backed political alliance ended a parliament boycott Sunday, officials said, but the bloc's ministers will stay away from Cabinet meetings to protest arrests and prosecution of Sunni officials.

The decision underlines sectarian tensions in the Shiite-dominated government as violence surges just weeks after U.S. troops left the country.

The political crisis erupted last month after Iraq's Shiite-led government issued an arrest warrant against the Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi on terrorism charges.

In protest, Iraqiya lawmakers and ministers boycotted parliament and Cabinet sessions, bringing government work to a standstill.

JORDAN

King receives Hamas leader

AMMAN — A high-profile visit to Jordan by the leader of Hamas has revived contacts with the Palestinian militant group, but Jordan will not lift a ban on its activities there, a senior Jordanian official said Sunday.

Khaled Mashaal's visit was part of Jordan's efforts to engage with previously shunned Islamists, who have been gaining ground across the region in Arab Spring uprisings.

"It will only break the ice following years of estrangement," said the official, who was attending talks between Mr. Mashaal and Jordan's King Abdullah II, "but Hamas will not be allowed to reopen its offices in Jordan."

Re-establishing contact with Hamas also positions Jordan to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians.

Mr. Mashaal holds a Jordanian passport, but the kingdom expelled him and four other Hamas leaders in 1999 for "illicit and harmful" activities, forcing Mr. Mashaal to set up camp in exile in Syria, from where he has led his group's political bureau.

With the harsh Syrian government crackdown on protesters - including some Palestinians in Syria - Mr. Mashaal is looking for a new place to operate.

Jordan blacklisted Hamas after an alleged weapons cache was discovered in the country six years ago.

Since then, Mr. Mashaal was allowed to enter Jordan twice on humanitarian grounds - in August 2009 to attend his father's funeral, and again last October to visit his ailing mother.

PAKISTAN

Firing of TV host a victory for liberals

ISLAMABAD — In a rare victory for Pakistani liberals, a private TV station decided to fire a popular morning show host after she sparked outrage by running around a public park trying to expose young, unmarried couples hanging out, a taboo in this conservative Muslim country.

Pakistani liberals derided host Maya Khan's behavior on Twitter and Facebook, comparing it to the kind of moral policing practiced by the Taliban, and started an online petition asking Samaa TV to end this "irresponsible programming" and apologize.

The company responded Saturday in a letter sent to reporters saying it had decided to fire Ms. Khan and her team and cancel her show because she refused to issue an unconditional apology for the Jan. 17 program.

Samaa TV's decision marked an unusual victory for Pakistan's beleaguered liberal minority, which has become more marginalized as the country has shifted to the right and whose members have been killed by Islamist extremists for standing up for what they believe.

Critics of the program also praised the company's decision as a positive example of self-regulation by Pakistan's freewheeling TV industry, which was liberalized in 2000 and has mushroomed from one state-run channel to more than 80 independent ones.

Some shows have been praised for serving the public good by holding powerful officials to account. But many others have been criticized for doing anything that will get ratings, including pandering to populist sentiments at the expense of privacy and sometimes truth.

From wire dispatches and staff reports