Amazon To Charge Sales Tax With Effect From June 1

One of the great things about shopping on sites like Amazon has been not having to pay a dime in taxes (or shipping, if you've spent enough). Since the dawn of Web commerce, the rule was that as long as a retailer didn't have a physical presence in the shopper's state, the company didn't collect a sales tax.

Well, it was fun while it lasted. Starting June 1, Amazon will charge a sales tax to shoppers who live in New York, even though the retailer maintains no physical operations in the Empire State.

Why the crackdown? With the economy in the tank, the State of New York was getting desperate to fill its budget gap. So it expanded its rules about what constitutes a business presence in the state. Amazon lets other sites earn commissions by linking to products on its pages as part of a program called Amazon Associates. And because some of those sites are based in New York, the state considers the Seattle-based retailer fair game.

Amazon, for its part, has filed suit in the New York Supreme Court arguing the law is unconstitutional. The company says these third-party sites shouldn't be counted as agents of Amazon in New York because they're totally independent from the retailer. Instead, they act merely as advertisers who are compensated with commissions. Also in its complaint, Amazon points out there are hundreds of thousands of associates in the program, and the company can't always determine whether these sites are actually run by New Yorkers.

Some online shoppers in New York may be howling over this new law but technically they shouldn't feel a difference. In truth, all purchases on Amazon have always been subject to taxes. Until now, only four states required Amazon itself to collect the tax: Washington (where Amazon's HQ is), North Dakota (the site of customer relations operations), Kentucky and Kansas (those last two contain large Amazon distribution centers). In other states, shoppers are supposed to keep track of their untaxed out-of-state purchases and report them in their state income tax returns every year. Needless to say, this doesn't always happen.

The state doesn't pursue people for failing to report their tax-free online shopping, or at least that's not enough to alarm the authorities. "The sales tax itself isn't going to raise enough concern to prosecute anybody," says Tom Bergin, spokesman for the New York Department of Taxation and Finance. "Now, if there were other red flags involved with that tax return, then we'd look at everything."

Starting in the 2003 tax year, the state of New York added a new line on its income tax forms specifically for untaxed out-of-state purchases, and last year, the state collected $45.2 million in sales taxes that way. But states know they stand a better chance of getting all the money they're due if they require retailers to collect it, and in the case of New York, the state expects to get as much as an extra $47 million a year from Amazon and others.

The state of Texas, applying some more conventional legal reasoning, is looking closer at an Amazon distribution center in Irving that could quality as sufficient physical presence in the state to pick up some extra money. But with the economy continuing to slow, other states will surely be watching what happens in New York. If the courts uphold New York's line of thinking, the rest of the Union could be headed in this direction.

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Australia Finally Pulls Troop Out of Iraq

Five years and three months after the coalition invasion began, Australia's combat role in Iraq is over.

The withdrawal of 550 troops, from a mission that resulted in no combat casualties, fulfils an election promise by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to bring the soldiers home this year.

A flag-lowering ceremony overnight at the Tallil air base, 300 kilometres south of Baghdad, marked the moment Australia handed over its operational role to the Americans.

The soldiers coming home are from Overwatch Battle Group (West) 4, which has been providing security for Iraqi forces in the south, and helping with reconstruction and aid work.

About 1000 troops will remain in the region on naval ships, C130 Hercules, P3C Orions, at coalition HQ and the security detachment for the Australian embassy in Baghdad.

Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said last night that the conclusion of the two missions at Tallil marked the completion of Australia's combat role in Iraq.

"Our soldiers have worked tirelessly to ensure that local people in southern Iraq have the best possible chance to move on from their suffering under Saddam's regime and, as a Government, we are extremely proud of their service," he said.

The withdrawal of the Australians leaves the US with only two other major coalition partners in Iraq - Britain, which has about 4000 soldiers in Basra, and Georgia which has about 2000 deployed in other provinces.

The lowering of the flag overnight closes one chapter in an acrimonious debate that followed Australia's decision to join the invasion in March 2003, a commitment that has cost the country $3 billion.

This includes about $500 million spent on reconstruction and forgiven debt.

Successive Labor leaders pledged to withdraw forces, including Mark Latham's controversial "troops home by Christmas" vow in early 2004, while former prime minister John Howard argued that premature withdrawal from Iraq would boost terrorism.

