AP News in Brief

Clinton, Obama face off in Virginia, Maryland and DC, home to long-sought prize -- White House

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Democratic rivals Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton squared off Tuesday in primaries in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, home to the White House, their long-sought prize.

With 168 delegates at stake, Obama hoped to erode if not erase the lead Clinton has held since the campaign began.

In polling place interviews, more than eight in 10 voters in Maryland and Virginia said the country is ready to elect either a black or a woman to the White House.

Blacks made up more than a third of the Democratic electorate in Maryland, slightly less in Virginia. Obama, hoping to become the first black president, has consistently polled over 80 percent among African-American voters in primaries this year.

The surveys were conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International for The Associated Press and the television networks. There was no survey conducted in the District of Columbia.

Obama won a string of contests in all regions of the country over the weekend, routing Clinton in a Louisiana primary as well as caucuses in Nebraska, Washington state and Maine.

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Case against alleged Sept. 11 plotters will take time, test new tribunals

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- Nearly 6 1/2 years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. is preparing to prosecute six of the men it says are responsible. But the trial and verdicts remain a long way off in the death penalty cases.

Given the slow pace of the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, verdicts on charges announced at the Pentagon on Monday are unlikely before President Bush leaves office in January 2009. The trials themselves may not even be under way by then -- and the next president may be less keen on the military tribunal system.

Throwing the process into further doubt, the Supreme Court is expected to rule in a few months on whether Guantanamo detainees can challenge their confinement in civilian courts.

Brig. Gen. Thomas W. Hartmann, the legal adviser to the military commissions, told a Pentagon news conference that the trial for the six Guantanamo detainees is at least 120 days away, "and probably well beyond that."

Critics of the untested military commissions system say the high-profile trial will expose its flaws.

In 2006, a previous system was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Months later, Congress and Bush resurrected the tribunals in an altered form under the Military Commissions Act.

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Bush calls modern-day noose displays 'deeply offensive in event honoring black history month

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush said Tuesday that recent displays of nooses are disturbing and indicate that some Americans may be losing sight of the suffering that blacks have endured across the nation.

"The era of rampant lynching is a shameful chapter in American history," Bush said at a black history month event at the White House, which began with serious comments about prejudice and ended with music performed by The Temptations.

"The noose is not a symbol of prairie justice, but of gross injustice," the president said. "Displaying one is not a harmless prank. Lynching is not a word to be mentioned in jest."

As a civil society, Americans should agree that noose displays and lynching jokes are "deeply offensive," Bush said.

"They are wrong," the president said, referring to such displays and jokes. "And they have no place in America today."

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Clinton looks for March 4 comeback as she and Obama launch big-state TV ads

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is counting on the almost-Super Tuesday primaries March 4 for another comeback, as she and rival Sen. Barack Obama both begin ads in Texas and Ohio, the day's biggest prizes.

Barring an upset win for Clinton in the next five Democratic contests, she could well have suffered 10 straight defeats by the time Democrats begin voting March 4 in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont -- the biggest single day left on the Democratic nominating calendar.

The New York senator bounced back earlier in New Hampshire after Obama defeated her in Iowa. Now she says "I am very confident" of doing much better when 370 delegates are allocated March 4.

Neither Clinton nor Obama could win enough delegates that day to clinch the nomination, but the outcome could sway increasingly crucial superdelegates -- the party officials who are not bound by primary and caucus voting and may end up picking the nominee.

Clinton herself underlined the importance of Ohio in a satellite interview Tuesday with WCPO in Cincinnati: "Ohio is really going to count in determining who our Democratic nominee is going to be." She spent the day doing satellite interviews with 10 television stations in Texas, Ohio and Wisconsin before heading to an election night rally in El Paso, Texas.

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Speaker threatens to disband Iraq parliament; lawmakers snarled over budget, provincial powers

BAGHDAD (AP) -- The speaker of Iraq's fragmented parliament threatened Tuesday to disband the legislature, saying it is so riddled with distrust it appears unable to adopt the budget or agree on a law setting a date for provincial elections.

Disbanding parliament would prompt new elections within 60 days and further undermine Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's shaky government, which is limping along with nearly half of the 40 Cabinet posts vacant.

The disarray undermines the purpose of last year's U.S. troop "surge" -- to bring down violence enough to allow the Iraqi government and parliament to focus on measures to reconcile differences among minority Sunnis and Kurds and the majority Shiites. Violence is down dramatically, but political progress languishes.

Iraq's constitution allows Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, the hot-tempered speaker and a member of the minority Sunni faction, to dissolve parliament if one-third of its members request the move and a majority of lawmakers approve. Al-Mashhadani said he already had sufficient backing for the move from five political blocs, but he refused to name them.

Al-Mashhadani said the Iraqi treasury had already lost $3 billion by failing to pass the budget before the end of 2007. He did not explain how the money was lost.

