AP News in Brief at 8:58 p.m. EDT

Friday, June 20, 2014

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Iraq’s top Shiite cleric increases pressure on al-Maliki with call for broad government

BAGHDAD (AP) - The most respected voice for Iraq’s Shiite majority on Friday joined calls for the country’s prime minister to form an inclusive government or step aside, a day after President Barack Obama challenged Nouri al-Maliki to create a leadership representative of all Iraqis.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s thinly veiled reproach was the most influential to place blame on the Shiite prime minister for the nation’s spiraling crisis.

The focus on the need to replace al-Maliki comes as Iraq faces its worst crisis since the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011. Over the past two weeks, Iraq has lost a big chunk of the north to the al-Qaida-inspired Sunni militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, whose lightning offensive led to the capture of Mosul, the nation’s second-largest city.

The gravity of the crisis has forced the usually reclusive al-Sistani, who normally stays above the political fray, to wade into politics, and his comments, delivered through a representative, could ultimately seal al-Maliki’s fate.

Calling for a dialogue between the political coalitions that won seats in the April 30 parliamentary election, al-Sistani said it was imperative that they form “an effective government that enjoys broad national support, avoids past mistakes and opens new horizons toward a better future for all Iraqis.”

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Obama moves to expand government benefits for gay couples in states without same-sex marriage

WASHINGTON (AP) - A year after the Supreme Court struck down a law barring federal recognition of gay marriages, the Obama administration granted an array of new benefits Friday to same-sex couples, including those who live in states where gay marriage is against the law.

The new measures range from Social Security and veterans benefits to work leave for caring for sick spouses. They are part of President Barack Obama’s efforts to expand whatever protections he can offer to gays and lesbians even though more than half of the states don’t recognize gay marriage. That effort has been confounded by laws that say some benefits should be conferred only to couples whose marriages are recognized by the states where they live, rather than the states where they were married.

Aiming to circumvent that issue, the Veterans Affairs Department will start letting gay people who tell the government they are married to a veteran to be buried alongside them in a national cemetery, drawing on the VA’s authority to waive the usual marriage requirement.

In a similar move, the Social Security Administration will start processing some survivor and death benefits for those in same-sex relationships who live in states that don’t recognize gay marriage. Nineteen states plus the District of Columbia currently recognize gay marriage, although court challenges to gay marriage bans are pending in many states.

For Tim Sagen of Fort Collins, Colorado, the implications could be profound. A retired electrical engineer, Sagen receives higher Social Security payments than his 79-year-old partner, Ken Hoole. The two will celebrate their 47th anniversary in August but until now would have been prevented from accessing each other’s benefits.

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Ukraine’s president orders 1-week unilateral cease-fire; Kremlin dismisses peace plan

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