But in line with Labor's election pledge, the 516 troops from the Overwatch Battle Group and the 60-person Australian Army training team will start returning home over the next fortnight after a six-month deployment.

In recent weeks, the soldiers carried out joint patrols to introduce incoming coalition forces to the area and to local Iraqi leaders.

Not everyone is pleased the Australian troops are leaving.

"We are against … American forces in the area because they are using weapons while the Australians didn't do anything harmful against the people all the time they were in the province," said teacher Hassan Mohsin, 32.

"I think the return of the Americans to the city will cause many problems. They will make many arrests," said shopkeeper Abdullah Muzhir.

More than 3500 Australian troops have served in the two southern provinces, Al Muthanna and Dhi Qar, since Australia took on an oversight role in April 2005, helping train up to 30,000 Iraqi police and security staff. The provinces were among the first to be handed over for control by the new Iraqi security forces, with foreign troops playing a support role.

Australian forces have survived the five-year engagement without a combat death, although 27 troops were wounded, six of them in southern Iraq.

Three Australian casualties during the conflict were a result of mishaps or clashes under foreign command.

SAS Warrant Officer David Nary was killed in a training exercise in Kuwait; Private Jake Kovco died mishandling his weapon in barracks in Baghdad; and Paul Pardoel was serving with the British when his RAF transport plane was shot down in 2005.

Australia's allies have been circumspect about Australia's withdrawal plan, with American leaders saying they accepted it was an election pledge.

On a visit to Canberra last week, British Defence Secretary Des Browne said the Australians would be withdrawing at the right time, declaring Iraq was "in an advanced stage of its own independence in terms of providing its own security".

Mr Browne said that Britain was grateful to Australia and its troops for their "magnificent" contribution in Iraq.

In April, US ambassador to Australia Robert McCallum said Washington harboured no hard feelings over the Federal Government's decision to withdraw Australia's troops.

Australia Defence Association spokesman Neil James said the move would have occurred whether Labor or the Coalition had been elected last year, although Mr Howard as leader might have left a training team behind.

Mr James said the withdrawal would help relieve the overstretched defence force, cutting the proportion of its infantry and cavalry deployed overseas from about half to a little under one-third.

A look at the jouney to and fro Iraq reveals:

January 10, 2003
Prime minister John Howard announces Australia's initial forward deployment will include two naval frigates, an amphibious transport ship and 150 SAS troops.

March 20, 2003
Australia joins the "coalition of the willing". The US-led forces invade after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ignores a US deadline to leave. Howard tells the nation that "the Government has decided to commit Australian forces to action to disarm Iraq because we believe it is right, it is lawful and it's in Australia's national interest".

May 1, 2003
US President George Bush declares victory in the "Battle of Iraq".

December 2003 Saddam is captured.

March 2004
Opposition leader Mark Latham pledges to bring Australia's 850 troops in Iraq home by Christmas if elected prime minister, making the future of the troops an election issue.

October 9, 2004
Howard government re-elected.

January 30, 2005
First free elections in 50 years held in Iraq.

February 22, 2005 Australia decides to commit 450 additional troops.

April 2006
Private Jacob Kovco dies in the Baghdad barracks when his fi rearm discharges. December 30, 2006 Saddam is executed.

February 2007
Howard announces he will send up to 70 more Australian troops to Iraq despite growing public and political opposition to the war. New opposition leader Kevin Rudd opposes sending any more troops to Iraq and repeats that a Labor government would pull all 520 Australian combat troops out of the country if elected.

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Massive Inferno Engulf Universal Studios

About 100 firefighters are working with the studio's own crew to fight the blaze and ensure it doesn't spread to nearby brush, he said. TV images show helicopters dropping water on the blaze.

A Los Angeles fire official said the fire started burning around 4:44am local time on a lot at Universal Studios.

Los Angeles fire Capt. Frank Reynoso says the blaze was reported just before dawn on a sound stage on a back lot. There are no immediate reports of injuries.

Reynoso says filming could have been going on at the time and that there has been at least one explosion.

He said the fire was contained to the back lot, and that firefighters were working to ensure the flames didn't spread to nearby brush. Helicopters were dropping water onto the burning structures.

Losses identified at this stage includes the King Kong exhibits.

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