Freezing rain, ice taper,
but cold temps will challenge utilities, travel plans for some in U.S.

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) -- Parts of the country socked by a wild weekend storm will be covered with ice and without power through Christmas and beyond thanks to a steady diet of freezing rain and cold temperatures.

The first full day of winter, Sunday, brought a mix including snow in the Midwest and balmy temperatures along the Mid-Atlantic. Rain and melting snow led to swelling creeks and streams, closed roads and flooded underpasses in Indiana, Ohio and other Great Lakes states.

More than 390,000 homes and businesses were without power Monday in Michigan, upstate New York and northern New England, down from Sunday’s peak of more than half a million. Most were in Michigan, whose largest utilities said it’ll be days before power is restored because of the difficulty of working around broken lines.

In Maine, the number of customers without power spiked to more than 78,000, and the cold persisted.

"It’s certainly not going away," Margaret Curtis, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gray, Maine, said Monday. "In fact, we don’t have very many areas where we’re expecting temperatures to rise above freezing."

For Obama adviser,
secret Iran talks cement status as rising national security player

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Last year, while Jake Sullivan was traveling with his boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he quietly disappeared during a stop in Paris. He showed up again a few days later, rejoining Clinton’s traveling contingent in Mongolia.

In between, Sullivan secretly jetted to the Middle Eastern nation of Oman to meet with officials from Iran, people familiar with the trip said. The July 2012 meeting is one of the Obama administration’s earliest known face-to-face contacts with Iran and reveals that Sullivan - who moved from the State Department to the White House earlier this year - was personally involved in the administration’s outreach to the Islamic republic far earlier than had been reported.

Senior administration officials had previously confirmed to The Associated Press that Sullivan and other officials held at least five secret meetings with Iran this year, paving the way for an interim nuclear agreement signed in November by Iran, the United States and five other world powers.

The cloak-and-dagger diplomacy may seem like a tough assignment even for a grizzled foreign policy veteran, but Sullivan is just 37 and looks even younger. Even-keeled and pragmatic, Sullivan’s temperament mirrors that of President Barack Obama, people close to him say. That helped him crack the tight-knit foreign policy team at the White House where he serves as Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser.

While Biden is a possible presidential candidate in 2016, Sullivan remains loyal to Clinton and is seen as her likely pick for White House national security adviser, should she run for president and win.

Last-minute health insurance shoppers are given 1-day extension in case of technical problems

CHICAGO (AP) -- Anticipating heavy traffic on the government’s health care website, the Obama administration extended Monday’s deadline for signing up for insurance by a day, giving Americans in 36 states more time to select a plan.

It was the latest in a series of pushed-back deadlines and delays that have marked the rollout of the health care law.

But federal officials urged buyers not to procrastinate.

"You should not wait until tomorrow. If you are aiming to get coverage Jan. 1, you should try to sign up today," said Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the federal agency in charge of the overhaul.

Bataille said the grace period -- which runs through Tuesday -- was being offered to accommodate people from different time zones and to allow for any technical problems that might result from a last-minute rush of applicants.

AP poll: Glitch-plagued rollout of Obama’s health care overhaul voted top story of 2013

NEW YORK (AP) -- The glitch-plagued rollout of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul was the top news story of 2013, followed by the Boston Marathon bombing and the dramatic papal changeover at the Vatican, according to The Associated Press’ annual poll of U.S. editors and news directors.

The saga of "Obamacare" -- as the Affordable Care Act is widely known -- received 45 first-place votes out of the 144 ballots cast for the top 10 stories. The marathon bombing received 29 first-place votes and the papal transition 21.

Other strong contenders were the bitter partisan conflict in Congress and the leaks about National Security Agency surveillance by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden.

Last year, the top story was the massacre of 26 children and staff at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. That result came after a rare decision by the AP to re-conduct the voting; the initial round of balloting had ended Dec. 13, a day before the Newtown shooting, with the 2012 election at the top.

The first AP top-stories poll was conducted in 1936, when editors chose the abdication of Britain’s King Edward VIII.

U.S. condemns air assault by Syrian government

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The White House is condemning the ongoing air assault by the Syrian government on civilians in the rebel-held northern part of the country. Press Secretary Jay Carney says the Syrian government must respect international humanitarian law and protect the civilian population.

