Top Republican says Obama may take military action in Iraq without congressional authorization

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama believes he does not need authorization from Congress for any steps he might take to quell the al-Qaida-inspired insurgency sweeping through Iraq, the Senate’s top Republican said after the president briefed senior lawmakers Wednesday.

The prospect of the president sidestepping Congress sets up a potential new clash between the White House and lawmakers, particularly if Obama should launch airstrikes or take other direct U.S. military action in Iraq. Administration officials have said airstrikes have become less a focus of recent deliberations but have also said the president could order such a step if intelligence agencies can identify clear targets on the ground.

Obama huddled in the Oval Office for over an hour to discuss options for responding the crumbling security situation in Iraq with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Speaking to reporters as he returned to the Capitol, McConnell said the president "indicated he didn’t feel he had any need for authority from us for steps that he might take."

The White House has publicly dodged questions about whether Obama might seek congressional approval if he decides to take military action. Last summer, Obama did seek approval for possible strikes against Syria, but he scrapped the effort when it became clear that lawmakers would not grant him the authority.


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Iraq’s al-Maliki extends reconciliatory rhetoric to rival,
but no concrete measures

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraq’s Shiite prime minister extended overtures Wednesday to his Sunni and Kurdish political rivals as his forces battled Sunni militants over control of the nation’s largest oil refinery and a strategic city near the Syrian border.

Nouri al-Maliki’s uncharacteristically conciliatory words, coupled with a vow to teach the militants a "lesson," came as almost all Iraq’s main communities have been drawn into a spasm of violence not seen since the dark days of sectarian killings nearly a decade ago.

The U.S. has been pressing al-Maliki to adopt political inclusion and undermine the insurgency by making overtures to Iraq’s once-dominant Sunni minority, which has long complained of discrimination by his government and abuses by his Shiite-led security forces.

Al-Maliki, a Shiite, has rejected charges of bias against the Sunnis or the Kurds and has in recent days been stressing that the threat posed by the militant Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, will affect all Iraqis regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliations. He also rejects any suggestion that the Islamic State and other extremist groups enjoy support by disaffected Sunnis fed up with his perceived discrimination.

In a move apparently designed to satisfy Obama’s demand for national reconciliation, al-Maliki appeared on television late Tuesday with Sunni and Kurdish leaders. They issued a joint statement about the need to close ranks and stick to "national priorities" in the face of the threat posed by the militants.

U.S. Patent Office finds Redskins’ name offensive, moves to strip it
of trademark protection

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ruled Wednesday that the Washington Redskins’ name is "disparaging of Native Americans" and should be stripped of trademark protection -- a decision that puts powerful new financial and political pressure on the NFL team to rename itself.

By a vote of 2-1, the agency’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board sided with five Native Americans in a dispute that has been working its way through legal channels for more than two decades.

The ruling doesn’t directly force the team to abandon the name, but it adds momentum to the campaign at a time of increasing criticism of Redskins owner Dan Snyder from political, religious and sports figures who say it’s time for a change.

"If the most basic sense of morality, decency and civility has not yet convinced the Washington team and the NFL to stop using this hateful slur, then hopefully today’s patent ruling will, if only because it imperils the ability of the team’s billionaire owner to keep profiting off the denigration and dehumanization of Native Americans," Oneida Indian representative Ray Halbritter and National Congress of American Indians Executive Director Jackie Pata, two of the leading forces in the campaign to change the name, said in a statement.

The Redskins quickly announced they will appeal, and the team’s name will continue to have trademark protection while the matter makes its way through the courts -- a process that could take years.

Afghan presidential candidate
seeks halt to vote counting,
cites widespread fraud in runoff

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah demanded Wednesday that Afghan electoral authorities stop counting ballots from a weekend runoff vote, citing new allegations of widespread fraud. The election commission refused and appealed to all sides to await final results.

The discord set the stage for a showdown that could threaten Afghanistan’s first peaceful transfer of authority.

Abdullah, a onetime aide to a famed warlord during the Afghan anti-Soviet guerrilla campaign, said monitors deployed by his campaign to the polls had recorded massive ballot box stuffing and other irregularities. He also announced his team was suspending relations with the Independent Election Commission, accusing it of interfering in the vote and inflating turnout figures.

The finger-pointing in the June 14 election pitting Abdullah against Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai mars what Western officials had hoped would be an important step toward democracy for the troubled country as the U.S. and its allies wind down their 13-year combat mission. Both candidates have promised to sign a security pact with the United States that would allow nearly 10,000 American troops to stay in the country beyond the end of this year to train Afghan security forces and perform counterterrorism operations.

President Hamid Karzai, the only leader the country has known since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban, was constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.

U.S. man, 89, ordered held on charges of aiding and abetting deaths as Nazi guard at Auschwitz

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- An 89-year-old Philadelphia man was ordered held without bail Wednesday on a German arrest warrant charging him with aiding and abetting the killing of 216,000 Jewish men, women and children while he was a guard at the Auschwitz death camp.

