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TOP STORIES

Iraq launches offensive on last Islamic State stronghold in Mosul

BAGHDAD/ERBIL, Iraq - U.S.-backed Iraqi forces launch a ground offensive to dislodge Islamic State militants from the western part of the city of Mosul and put an end to their ambitions for territorial rule in Iraq. (MIDEAST-CRISIS/IRAQ-MOSUL (WRAPUP 3), moved, by Maher Chmaytelli and Isabel Coles, 800 words)

Trump administration drafts plan to raise asylum bar, speed deportations

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has prepared new guidance for immigration agents aimed at speeding up deportations by denying asylum claims earlier in the process. (USA-IMMIGRATION/ASYLUM (UPDATE 1, GRAPHIC, PIX), moved, by Julia Edwards Ainsley, 1,102 words)


Saudi Arabia, Israel present de facto united front against Iran

MUNICH - Saudi Arabia and Israel call for a new push against Iran, signalling a growing alignment in their interests, while U.S. lawmakers promise to seek new sanctions on the Shi'ite Muslim power. (MIDEAST-CRISIS/IRAN (UPDATE 1), moved, by Andrea Shalal and John Irish, 700 words)


Exit polls sees Ecuador leftist ahead, runoff unclear

QUITO - Ecuadorean exit polls put ruling party leftist Lenin Moreno clearly ahead in the presidential election, although it is unclear whether he has enough votes to avoid an April runoff against conservative ex-banker Guillermo Lasso. (ECUADOR-ELECTION/ (UPDATE 6, PIX, TV), expect by 0100 GMT/7 PM ET, by Alexandra Ulmer and Alexandra Valencia, 400 words)


UNITED STATES

Trump's national security candidates promised autonomy as search continues

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump's next pick for national security adviser will have autonomy over staffing and key decisions, the White House says as it scrambles to fill the post following the turbulent departure of Michael Flynn. (USA-TRUMP/SECURITY (UPDATE 1, PIX, TV, GRAPHIC), moving shortly, by Andy Sullivan and Sarah N. Lynch, 404 words)


Trump baffles Sweden, says his remarks was based on news report

STOCKHOLM/WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - U.S. President Donald Trump says his remarks on Saturday suggesting an immigration-related security incident had occurred in Sweden were based on a report he had seen on television about immigrants in the Scandinavian country. (USA-TRUMP/SWEDEN (UPDATE 3, TV), moving shortly, by Anna Ringstrom and Jeff Mason, 474 words)


Suppressing free press is 'how dictators get started'- U.S. Senator McCain

MUNICH - U.S. Senator John McCain, defending the media against the latest attack by President Donald Trump, warns that suppressing the free press is "how dictators get started." (USA-TRUMP/MCCAIN (UPDATE 1), moved, by Jonathan Landay, 400 words)

+ See also:

- USA-TRUMP/PRESS-MATTIS (UPDATE 1, PIX, TV), moved, by Phil Stewart in Abu Dhabi, 400 words


U.S. carrier group patrols in tense South China Sea

BANGKOK - A United States aircraft carrier strike group has begun patrols in the South China Sea amid growing tension with China over control of the disputed waterway and concerns it could become a flashpoint under the new U.S. administration. (SOUTHCHINASEA-CHINA/USA (UPDATE 1), moved, 283 words)


SpaceX launches rocket from historic NASA pad in Florida

CAPE CANAVERAL - A SpaceX Falcon rocket blasts off from a Florida launch pad once used to send NASA astronauts to the moon, a step forward for billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk and his company's goal of ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station. (SPACE-SPACEX/LAUNCH (UPDATE 4, PIX, TV), moved, by Irene Klotz, 412 words)

MIDDLE EAST

Syrian government forces press attack on Damascus outskirts - monitors, medic

BEIRUT - Syrian government forces fire rockets at a rebel-held area on Damascus's outskirts, pressing an attack that began the day before and has killed up to 16 people, a medical worker and war monitors say. (MIDEAST-CRISIS/SYRIA (UPDATE 4), moved, 399 words)


