Russia official backing off on missile threat

MOSCOW - A Russian military official said Wednesday that Moscow was backing off a threat to deploy missiles near Poland, according to a report that may have been aimed at testing President Barack Obama's intent to build a European missile shield.

The private Interfax news agency cited an unidentified armed forces general staff official as saying Russia has suspended implementation of plans to deploy Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad enclave because the Obama administration is not pushing hard to build an interceptor site next door in Poland.

US envoy urges stronger Gaza truce

JERUSALEM - President Barack Obama's new Mideast envoy promised a vigorous push for Israel-Palestinian peace, saying Wednesday that Gaza militants must end weapons smuggling and the territory's blockaded borders must be opened if the cease-fire is to last.

George Mitchell held his first round of talks with regional leaders to determine the next steps the Obama administration would take toward reviving peace negotiations after Israel's blistering military offensive against Gaza's Hamas rulers.

But a flare-up of violence underscored the more immediate priority - shoring up the 10-day-old cease-fire. Hours before Mitchell arrived in Jerusalem, Israeli warplanes pounded Gaza smuggling tunnels in retaliation for a Palestinian bombing on Tuesday that killed an Israeli soldier.

Early voting begins in Iraqi elections

BAGHDAD - Soldiers, hospital patients and even prisoners filled ballot boxes Wednesday in special early voting for provincial elections that will be a test for Iraqi forces trying to prevent violence and could set up future political showdowns for Iraq's leadership.

A smooth election could encourage supporters of a fast-paced withdrawal of U.S. combat troops by next year, but any major irregularities or bloodshed in Saturday's main voting could raise worries about the readiness of Iraq's institutions.

There were reports of only sporadic attacks during the early voting - called so police and military units could cast ballots before being deployed for the full-scale vote.