World Briefs


England. Worried depositors outside a Northern Rock branch.

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Black Days for Blackwater Guards

U.S. diplomats in Iraq found themselves even more isolated than usual last week. They were temporarily barred from leaving Baghad's fortified Green Zone following a shooting incident involving private security contractors guarding a U.S. convoy. At least 11 Iraqis were killed after guards working for Blackwater USA, under contract to the U.S. State Department, opened fire in heavy traffic in Baghdad. Blackwater said its employees were responding to insurgent gunfire, but Iraqi witnesses said that the guards fired first.

The incident renewed Iraqis' anger over what they see as the reckless conduct by some of the estimated 25,000 civilian security contractors operating in the country. The contractors operate with very little public accountability, but they provide an essential supplement to the 168,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq by guarding key facilities, convoys, and personnel.

New Message From a Cave Dweller

Osama bin Laden seems to have a lot on his mind these days. In the latest of a flurry of messages from his secure, undisclosed location, the terrorist chief told followers they have a religious duty to overthrow Pakistan's "infidel" president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. This enmity isn't new; Musharraf has survived at least two assassination attempts attributed to al Qaeda. Bin Laden renewed his threats just as Pakistan set October 6 as the date for a presidential election expected to extend the eight-year rule of Musharraf, who promised critics that he will give up his dual role as military chief.

The Mighty 'Loonie'

Thirty-one years ago, Wild Cherry's "Play That Funky Music" was cruising to the top of the charts—and Canada's dollar (aka the loonie) was at parity with the U.S. dollar. Better check to see whether disco is making a comeback, as the twin dollars hit one-to-one value again last week. It is not so much that the Canadians are on the rise as it is that the U.S. greenback has fallen from grace. The euro also has surged against the not-so-almighty dollar. Folks traveling overseas, even just crossing from Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, are in for a shock. Is there more looniness in store? There is really nothing holding the Canadian dollar back. Canadians took the news in stride. The Globe and Mail opined, "Parity. So What?" before noting that in almost every other economic measure, Canadians trail their American neighbors. You might call that sour grapes—or wild cherry.

Banking Jitters Strike Britain

There hadn't been a bank run in Britain in 140 years until last week. Hordes of worried customers of Northern Rock, Britain's third-largest mortgage lender, besieged the bank's branches. The lines cleared only after the Bank of England guaranteed the full value of all deposits. Although its assets were strong and its mortgage portfolio healthy, Northern Rock was more reliant than other U.K. banks on wholesale money markets, rather than customer savings, to finance loans. So when credit markets were hit by the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis, it was short of ready cash.

With Kevin Whitelaw, Tim Smart, Thomas K. Grose and Associated Press.