National briefs: Powell says Hagel 'superb'

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WASHINGTON -- Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a twice-wounded Vietnam War veteran, is "superbly qualified" to run the Pentagon, former Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday.

Mr. Powell --who, like Mr. Hagel, is a Republican -- rejected criticisms from other party members over a comment the former Nebraska lawmaker made about the "Jewish lobby" and a 2007 vote opposing designation of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization.

"He is a very strong supporter of the state of Israel," Mr. Powell said on NBC's "Meet the Press" program. "It doesn't mean you have to agree with every single position the Israeli government takes."

Mr. Hagel, 66, has come under attack from Republicans, including Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Cornyn of Texas, members of Senate Armed Services Committee that will handle the nomination. Mr. Cornyn has said he opposes the nomination.

While Mr. Powell was leading the State Department under Republican President George W. Bush, Mr. Hagel criticized the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq that Mr. Powell supported. Sunday on NBC, Mr. Powell said Mr. Hagel "is a solid guy who speaks his mind."

Suspect spoke before fire

NEW YORK -- The suspect in the deadly fire that engulfed a Manhattan apartment building Thursday night told someone: "You die, I die, everybody dies," just before igniting two beds in his apartment, a prosecutor said at his arraignment Saturday.

As he fled the burning apartment, the suspect, Wei Chu Hu, then said, "Call the police and have me arrested," according to a criminal complaint filed by the Manhattan district attorney's office.

That account came from a witness who was not identified.

Longer school year?

WASHINGTON -- Did your kids moan that winter break was way too short as you got them ready for the first day back in school? They might get their wish of more holiday time off under proposals catching on around the country to lengthen the school year.

But there's a catch: a much shorter summer vacation.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a chief proponent of the longer school year, says American students have fallen behind the world academically.

The three-year pilot project will affect about 20,000 students in 40 schools in Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee.

Miss America is from N.Y.

LAS VEGAS -- A 23-year-old blonde from Brooklyn, N.Y., won the Miss America crown Saturday night after responding to a question about armed guards in schools, saying she opposed fighting violence with violence.

En route to her victory in the Las Vegas pageant, Mallory Hagan also tap danced to James Brown's "Get Up Off of That Thing," strutted down the runway in an asymmetrical white gown and donned a revealing black string bikini.

Unusual hobby hits Florida

MIAMI -- Nearly 800 people have signed up to hunt Burmese pythons on public lands in Florida.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is holding a monthlong "Python Challenge." Officials are offering cash prizes to whoever brings in the longest python and whoever bags the most pythons.

The hunt starts 1 p.m. Saturday and ends at midnight Feb. 10.



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