The man, retired toolmaker Johann "Hans" Breyer, was arrested by U.S. authorities Tuesday night. Breyer spent the night in custody and appeared frail during a detention hearing in federal court, wearing an olive green prison jumpsuit and carrying a cane.

Legal filings unsealed Wednesday in the U.S. indicate the district court in Weiden, Germany, issued a warrant for Breyer’s arrest the day before, charging him with 158 counts of complicity in the commission of murder.

Each count represents a trainload of Nazi prisoners from Hungary, Germany and Czechoslovakia who were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau between May 1944 and October 1944, the documents said.

Attorney Dennis Boyle argued his client is too infirm to be detained pending a hearing on his possible extradition to Germany. Breyer has mild dementia and heart issues and has previously suffered strokes, Boyle said.

Ukraine president promises
cease-fire by his troops battling pro-Russia separatists in east

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) -- The new president of Ukraine promised on Wednesday that government troops would soon stop firing on pro-Russian armed separatists, offering a chance to end the fighting that has killed hundreds and wracked the industrial east.

In another concession to Moscow, Petro Poroshenko replaced his foreign minister, who had outraged Russians by using an obscenity to describe President Vladimir Putin.

An end to the two months of fighting and a promised safe exit for rebels would allow Putin to say that Russia has fulfilled its goal of protecting Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine, while Poroshenko can claim victory over the rebellion.

The Ukrainian president discussed his plan for a unilateral cease-fire in a phone call with Putin late Tuesday, their offices said, and Poroshenko also spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Russia’s foreign minister cautiously welcomed the move, but voiced concern that it could be a ruse. One key question is whether Moscow is willing and able to persuade the pro-Russia insurgents to accept Poroshenko’s plan.

Concerns aside, states moving forward with executions; Florida plans nation’s 3rd in 24 hours

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- With Florida preparing Wednesday for the nation’s third execution in less than 24 hours, some death penalty states -- particularly in the South -- appear unfazed by the recent furor over how the U.S. carries out lethal injections.

A botched execution seven weeks ago in Oklahoma amplified a national debate about the secretive ways many states obtain lethal injection drugs from loosely regulated compounding pharmacies. Before Tuesday, nine executions were stayed or delayed -- albeit some for reasons not related to the drug question.

Amid the court battles, many pro-death penalty states kept pushing to resume executions, including the three that scheduled lethal injections during the quick burst this week. Georgia and Missouri executed prisoners around an hour apart late Tuesday and early Wednesday, and John Ruthell Henry was scheduled to receive a lethal injection at 6 p.m. EDT in Florida.

Austin Sarat, professor of jurisprudence and political science at Amherst College, said there has been a regional divide when it comes to how quickly states are returning to the business of putting prisoners to death.

"I think what you’re going to see is kind of a division where some areas, some states, predominantly in the South, are going to dig in their heels," Sarat said. "Other states are going to proceed more cautiously and impose, if not an official moratorium, more of a de facto moratorium until things get sorted out."

From billions to zero: Humans killed off passenger pigeons but may try to bring them back

WASHINGTON (AP) -- It was the moment that humanity learned we had the awesome power to erase an entire species off the face of the Earth in the scientific equivalent of a blink of an eye: The passenger pigeon went from billions of birds to extinct before our very eyes.

It was one bird’s death after many. But a century ago, Martha, a red-eyed, grey and brown bird famous as the last surviving passenger pigeon, keeled over, marking an extinction that shook science and the public.

Now, a century later, Martha’s back, in a way. She is being taken out of the file cabinets of history in a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit this month, reminding the public of her death, and of other species that have gone extinct because of man. A new scientific study this week shows how pigeon populations fluctuated wildly, but how people ultimately killed off the species.

And some geneticists are even working on the longshot hope of reviving the passenger pigeon from leftover DNA in stuffed birds.

"Here was a bird like the robin that everybody knew and within a generation or two it was gone -- and we were its cause, " Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm said.

Defrocked for officiating gay son’s wedding, Methodist pastor tries to get credentials back

Frank Schaefer lost his job but not his voice.

Defrocked by the United Methodist Church six months ago for officiating his son’s same-sex wedding, Schaefer has gained a following among reformers who want the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination to loosen its policies on homosexuality.

He’s told his story dozens of times to largely sympathetic audiences around the country: How his son came out to him as a teenager who had contemplated suicide. How he hid the 2007 wedding from his conservative Pennsylvania congregation, fearing it would sow division. How he finally decided -- in the midst of his high-profile church trial last fall -- to become an outspoken advocate for gay rights at a time when his denomination is bitterly divided over the issue.

After his trial and conviction, "I thought I had lost everything," recalled Schaefer, 52. "There was a moment of pain and depression and the next thing I knew, I was catapulted. . I have more opportunities now than I ever did."

Except the right to call himself a Methodist minister.