On Security Issues, Kerry

Loses Ground to President

President Bush holds clear advantages over Sen. John F. Kerry on national security issues and leadership in the war on terrorism, largely erasing the broad gains Kerry made at his party's Boston convention last month, but voters continue to give Bush negative marks on the economy and his handling of Iraq, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

With both Bush and Kerry claiming 48 percent of probable voters and with 2 percent supporting independent Ralph Nader, numbers were virtually unchanged from a survey taken immediately after the Democratic convention. Among all registered voters, the poll found Bush at 48 percent and Kerry at 47 percent.

The survey offered conflicting evidence of the impact of the controversy over Kerry's Vietnam War record and television ads attacking his character aired by a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. A solid majority of voters said they believe Kerry deserved the medals he won in Vietnam, and most voters characterized the issue of Vietnam as irrelevant to the election. But in the past month, Kerry's personal image has deteriorated, with almost as many voters viewing him unfavorably as favorably.

Bush's job approval rating stands at 50 percent, where it has largely been for the past six months. Less than half of all voters -- 45 percent -- approve of the job Bush is doing on the economy, unchanged from recent Post-ABC News polls. Less than half also approve of the way he is dealing with the situation in Iraq, also unchanged.

-- Richard Morin

and Christopher Muste

Suicide Bombings Kill

At Least 16 Israelis

Nearly simultaneous explosions tore through two buses in the heart of the southern Israeli city of Beersheba Tuesday, killing at least 16 passengers along with the two Palestinian suicide bombers and wounding dozens of people in blasts that shattered a five-month respite from major attacks inside Israel.

Israeli police said the two Palestinian suicide bombers detonated their explosives within 20 seconds of each other on two buses about 100 yards apart.

Beersheba, a Negev desert city 55 miles south of Tel Aviv, had not been hit by suicide bombers during the four years of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But officials said militants had been drawn southward because Israel's construction of a massive barrier and relentless military operations in the northern West Bank have blocked attacks there.

The Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, claimed responsibility for the attacks. It said they were retribution for Israel's assassinations of top Hamas leaders in Gaza last spring and the treatment of Palestinians in Israeli jails.

-- John Ward Anderson

and Molly Moore

Felony Rape Charge Against

Kobe Bryant Is Dismissed

Kobe Bryant's rape trial ended just was it was beginning, when a Colorado judge dismissed the felony sexual assault charge against the Los Angeles Lakers guard and barred prosecutors from filing new charges in the case.

With jury selection underway and opening arguments scheduled to begin this week, District Attorney Mark Hurlbert announced at an eleventh hour hearing Wednesday that the woman who brought the charge against Bryant did not want to testify at a criminal trial.

Bryant still faces a civil suit in federal court in which the woman alleges he raped her at a Rocky Mountain resort hotel in the summer of 2003. But with the criminal charges dropped, the National Basketball Association star has no risk of a prison term. His $136 million contract with the Lakers, which would have been voided by a felony conviction, is safe.

Bryant, 26, has said he had consensual sex with the woman, 20. He offered an apology in a statement released after the court hearing.

-- By T.R. Reid

Three Planets Discovered

That Are Almost Earth-Size

Three planets have been discovered in other solar systems and are the closest ever found to Earth in size, marking an important step in the search for planets that could support life elsewhere in the universe, scientists have announced.

The planets are significantly smaller than the many dozens found so far and might even be rocky, an essential platform for life to evolve. The scientists who discovered the three planets said they are probably too hot to support life themselves, although one has a lukewarm zone that could conceivably support biological organisms.

Many other conditions would need to be met for other planets to support life. They would probably need liquid water and would not trap harmful radiation, as Venus does.

Two of the planets were announced Tuesday by teams of U.S. scientists, and the third was announced earlier in the week by a team of European scientists.

-- Shankar Vedantam

Company Inquiry Details

Officials' Stake in Funds

Press tycoon Conrad M. Black and other top Hollinger International Inc. officials pocketed more than $400 million in company money over seven years, and Black's handpicked board of directors passively approved many of the transactions, a company investigation concluded.

A report by a special board committee singled out director Richard N. Perle, a former Defense Department official, who received $5.4 million in bonuses and compensation. The report said Perle should return the money to the Chicago-based company.

The report, filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, also criticized the board's audit committee, which includes former Illinois governor James R. Thompson and former ambassador Richard R. Burt, for failing to question Black's large management fees. It said it was reasonable for former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger, another independent director, to rely on the audit committee.

Black's holding company said the report was filled with "outright lies."

Black resigned in November after an internal investigation showed that he and associates received money that the company should have kept. Hollinger International is suing Black and others for $1.25 billion in damages for their alleged pillaging of the company, which owns the Chicago Sun-Times, the Jerusalem Post and other newspapers.

-- Frank Ahrens

Navy Admits to Sonar Use

Before Whale Stranding

The Navy has acknowledged that vessels on maneuver off Hawaii in July used their sonar periodically in the 20 hours before a large pod of melon-headed whales unexpectedly came to shore in the area. The acknowledgment added to an already contentious debate over whether the sound from sonar has been causing marine mammals to strand.

Navy officials said that a review of the July 3 incident indicates that two ships turned on their sonar between 6:45 and 7:10 a.m., by most accounts just before the unusual movement of almost 200 deep-water whales to the shoreline of a bay in the island of Kauai. The Navy had said earlier that no sonar was used until more than 90 minutes later, well after the animals came ashore.

Lt. Cmdr. Greg Geisen, a Navy spokesman, said a Navy review of the incident still concluded that the ships were either too far from the whales or were using the sonar at the wrong time to cause the mass movement.

Officials at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, which is looking into the incident, said the cause of the near-stranding is unclear.

Residents and government officials worked throughout July 3 to steer the whales back to open water, and all made it except one newborn calf that starved.

-- Marc Kaufman