Assassination Probe Points

To Syrian, Lebanese Officials

A U.N. investigation has implicated senior Syrian and Lebanese officials in the assassination of Lebanon's leading reformer. U.S. and European officials expect the finding to generate new international pressure on the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad.

The report, by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, concludes that the Valentine's Day bombing of former prime minister Rafik Hariri and 22 others "could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials and could not have been further organized without the collusion of their counterparts in the Lebanese security forces." It faults Damascus for failing to fully cooperate with the probe and cites several officials, including Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa, for attempting to mislead the investigation. Nevertheless, Mehlis said many leads now point directly to Syrian security officials.

The findings have been eagerly awaited by U.S. and European officials. Along with a second U.N. report on Lebanon due in days, key members of the Security Council hope to use the findings to increase pressure on the Assad government to end years of meddling in Lebanon and to change its behavior throughout the region.

Mehlis concluded that the plot involved months of preparation and was conducted by a group with "considerable resources and capabilities."

Syrian officials have repeatedly denied any role in the Hariri slaying.

-- Robin Wright and Colum Lynch

GM Seeks Turnaround With

Labor Pact, Sale of Subsidiary

General Motors Corp. took the first major steps to arrest its recent decline and turn around the fortunes of the world's largest automaker.

Chief executive G. Richard Wagoner Jr. said GM and the United Auto Workers reached an agreement to pare health care benefits for its workers. He also announced that GM plans to sell a controlling stake in its lucrative GMAC finance subsidiary, possibly bringing in tens of billions of dollars to the ailing company.

The moves underscore the dire condition of the U.S. auto industry and point to a new reality that is forcing workers and management to cooperate in finding quick solutions. U.S. carmakers have watched consumers move away from gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles in favor of more efficient models -- a trend that has become more pronounced as gas prices have soared.

GM said it is stepping up development of fuel-efficient technology and the rollout of hybrid vehicles.

-- Sholnn Freeman and Amy Joyce

Little Improvement in Scores

For Math and Reading

Reading scores among fourth- and eighth-graders showed little improvement over the past two years, and math gains were slower than in previous years, according to a new study. The disappointing results came despite a new educational testing law championed by the Bush administration as a way to improve the nation's schools.

Most troubling for educators are the sluggish reading skills among middle-school students, which have remained virtually unchanged for 15 years, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which administers the federal test and bills itself as the "nation's report card."

Though the tests have been taken by fourth- and eighth-grade students about every two years since 1990, the latest NAEP scores were the first tangible testing numbers available since the implementation of No Child Left Behind -- the Bush administration's premier and controversial education initiative requiring all states to test students annually as a prerequisite for receiving federal funds.

The administration scrambled to put the best face on the numbers and to defend the law that some complain forces a test-driven curriculum on the classroom. The White House hastily arranged media availability with President Bush and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. Bush called the report "encouraging" and emphasized that the numbers showed a narrowing of the achievement gap between white and minority students.

-- Lois Romano

Miers Vowed in 1989

To Oppose Abortion

Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers once pledged that she would "actively support" a constitutional amendment banning abortions except to save a mother's life, participate in antiabortion rallies, and try to block the flow of public money to clinics and organizations that help women obtain the procedure.

Those written promises to an antiabortion group, made in 1989 as she was campaigning for a seat on the Dallas City Council, came to light in documents that Miers delivered to the Senate. They emerged one day after she assured two senators that no one knows how she would vote on Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that legalized abortion nationwide.

Miers also disclosed that she was briefly suspended by the D.C. Bar recently for not paying her annual dues.

Though providing the most definitive evidence to date that she has publicly opposed broad abortion rights, Tuesday's disclosure did not appear to quell doubts among some conservatives that Miers, the White House counsel and a longtime friend of President Bush, is a sound choice to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor for a pivotal seat on the nation's highest court. Miers's attitude toward abortion has become a central issue in the controversy surrounding her rocky nomination to the court.

-- Amy Goldstein

and Charles Babington

Supreme Court Allows

Mo. Inmate's Abortion

Issuing its first abortion-related decision under new Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the Supreme Court refused to block the court-ordered transport of a female prison inmate to an outside clinic for an abortion.

The court's two-sentence order capped five tense days of litigation in which the woman, now 16 weeks pregnant, battled a new Missouri policy forbidding prisons to assist women seeking to terminate their pregnancies, as corrections officials had done in seven previous cases over the past eight years.

The order came unaccompanied by a published opinion or recorded dissent, so there is no way to tell how many justices, if any, may have voted against the order.

The order does suggest that, under Roberts, a majority of the court was not inclined to rush into a new abortion battle, even when implored to do so by a state where the antiabortion movement is particularly strong.

-- Charles Lane

Stomach Surgery Is

Riskier Than Believed

Stomach surgery to treat obesity is much riskier than had been thought, with patients facing a far greater chance of being hospitalized and dying following the increasingly popular operations, according to two large new studies.

One analysis of more than 60,000 California patients found they were twice as likely to require hospitalization after the operations than before, while the second study of federal data from more than 16,000 patients nationwide found the chance of dying after being released from the hospital was significantly higher than earlier studies indicated.

The studies are the largest to examine the risk of hospitalization and death after the surgery, which helps obese people lose weight by reducing the size of their stomachs.

Proponents of the operations said the benefits still outweigh the risks for many patients, and efforts are underway to make the procedures safer by more carefully selecting appropriate patients and ensuring the procedures are done by the most experienced surgeons.

The studies come as Medicare is considering whether to pay for the procedures nationwide.

-- Rob Stein