Gingrich voted speaker again despite controversy

Tycoon balloonist launches globe-circling endeavor
LONDON (AP) — A British tycoon’s try at the first nonstop balloon flight around the world got off to a perfect start Tuesday, lifting off from a North African airbase in a hot-air balloon stocked with caviar and a microwave oven.
“We are about to embark on a great adventure,” Richard Branson said in remarks quoted by Britain’s Press Association news agency, shortly before setting off to claim “the last great aviation record left on earth.”
After replacing an ill crew member at the last minute, the British chairman of Virgin Atlantic Airways launched his 174-foot “Global Challenger” from a military base near Marrakech, Morocco.
The launch went without a hitch, a statement from Branson’s Virgin Airways in London said.
Branson’s balloon is one of three likely to try circling the world this year. A Swiss team as well as American millionaire Steve Fossett are expected to set out within the week.
Branson and his two co-pilots, Per Lindstrand and Alex Ritchie, plan an 18-day flight from North Africa over the Middle East, Iran, India, the Indian Ocean, the Pacific, the United States and the Atlantic before landing in Britain.
By dusk Tuesday, the balloon was flying at 30,000 feet and nearing the Algerian border, said Branson’s spokesman, Will Whitehorn.
“The crew are in very good spirits and the balloon looks absolutely spectacular,” he said.
The balloon will be followed around the world by a chase plane carrying six people. The pilots will eat snacks ranging from caviar to candy bars and have a microwave oven for packeted, astronaut-style food.
Last February, the 46-year-old Branson postponed the voyage, saying the balloon risked being ripped apart by thunderstorms and lacked the jet streams needed to cross the Pacific at speeds of up to 240 mph.
Twenty engineers have been in Marrakech since last week, checking the $3 million helium hot-air balloon.

Sex scandal involving cleric raises worries about religious sects
ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — With journalists in tow, police storm a house owned by the leader of what authorities claim to be a radical Muslim sect. The cameramen catch on tape a half-naked, bearded man pleading his innocence and a young woman huddled in a corner desperately trying to hide her face.
Police were looking for a wanted man, but say they uncovered a growing crime instead: religious sects using impressionable young women for sex.
A missing persons bureau suspects the sects are responsible for some of their cases. But critics say the crackdown is a ploy to discredit Islam at a time when the government is Islamic-oriented.
Justice Minister Sevket Kazan of the Islamic Welfare Party has ordered an investigation into why police told the news media before storming the house last month, allowing pictures so embarrassing they “violate human rights.”
The woman, 22-year-old Fadime Sahin, went public with her story, shocking the country and making her a hero to some women. Her hair tucked under a scarf according to Islamic custom, she appeared — sometimes demure, sometimes crying — on live television.
“It is hard to live with this embarrassment. But I want to help other trapped girls,” she said Monday evening on the private Channel D television.
Sahin, a graduate of religious studies, said she had gone to Muslum Gunduz for spiritual guidance, but ended up being wedded to him against her will in an Islamic ceremony. Turkish law, based on Swiss civil law, does not consider religious weddings to be binding.
Gunduz formed the Aczmendi sect, its members easily recognizable in their long black coats and turbans. About 120 of his followers are being prosecuted for protesting in the streets against Turkey’s secular traditions and calling for an Islamic state.
Sects are banned in Turkey, although often tolerated, and Gunduz already faces up to 10 years in jail for forming the sect. He has been jailed since the raid and faces prosecution for allegedly duping Sahin.
Government to study marijuana’s medical uses
WASHINGTON (AP) — One week after denouncing the medical use of marijuana, the White House said Tuesday the government will spend up to $1 million gathering scientific evidence on its effectivness as a medical treatment.
Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey said the White House drug policy office committed the funds last month for a comprehensive review by the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences.
“A lot of people have said we’re not interested in the facts on this — and I think this shows that we are,” said Bob Weiner, a spokesman for the drug policy office, which is headed by McCaffrey.
The administration was criticized by AIDS activists last week when officials threatened to sanction physicians in California and Arizona who take advantage of those states’ newly relaxed restrictions on the medical use of some illegal drugs, including marijuana.
Those same activists questioned on Tuesday the credibility of any study sponsored by the White House.
“Putting McCaffrey in charge of this research is like putting Nixon in charge of the Watergate files,” said Steve Michael, a spokesman for Act Up, an AIDS activist group.
Weiner said the Institute of Medicine was above politics. “It’s a totally objective, scientific study. We’re not going to get into the emotional arguments,” he said.
The institute was to report within 18 months on its compilation of clinical, medical and scientific evidence on the health effects of marijuana and its efficacy as a medical treatment.
Several experts have said there is no proven medical use for smoked marijuana. However, some research has suggested that the drug is useful in relieving internal eye pressure in glaucoma, controlling nausea in cancer patients on chemotherapy, and combating wasting, a severe weight loss associated with AIDS and the HIV.