By Matt Spetalnick and Francois Murphy VIENNA (Reuters) - Washington stuck to its demand on Thursday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad leave power, ahead of peace talks which will include Assad's main ally Iran for the first time, reflecting his stronger position since Russia joined the war on his side. Throughout four years of war that has killed 250,000 people and driven more than 10 million from their homes, Assad's main ally Tehran was locked out of a succession of international peace conferences, all of which ended in failure. But four weeks after Russia began bombing Assad's enemies on the ground, the countries that demand he leave office, including the United States, European powers and Saudi Arabia, have agreed to give Iran a seat at the negotiating table. "Those who tried to resolve the Syrian crisis have come to the conclusion that without Iran being present, there is no way to reach a reasonable solution to the crisis," Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on his arrival in Vienna on Thursday ahead of Friday's conference. Zarif met U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday in Vienna for talks on other issues including the July nuclear agreement between Iran and global powers. Kerry also met Russia's Sergei Lavrov and the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Turkey. State Department counsellor Tom Shannon said in Washington Kerry would use the conference to see whether Tehran and Moscow were willing to accept a change of leadership in Damascus, and also gauge their commitment to fighting the Islamic State group. Kerry would assess the extent to which Iran and Russia "are prepared to work broadly with the international community to convince Mr Assad that during a political transition process he will have to go," Shannon said. The United States and its European and Middle Eastern allies have demanded Assad agree to leave power as part of any peace deal. He refuses to go, and Russia and Iran have consistently rejected any such demands. Russia's 4-week-old air campaign on Assad's behalf, which has been accompanied by an Iranian-backed ground offensive, makes the prospect that Assad's insurgent foes can force him out of power on the battlefield look more remote than ever. Some Western officials have spoken lately of temporary arrangements under which Assad could remain for a certain period. Western officials have played down hopes for progress at this week's talks, while nevertheless suggesting that the meeting provides an opportunity to test whether there is flexibility in the Iranian and Russian positions. TRANSFORMED Russia's surprise decision to join the war a month ago has transformed the situation on the battlefield as well as at the conference table. The United States is leading its own air campaign against militants from Islamic State, the world's most violent jihadist group, which controls swathes of eastern Syria and northern Iraq. Russia says Islamic State is its target too. But despite having the same professed enemy, Washington and Moscow have very different friends and opposing views of Syria. Washington says Assad's presence makes the situation worse by encouraging militants to fight him, and it is supporting what it describes as "moderate" rebels. While Russia says its own bombing campaign targets Islamic State, the overwhelming majority of its air strikes have hit other groups opposed to Assad, including many that are supported by Washington's allies. Kerry said on Wednesday that Washington was stepping up its diplomacy to end the Syrian conflict, even as it increases support for moderate rebels. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in Athens on Thursday that it would be a success if the countries participating in Friday's talks could agree on some basic principles, such as maintaining Syria's territorial integrity and a process for creating a transitional government. "The breakthrough will not come tomorrow," he said. Iran has shown no signs it is ready to dump Assad. A senior Iranian official told Reuters there was no candidate to replace Assad, describing him as the only one who can prevent Syria from collapse. He added that the priority was to help Assad defeat Islamic State. "We have been helping Syria on this matter and will continue to do so as long as it is needed by the government," he said. Neither Syria's main political opposition body, which has objected to Iran's participation, nor representatives of the armed opposition were invited to the meeting. Assad's government has yet to comment on the talks. (Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Vienna, Michelle Nichols in New York, Sam Wilkin in Dubai, Arshad Mohammed in Washington and Sabine Siebold in Athens; Writing by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Peter Graff)
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- USA TODAY
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Camden County JailA prominent Lake of the Ozarks real estate agent and self-described “cheer mom” has been arrested for allegedly trying to put a hit out on her former mother-in-law. Prosecutors in Camden County say Leigh Ann Bauman, 43, offered to pay $1,500 to people in St. Louis to make her former mother-in-law’s death “look like an accident.” She was reportedly concerned about the woman causing problems with her relationship with her kids.Bauman was recorded discussing the scheme, according to a press release from the Camden County prosecutor’s office. She was given multiple opportunities to change her mind when asked by a witness-turned-informant if she was sure she wanted to carry out the killing, prosecutors said, but she moved ahead with it, at one point acknowledging that she was a Christian but noting she could always ask for forgiveness later.The realtor also is said to have made no secret about her alleged plans. After sending a text message to her daughter that said, “Your grandmother will die,” Bauman allegedly plowed ahead with the plan and pushed for her former mother-in-law to be killed in the small town of Hermann.Her alleged murder-for-hire plot fell apart when an attorney for a person who was solicited to hire people to carry out the killing contacted the Missouri Highway Patrol. She was arrested on Thursday and charged with conspiracy to commit murder and is currently being held without bond in the Camden County Jail.“We’re very appreciative of what the witness did in this case,” Camden County Prosecutor Caleb Cunningham said Friday. “We encourage anyone to contact law enforcement if there’s a crime or suspected crime.” “A local realtor had several political connections and the witness was aware of these political connections,” Cunningham said. “Out of an abundance of caution, DDCC was used to avoid any hint of impropriety,” he said, referring to the Missouri Highway Patrol Division of Drug and Crime Control.Bauman, who describes herself as a realtor, an artist, an entrepreneur, and a “cheer mom” on her Facebook page, frequently posted online about her “track record of success.” While she was most well-known as a realtor, with nearly 20 years in the industry, she also apparently set a world record in a boating race last year. Her LinkedIn account also mentions work in pharmaceutical sales and an acting and modeling career, with appearances on Days of Our Lives and in Nike commercials.Read more at The Daily Beast.Get our top stories in your inbox every day. Sign up now!Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside goes deeper on the stories that matter to you. Learn more.
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