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Russian wildfires destroy one-fifth of wheat crop

Issue: "Warrior class," Aug. 28, 2010

Wheat prices shot up quickly as wildfires in Russia, sparked by record-breaking heat and drought, destroyed one-fifth of the nation's crop as well as homes on hundreds of thousands of acres. Perhaps worse than a farming disaster is a potential airborne threat: Officials said unabated, the fires could reach areas contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear accident, spreading radioactive smoke. The fires, which spread for miles and miles east of Moscow, have killed 52 and left more than 3,000 homeless. Smoke blanketed Moscow and delayed flights, as the crisis brought government elements of corruption and ineffectiveness to the fore, sparking local outrage. To regain public support, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin flew a water-laden amphibious plane to put out fires himself. Wildfires are normal in remote parts of Russia but rare in more populated, farmed areas.

Man knows not his time

Former Republican Senator Ted Stevens, an Alaska icon, died in an Aug. 9 plane crash in bad weather on a remote mountainside near Dillingham, Alaska. Stevens was on his way to a fishing trip with eight friends. Four others died in the crash, but one prominent passenger-former NASA chief Sean O'Keefe-survived. Alaskans often refer to Stevens, 86, as "Uncle Ted," and in the 1950s as an Interior Department attorney he argued for Alaska statehood. In 1968 he joined the Senate and served there until 2008, when he narrowly lost reelection days after a federal jury convicted him on seven corruption charges. The judge vacated the convictions in 2009 after new evidence showed that Justice Department lawyers had mishandled the trial. Stevens was famous-or infamous-for his earmarks, bringing tax dollars to Alaska from his powerful seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and he often wore an Incredible Hulk tie for important debates on the Hill. But Stevens' "Bridge to Nowhere" became emblematic of wasteful earmarks on both sides of the aisle.

Stevens was himself a decorated pilot in World War II. The crash that killed him echoes an earlier tragedy: His first wife Ann was killed in a plane crash on the Anchorage airport runway in 1978, a crash that he survived. Many parts of Alaska are only accessible by planes, so air travel is a common mode of transportation in the state-but the weather can be unforgiving to even the most experienced pilot. Plane crashes have taken the lives of other Alaska politicians, like Rep. Nick Begich in 1972, the father of Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, who ousted Stevens from office in 2008.

Unborn unprotected

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Kenyans have passed a new constitution that will curb presidential power and create checks and balances-but also liberalize abortion law. Although Kenya's last national election in 2007 dissolved into chaos and violence, this year Kenyans peaceably voted for passage by a two-thirds majority. Some church and pro-life leaders opposed the constitution on the grounds that it changed Kenya's strict abortion law to allow a "trained health professional" to authorize abortion "for emergency treatment" or if the life or health of the mother is in danger. An agency audit review revealed that USAID has given at least $23 million to grantees who pushed the constitution, prompting pro-life members of Congress to say USAID is transgressing an amendment that prohibits using foreign assistance funds to lobby for or against abortion.

Your $ at work

The controversial imam pushing the Ground Zero Islamic center will be representing the United States in a trip to the Middle East. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf will travel to Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, with the State Department's Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs. State Department official Philip J. Crowley confirmed that the U.S. government was supporting Rauf's trip and said the program sends American Muslim leaders around the world "to help people understand our society and the role of religion within our society" and to foster "a greater understanding and outreach" among Muslim communities. But there's concern that Rauf may be fundraising for his $100 million center while in the Middle East. Crowley said Rauf, whom he called a "distinguished Muslim cleric," was not allowed to raise funds as part of the program. Rauf worked with feds just after 9/11 when the FBI invited him to address ways imams can ensure their mosques do not become places to recruit terrorists. He also made controversial remarks about 9/11-saying the United States didn't deserve the attacks but that U.S. policies were an "accessory" to the crime.

Pakistan disaster

Over a week of unending rain and flooding across northern Pakistan has left at least 1,600 people dead, with more than 700,000 homes damaged and over 350,000 people carried to safety by military and other rescues. Authorities say 14 million people have been affected overall as floodwaters washed through the Swat Valley, wiping out 50 bridges in the region, and sending high water downstream as far as Karachi: "Six million [of the 14 million affected] are children and 3 million women of child-bearing age. This is a higher figure than in the 2005 south Asia tsunami," said the UN's humanitarian affairs coordination office.


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