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By a seven-vote margin, opposition legislators won the first of four showdowns in Israel's parliament on a bill that would make it all but impossible to approve a peace deal with Syria in a national referendum. The development was a blow to Prime Minister Barak, who has been trying to lure Syria back to negotiations on a treaty that could involve Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. If the bill ultimately passes, it would require more than 60 percent of those casting ballots to OK a treaty in a referendum promised by Barak. That would limit voting to persons actually in Israel. Absentee ballots aren't permitted, although hundreds of thousands of Israelis living abroad retain the right to vote.

More democracy, freedoms, and rights will be given to China's people as the 21st century unfolds, President Jiang Zemin pledged. The vow came in a message to a regional forum in Beijing presided over by UN human rights chief Mary Robinson. It also followed release of the annual State Department report on China, which said human rights there "deteriorated markedly" last year.

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Governors of northern Nigeria had the task of explaining to their mostly Muslim people why the decision had been made to abandon the idea of adopting strict Islamic law. The agreement earlier this week with President Olusegun Obasanjo also calls for states that already have sharia to stop enforcing it. The deal followed three days of rioting between Muslims and resentful Christians that killed at least 400 people. Analysts said the retreat from sharia could pose a problem for the governors, who made the strict code the basis of their platform in Nigeria's elections last year.

In a "new step in the revolution," Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi abolished most of his Cabinet ministries and transferred their powers to "provincial cells." Only five functions - finance, defense, foreign affairs, information, and "African unity" - were to remain under central control in Tripoli, the capital. Qaddafi has been unhappy with the government's continuing reliance on oil revenues, and on Jan. 28 he paid a surprise visit to the General People's Congress and tore up a copy of the proposed 2000 budget, ordering that the economy become more diversified.

More than 100 Iraqis flew to Saudi Arabia for the annual Islamic pilgrimage in defiance of UN sanctions that forbid air travel out of the country. The trip was the fourth time in as many years that Iraq has failed to apply in advance for permission to ferry pilgrims on the hajj. It also was made despite the fact that Iraq hasn't had formal relations with the Saudi government since its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been withdrawn from the Bank of Thailand in recent weeks, a sign that illegal vote-buying may be occurring in advance of Sunday's first election for seats in the upper house of parliament. The 1997 Constitution scrapped the old system, under which the prime minister appointed senators to rubber-stamp the decisions of the lower house. The strengthened Senate now is expected to function as a brake on the lower house's power. But candidates aren't permitted to campaign publicly or with the help of well-financed political parties.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society