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Mr. Panetta never mentioned China as he spoke to crew members on the USNS Richard E. Byrd and later to reporters. But with the South China Sea as a backdrop, he left no doubt that the U.S. will maintain a strong presence in the region.

IRAQ

Religious edict seen as aiding prime minister

BAGHDAD — An Iranian-based Shiite Muslim cleric on Sunday published a religious edict that could undermine efforts to unseat the Iraqi prime minister and also signaled Iran’s growing influence over Iraq’s politics.

The ruling was issued by Ayatollah Kazim al-Haeri, spiritual mentor of anti-American Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

In recent weeks, Mr. al-Sadr has aligned himself with opponents of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is facing mounting allegations from members of his broad unity government of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds that he is monopolizing power.

The prime minister’s critics are trying to gather enough backing to bring him down with a no-confidence vote in parliament.

In a religious ruling published Sunday, Mr. al-Haeri, who lives in Iran, said it is forbidden to vote for secular politicians in Iraq’s government - an apparent reference to Mr. Maliki’s opponents.

Mr. al-Sadr’s followers hold 40 seats in the 325-member parliament and are part of the ruling coalition.

JAPAN

Japan arrests cult member in ‘95 sarin attack, reports say

TOKYO — One of the two remaining fugitive members of the doomsday cult behind the 1995 nerve gas attack on Tokyo subways was arrested Sunday, Japanese media reports said.

Naoko Kikuchi, 40, was spotted in Sagamihara, a city 20 miles southwest of Tokyo, and acknowledged she was the former Aum Shinrikyo cult member when approached by police, according to NHK-TV and other media reports, citing investigative sources. She was wanted on charges of murder in the 1995 attack.

• From wire dispatches and staff reports