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

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Associated Press

Posted on June 20, 2014 at 10:32 PM

Updated Friday, Jun 20 at 11:00 PM

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

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine's president ordered his forces to cease fire Friday and halt military operations for a week against pro-Russian separatists in the country's east — the first step in a peace plan he hopes will end the fighting that has killed hundreds.

The Kremlin dismissed the plan, saying it sounded like an ultimatum and lacked any firm offer to open talks with insurgents.

Petro Poroshenko, making his first trip to the east as Ukraine's president, said that the cease-fire will run until the morning of June 27 and that his troops reserve the right to fire back if separatists attack them or civilians.

"The Ukrainian army is ceasing fire," he said in a statement. "But this does not mean that we will not resist. In case of aggression toward our troops, we will do everything to defend the territory of our state."

Separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions have declared independence from his government in Kiev, occupied public buildings and fought with heavy weapons against Ukrainian troops.

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Defiant IRS head says no apology for lost emails; GOP's Ryan says 'nobody believes' his story

WASHINGTON (AP) — Defiant before skeptical Republicans, the head of the IRS refused to apologize Friday for lost emails that might shed light on the tax agency's targeting of tea party and other groups before the 2010 and 2012 elections.

Instead, Commissioner John Koskinen accused the chairman of a powerful House committee of misleading the public by making false statements based on incomplete information.

The contentious back-and-forth didn't end there. Later in the hearing, Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republicans' vice presidential candidate two years ago, told Koskinen bluntly that "nobody believes you."

"I have a long career. That's the first time anybody has said they do not believe me," said Koskinen, who came out of retirement in December to take over the IRS. Previously, he served in other positions under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

The hearing showed that emotions are running hotter than ever in the dispute over the IRS and political fundraising.

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VA says 65 percent of senior executives got bonuses; congressman says system 'failing' vets

WASHINGTON (AP) — About 65 percent of senior executives at the Veterans Affairs Department got performance bonuses last year despite widespread treatment delays and preventable deaths at VA hospitals and clinics, the agency said Friday.

More than 300 VA executives were paid a total of $2.7 million in bonuses last year, said Gina Farrisee, assistant VA secretary for human resources and administration. That amount is down from about $3.4 million in bonuses paid in 2012, Farrisee said.

The totals do not include tens of millions of dollars in bonuses awarded to doctors, dentists and other medical providers throughout the VA's nearly 900 hospitals and clinics.

Workers at the Phoenix VA Health Care System — where officials have confirmed dozens of patients died while awaiting treatment — received about $3.9 million in bonuses last year, newly released records show. The merit-based bonuses were doled out to about 650 employees, including doctors, nurses, administrators, secretaries and cleaning staff.

There was confusion Friday about the number of senior executives who received bonuses. During a hearing Friday of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, both lawmakers and Farrisee had indicated that nearly 80 percent of senior executives had received bonuses. Later, however, the committee provided documents showing that 304 of 470 senior executives, or 64.7 percent, had received bonuses. The committee and a VA spokesman said the 80 percent figure referred to the number of senior executives who received very high ratings, not those who received bonuses.

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Iraqis join what UN says is largest worldwide displaced population since WWII

TAZA KHORMATO, Iraq (AP) — In a battered car loaded with blankets and clothes, Hassan Abbas and his mother left a dusty town in northern Iraq, fleeing this week's violence and joining what the United Nations says is the largest worldwide population of displaced people since World War II.

The U.N. refugee agency's latest annual report, released Friday, found more than 50 million people worldwide were displaced at the end of last year, reflecting an ever-expanding web of international conflicts.

Last year's increase in displaced people was the largest in at least two decades, driven mainly by the civil war in Syria, which has claimed an estimated 160,000 lives and forced 9 million people to flee their homes. Now Iraq is adding to that tide.

"I am going to sell this phone so we have money," Abbas said at a checkpoint outside the town of Taza Khormato, near the city of Kirkuk, where he will move in with relatives, and where 20 people will share a single home.

He and his 50-year-old mother, Shukriya, decided to leave the town after fighters from the al-Qaida breakaway group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant shelled and burned down the neighboring village of Basheer.

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AP PHOTOS: A look at daily lives of refugees, as global count surges

Women and children seeking asylum from Eritrea sit along a sidewalk in Sanaa, Yemen. Syrian refugee children play soccer at a camp in Lebanon. Iraqis fleeing violence in the city of Mosul carry their belongings as they arrive at a refugee camp north of Baghdad.

For the first time since the World War II era, the number of people forced from their homes worldwide has surged past 50 million, the United Nations refugee agency said on Friday.

Here's a look at the lives of displaced people in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.

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Follow AP photographers and photo editors on Twitter: http://apne.ws/15Oo6jo

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DuPont chemist Stephanie Kwolek, inventor of body army component Kevlar, dies at 90

DOVER, Del. (AP) — Police Lt. David Spicer took four .45-caliber slugs to the chest and arms at point-blank range and lived to tell about it. Like thousands of other police officers and soldiers shot in the line of duty, he owes his life to a woman in Delaware by the name of Stephanie Kwolek.

Kwolek, who died Wednesday at 90, was a DuPont Co. chemist who in 1965 invented Kevlar, the lightweight, stronger-than-steel fiber used in bulletproof vests and other body armor around the world.

A pioneer as a woman in a heavily male field, Kwolek made the breakthrough while working on specialty fibers at a DuPont laboratory in Wilmington. At the time, DuPont was looking for strong, lightweight fibers that could replace steel in automobile tires and improve fuel economy.

"I knew that I had made a discovery," Kwolek said in an interview several years ago that was included in the Chemical Heritage Foundation's "Women in Chemistry" series. "I didn't shout 'Eureka,' but I was very excited, as was the whole laboratory excited, and management was excited because we were looking for something new, something different, and this was it."

Spicer was wearing a Kevlar vest when he was shot by a drug suspect in 2001. Two rounds shattered his left arm, ripping open an artery. A third was deflected by his badge. The last one hit his nametag, bending it into a horseshoe shape, before burrowing into his vest, leaving a 10-inch tear.

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World Cup of surprises smiling on Americas; Costa Rica makes history; French have Swiss roll

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The World Cup of surprises is turning into a sweet samba party for teams from the Americas.

Having already stunned one former world champion, little Costa Rica shocked another on Friday and sent a third one home. Then the French exploded with five goals against their Swiss neighbors. In the evening game, Ecuador downed Honduras 2-1.

The story so far: Two European powers — Spain and England — are out of contention after just two games. European teams have played eight teams from the Americas and won just twice. The nine teams from Africa and Asia have contrived to win just one game between them.

But for teams from the Americas, their record as of Friday against nations from other regions: played 12, lost just two. Ole! In short, the new world is embarrassing the old one.

None of the previous seven World Cups in the Americas were won by teams outside Latin America. On current evidence, this one looks increasingly unlikely to be the exception.

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BRAZIL BEAT: Football a religion in Brazil? Services pushed back so congregants can watch game

SAO PAULO (AP) — They say that football is a religion in Brazil. So when the World Cup is being played on home soil, actual religions have to make some adjustments.

Even before embarking on the traditional prayers to welcome the Jewish sabbath, Rabbi Ruben Sternschein had an important announcement to make: Monday's upcoming evening service at the Congregacao Israelita Paulista synagogue was being pushed back 45 minutes so that congregants could make it in time after Brazil's game against Cameroon.

Only then was it time for the congregation to begin its usual Friday night service.

— By Aron Heller — www.twitter.com/aronhellerap

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