U.N. and others play down expectations for Geneva talks on Syria

MUNICH - The United Nations and other parties to Syrian peace efforts soften any expectations of a major breakthrough at U.N.-led talks in Geneva next week, with U.S. policy on the crisis in disarray and its ties with Russia unclear. (MIDEAST-CRISIS/SYRIA-MISTURA (UPDATE 1), moved, by John Irish and Andrea Shalal, 683 words)


Israel, Jordan and Egypt secretly met for peace a year ago - report

JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met secretly a year ago with the leaders of Egypt and Jordan in a failed attempt by the Obama administration to convene a wider regional summit on Israeli-Palestinian peace, Israel's Haaretz daily says. (ISRAEL-PALESTINIANS/USA (UPDATE 2, PIX, TV), moved, 507 words)


Blowing up houses, digging up graves: Iraqis purge Islamic State

RFAILA, Iraq - The mood was festive as seven men each carried a bomb into a house on the edge of a village in northern Iraq. Dozens of residents of Rfaila, young and old, had flocked to watch the house of their former neighbour Abu Maitham be blown up. Local people are purging every last vestige of Islamic State's presence: demolishing militants' homes and even digging up their graves. (MIDEAST-CRISIS/IRAQ-REVENGE (PIX, TV), by Isabel Coles, 974 words)


Saudi gamers get together at kingdom's first Comic Con

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia - In a country where the use of magic is a crime punishable by beheading, it's not every day that young Saudis wander down the street dressed as the Hulk or Doctor Doom. (SAUDI-ENTERTAINMENT/COMIC CON (TV), moved, by Ismail Nofal, 400 words)


EUROPE

Italy's Renzi defies foes, opens way for party leadership battle

ROME - Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi resigns as head of the ruling Democratic Party, opening the way for a leadership fight in which he will take on rivals threatening to split the centre-left. (ITALY-POLITICS/ (UPDATE 2, PIX, TV), moved, by Crispian Balmer, 561 words)


Germany's SPD moves ahead of Merkel's party in poll

BERLIN - Germany's centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) move ahead of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) in opinion poll by the Emnid institute for the first time since 2006, before Sept. 24 election. (GERMANY-ELECTION/POLL (UPDATE 2), moved, by Erik Kirschbaum, 450 words)


"That bus has gone": EU sees no Brexit U-turn now

BRUSSELS - Tony Blair wants fellow Britons to "rise up" and block or soften Brexit, but it may now be out of their hands - many Europeans just want them to get on and get out. (BRITAIN-EU/U-TURN (PIX), moved, by Alastair Macdonald, 790 words)


ASIA

Four N.Korean suspects fled Malaysia after airport murder -police

KUALA LUMPUR - Four North Korean suspects in the murder of the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un fled Malaysia on the day he was attacked at Kuala Lumpur airport and apparently killed by a fast-acting poison, police said. (NORTHKOREA-MALAYSIA/KIM-POLICE (UPDATE 3, PIX, TV, GRAPHIC), moved, by Joseph Sipalan and Praveen Menon, 500 words)


China says it understands S.Korean need for security, opposes missiles

BEIJING - China understands South Korea's need to protect its security but Seoul needs to respect Beijing's concerns about the deployment of an advanced U.S. anti-missile system, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his South Korean counterpart. (CHINA-SOUTHKOREA/MISSILES (UPDATE 1), moved, 500 words)


AFRICA

Zimbabwe's Mugabe says party, people see no replacement for him at 2018 election

HARARE - Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is quoted as saying that his ZANU-PF party and the people see no viable successor to him for the 2018 election. (ZIMBABWE-MUGABE/ (UPDATE 2), moved, by Cris Chinaka, 400 words)


Suicide bomb in market in Somalia capital kills 39

MOGADISHU - A blast from a suicide car bomb rips through a Mogadishu market, killing 39 people and wounding around 50, an official says, days after Somalia elected a new president. (SOMALIA-SECURITY/ (UPDATE 2, TV), moved, 300 words)


BUSINESS

Kraft withdraws offer to merge with Unilever

NEW YORK - U.S. food company Kraft Heinz Co withdraws its proposal for a $143-billion merger with larger rival Unilever Plc, the companies say, raising questions about whether Kraft could turn its focus to another target. (UNILEVER NV-M&A/KRAFT HEINZ (UPDATE 4), moved, by Carl O'Donnell, 760 words)