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AP IMPACT: Proposal to curb waste in government contracts would not apply to overseas work

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A Bush administration plan to crack down on contract fraud has a multibillion-dollar loophole: The proposal to force companies to report abuse of taxpayer money will not apply to work overseas, including projects to secure and rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan.

For decades, contractors have been asked to report internal fraud or overpayment on government-funded projects. Compliance has been voluntary, and over the past 15 years the number of company-reported fraud cases has declined steadily.

Now, the Justice Department wants to force companies to notify the government if they find evidence of contract abuse of more than $5 million. Failure to comply could make a company ineligible for future government work.

The proposed rules, which are in the final approval stages, specifically exempt "contracts to be performed outside the United States," according to a notice published last month in the Federal Register.

Critics including the watchdog group Taxpayers Against Fraud said the overseas exemption raises suspicions.

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Venezuela's state oil company halts oil sales to Exxon Mobil

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Venezuela's state oil company said Tuesday that it has stopped selling crude to Exxon Mobil Corp. and has suspended commercial relations with the U.S.-based oil company.

State-run Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA, said in a statement that it "has paralyzed sales of crude to Exxon Mobil." It said the decision was made "as an act of reciprocity" for the company's "judicial-economic harassment."

President Hugo Chavez has shaken oil markets this week with broader threats to cut off oil supplies to the United States. His threats came in response to a drive by Exxon Mobil to seize Venezuelan assets through U.S. and European courts in a dispute over the nationalization of its oil ventures in Venezuela.

The impact of the decision on Exxon Mobil was not immediately clear. Both Chavez and Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez previously said the Irving, Texas-based company is no longer welcome to do business in Venezuela. ------

Internet auction of Shakira's tour wardrobe raises $76,000 for poor Colombian children

MEXICO CITY (AP) -- Ever paid $3,000 for a bra? That's what one fan forked over for one of Shakira's bras. Another admirer shelled out $14,000 for the privilege of meeting the pop sensation and receiving front-row seats at a future show in Toronto.

The two bids were among the highest offered for 40 items that Shakira donated to an Internet auction for her Bare Feet Foundation, which is building a school for impoverished children in northern Colombia.

Another popular item: a shiny lavender skirt with turquoise-and-coral beading that she wore while singing "Hips Don't Lie," which fetched more than $1,000.

The items were from Shakira's 2007 "Oral Fixation" tour.

Still up for grabs until Sunday: an electric Fender guitar and an acoustic Taylor guitar, both bearing the 31-year-old singer's autograph.

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Senate approves legal immunity for telecoms in eavesdropping legislation

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Senate on Tuesday approved new rules for government eavesdropping on phone calls and e-mails, giving the White House much of the latitude it wanted and granting legal immunity to telecommunications companies that helped in the snooping after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Protection for the telecom companies is the most prominent feature of the legislation, something President Bush had insisted on as essential to getting private sector cooperation in spying on foreign terrorists and other targets. The bill would give retroactive protection to companies that acted without court permission.

The House did not include the immunity provision in a similar bill it passed last year. House Republicans now want to adopt the Senate bill, which would avoid contentious negotiations to work out differences between the competing legislation.

About 40 lawsuits have been filed against telecom companies by people alleging violations of wiretapping and privacy laws.

Bush promised to veto any new surveillance bill that did not protect the companies, arguing that it is essential if the private sector is to give the government the help it needs.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers said Tuesday he still opposes retroactive immunity.

"There is no basis for the broad telecommunications company amnesty provisions advocated by the administration," Conyers wrote in a letter to White House Counsel Fred Fielding asking for documents about the wiretapping program. The documents have been withheld from Congress.

The 68-29 Senate vote Tuesday to update the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act belied the nearly two months of stops and starts and bitter political wrangling that preceded it. The two sides had battled to balance civil liberties with the need to conduct surveillance on potential adversaries.

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NASCAR puts former champs Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart on 6-race probation following wreck

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- It began with crunched fenders, harsh words and maybe even a punch in the face. But the final result was just a slap on the wrist from NASCAR: a six-race probation for Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch.

Heading into Sunday's Daytona 500, it's beginning to look like NASCAR officials were serious when they said they will cut drivers some slack on their bad behavior this year.

"We're still working into letting the drivers develop and vent in proper ways, but we're giving them some more latitude," NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said Tuesday. "We said in the offseason we would do that and I think this is another step to letting you know what we mean."

The punishments to Stewart and Busch stem from a confrontation between the two former series champions, who wrecked in practice last week and then carried it into the NASCAR officials' trailer.

While nobody involved in the incident would confirm that Stewart actually punched Busch during the first of their two meetings with officials, as is widely believed, Pemberton inferred that Busch's penalty was for what happened on the track and Stewart's was for what happened afterward.