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Romans mock sad spruce; Of 9,000 civilians dead in Mosul, third slain by US alliance, Iraqis; more in world news

Italy

Honey, you call that a tree?
Oh, honey

No sooner had workers hoisted a 72-foot tall Norway spruce in Romeís central Piazza Venezia earlier this month than the mocking began. The tree was dubbed "Spelacchio," or mangy, because so many of its dead needles were dropping off, leaving the tree looking a bit bare. Online, Romans traded jokes about the sad spruce. Insults quickly turned to intrigue as Italian media plumbed the treeís costs ($57,000 for transporting, raising and eventually removing), questioned how it had been transported to the city and analyzed its health. "It has clearly been traumatized," one expert said. A consumer rights group asked an administrative court to investigate what it described as a "shameful spectacle for citizens and tourists" and demanded the tree be removed. City Hall even opened an inquiry to determine whether anyone was at fault. Some people compared the tree to its counterpart in the Vaticanís St. Peterís Square, a lushly-leafed fir donated by Poland. Gardeners, botanists and ecology professors were quizzed on whether the tree would make it to Christmas. (The jury is still out.) And in newspaper commentaries, the tree became a symbol of Romeís decline. But for some, the critics went too far. To be fair, at night when the lights and ornaments are aglow, it is actually quite beautiful. "Enough," Goffredo Buccini wrote in Corriere della Sera. "We are all Spelacchio!"

Iraq

Of 9,000 civilians dead in Mosul, third slain by US alliance, Iraqis

The price Mosulís residents paid in blood to see their city freed was 9,000 to 11,000 dead, a civilian casualty rate nearly 10 times higher than what has been previously reported. The number killed in the nine-month battle to liberate the city from the Islamic State group has not been acknowledged by the U.S.-led coalition, the Iraqi government or the self-styled caliphate. But Mosulís gravediggers, morgue workers and volunteers who retrieve bodies from the rubble are keeping count. Iraqi or coalition forces are responsible for at least 3,200 civilian deaths between October 2016 and the fall of ISIS in July 2017, according to an AP investigation that cross-referenced independent databases from non-governmental organizations. Most of those victims are simply described as "crushed" in health ministry reports. The coalition, which says it lacks the resources to send investigators into Mosul, acknowledges responsibility for only 326 of the deaths.

Poland

Judicial overhaul brings EU threat

The president signed sweeping legislation Wednesday to overhaul Polandís judicial system, a move critics say fundamentally undermines the rule of law in a nation that only three decades ago broke free from the yoke of the Soviet Union.The new laws effectively put the courts under the control of the right-wing governing party. President Andrzej Duda signed them, defying a formal warning delivered hours earlier by the European Union, which called the legislation a "serious breach" of the core values on which the union was founded. The warning by the commission, the executive arm of the European Union, invoked Article 7 of blocís founding treaty. The treaty includes provisions intended to ensure the 28 member countries maintain "respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and human rights." The signing of the law is unlikely to lead to any immediate punishment for Poland, like a suspension of its voting rights.

Britain

May ally resigns amid porn scandal

Britainís First Secretary of State Damian Green was forced to resign Wednesday after a cabinet secretary investigation concluded he had made misleading statements about pornographic images found on a Parliament computer in his office in 2008. Prime Minister Theresa May asked her key ally to resign, and Green was ousted from his post even though he maintains he did not use pornography on his office computers. "I accept that I should have been clear in my press statements that police lawyers talked to my lawyers in 2008 about the pornography on the computers, and that the police raised it with me in a subsequent phone call in 2013," Green said in his resignation letter, made public Wednesday.

Mexico

Another journalist slain

Global condemnation rolled in Wednesday over the murder of a journalist in Veracruz state, the latest in a wave of such killings seen as an assault on free speech in Mexico. The United Nationsí human rights agency said the slaying of Gumaro Perez "confirms a terrible year for freedom of expression in Mexico." Perez, 34, was shot to death Tuesday while at a Christmas party at his sonís school. He was at least the 10th journalist slain in the country this year and the third in Veracruz. The state prosecutorís office sought to cast doubt on Perezís credentials and said it was "probable" that he was linked to an organized crime gang and was killed by a rival group, but did not provide evidence. His family denied those claims. Local officials have often sought to discredit slain journalists to suggest their killings were not related to their work. Mexico is one of the deadliest countries for journalists. ó tbt* wires

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Romans mock sad spruce; Of 9,000 civilians dead in Mosul, third slain by US alliance, Iraqis; more in world news