Carney said in a statement released Monday that the attacks over the weekend have killed more than 300 people, many of them children. He said it’s imperative that Syrians reach a comprehensive political solution to end the Syrian crisis. And he said the government must do more to allow the delivery of humanitarian assistance urgently needed by the Syrian people.

Government forces widened their bombing campaign on the city of Aleppo and surrounding areas, using powerful but often inaccurate "barrel bombs."

Federal judge allows Utah gay marriage to continue
as state appeals; hundreds line up to wed

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A federal judge on Monday allowed gay marriage to continue in Utah, rejecting a request to put same-sex weddings on hold as the state appeals a decision that has sent couples flocking to county clerk offices for marriage licenses.

Judge Robert J. Shelby overturned Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage Friday, ruling the voter-approved measure is a violation of gay couples’ constitutional rights. The state then asked him to put a stop to the weddings, but he rejected the request.

Shelby’s ruling is far from the end of the legal wrangling on the topic. The state quickly filed a request with the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to put gay marriage on hold, and that court could rule as soon as Monday evening or Tuesday. The same court, in Denver, likely will hear the full appeal of the case several months from now.

In the meantime, the rush on marriage licenses continues for gay couples around Utah.

More than 300 gay couples have obtained marriage licenses since Friday in Utah’s most populous county. On Monday, an estimated 100 licenses were issued in other counties, while some clerks shut their doors as they awaited Shelby’s decision.

Mikhail Kalashnikov dead at 94; designed AK-47
rifle of which 100 million have been sold

MOSCOW (AP) -- Mikhail Kalashnikov started out wanting to make farm equipment, but the harvest he reaped was one of blood as the designer of the AK-47 assault rifle, the world’s most popular firearm.

It was the carnage of World War, when Nazi Germany overran much of the Soviet Union, which altered his course and made his name as well-known for bloodshed as Smith, Wesson and Colt. The distinctive shape of the gun, often called "a Kalashnikov," appeared on revolutionary flags and adorns memorabilia.

Kalashnikov died Monday at age 94 in a hospital in Izhevsk, the capital of the Udmurtia republic where he lived, said Viktor Chulkov, a spokesman for the republic’s president. He did not give a cause of death. Kalashnikov had been hospitalized for the past month with unspecified health problems.

Kaslashnikov often said he felt personally untroubled by his contribution to bloodshed.

"I sleep well. It’s the politicians who are to blame for failing to come to an agreement and resorting to violence," he told The Associated Press in 2007.

Pussy Riot members released from prison following amnesty they describe as Kremlin PR stunt

KRASNOYARSK, Russia (AP) -- The last two imprisoned members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot walked free Monday, criticizing the amnesty measure that released them as a publicity stunt, with one calling for a boycott of the Winter Olympics to protest Russia’s human rights record.

Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were granted amnesty last week in a move largely viewed as the Kremlin’s attempt to soothe criticism of Russia’s human rights record before the Sochi Games in February.

"I’m calling for a boycott of the Olympic Games," Tolokonnikova said. "What is happening today -- releasing people just a few months before their term expires -- is a cosmetic measure."

The amnesty -- part of a wide measure passed last week by the parliament -- and President Vladimir Putin’s pardoning last week of onetime oil tycoon and political rival Mikhail Khodorkovsky freed some of the most prominent convicts who were sentenced in politically-tainted cases.

But it also gives them new freedom to launch criticism of Putin’s Russia amid intense attention from international news media.

Sports deaths in 2013: The elegance of Stan Musial, Emile Griffith, the passion of Earl Weaver

The soundtracks could not have been more different.

One was the stinging crack of the bat of yet another double in the gap and the folksy harmonica strains of some song from long ago. The other soundtrack was rough and grating -- a snarling, profane, arm-flailing argument that often ended with home plate covered with dirt.

Stan Musial and Earl Weaver, men of disparate times and temperaments, died in 2013. The deaths of the two Hall of Famers, in an odd alignment of baseball’s planets, came hours apart on Jan. 19.

Musial -- Stan the Man, "baseball’s perfect knight," as a statue inscription reads -- was 92 when he died at home in suburban St. Louis. Weaver, the Baltimore Orioles’ longtime manager, was 82 and on a Caribbean cruise.

They underscored a year of losses in sports: Emile Griffith and Ken Norton in boxing; Bill Sharman and Jerry Buss in basketball; Pat Summerall, on the football field and in the booth; Deacon Jones in the NFL; Ken Venturi in golf; and Michael Weiner, on baseball’s labor front.