Once again, Iraq caught up in tensions between US and Iran

BAGHDAD — When U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sat down with Iraqi officials in Baghdad last week as tensions mounted between America and Iran, he delivered a nuanced message: If you’re not going to stand with us, stand aside.

The message, relayed to The Associated Press by two Iraqi government officials, underscores Iraq’s delicate position: Its government is allied with both sides of an increasingly contentious confrontation.

As tensions escalate, there are concerns that Baghdad could once again get caught in the middle, just as it is on the path to recovery. The country hosts more than 5,000 U.S. troops, and is home to powerful Iranian-backed militias, some of whom want those U.S. forces to leave.

“The big question is how Iraqi leaders will deal with (their) national interests in a country where loyalty to external powers is widespread at the expense of their own nation,” Iraqi political analyst Watheq al-Hashimi said. “If the state cannot put these (Iranian-backed militias) under control, Iraq will become an arena for an Iranian-American armed conflict.”

Despite a series of provocative moves on both sides, President Donald Trump has said he doesn’t want a war with Iran and has even said he is open to dialogue. But tension remains high, in part given the region’s fraught history.

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Trump lifts tariffs on Mexico, Canada, delays auto tariffs

WASHINGTON — Bogged down in a sprawling trade dispute with U.S. rival China, President Donald Trump took steps Friday to ease tensions with America’s allies — lifting import taxes on Canadian and Mexican steel and aluminum and delaying auto tariffs that would have hurt Japan and Europe.

By removing the metals tariffs on Canada and Mexico, Trump cleared a key roadblock to a North American trade pact his team negotiated last year. As part of Friday’s arrangement, the Canadians and Mexicans agreed to scrap retaliatory tariffs they had imposed on U.S. goods.

“I’m pleased to announce that we’ve just reached an agreement with Canada and Mexico, and we’ll be selling our product into those countries without the imposition of tariffs, or major tariffs,” Trump said in a speech to the National Association of Realtors.

In a joint statement, the U.S. and Canada said they would work to prevent cheap imports of steel and aluminum from entering North America. The provision appeared to target China, which has long been accused of flooding world markets with subsidized metal, driving down world prices and hurting U.S. producers. The countries could also reimpose the tariffs if they faced a “surge” in steel or aluminum imports.

In Washington, some were urging Trump to take advantage of the truce with U.S. allies to get even tougher with China.

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Step by step: Democrats play the long game against Trump

WASHINGTON — First came the sternly worded letters. Then the subpoenas. Now the votes to hold Trump administration officials in contempt of Congress.

As House Democrats plod ahead investigating President Donald Trump, against unprecedented stonewalling by the White House, they are pursuing a long-game strategy that’s playing out in the committee rooms, the courthouse and in the court of public opinion. And it’s going to take time.

Some Democrats say the administration’s blockade is leaving them almost no choice but to open an impeachment inquiry — not necessarily to impeach Trump, but as part of a legal strategy to force the administration to comply with their requests for documents and testimony.

“Things are coming to a tipping point,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a member of the Judiciary Committee. “We’re running out of options,” said another on the panel, Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla. “I think we’re on the road,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi racheted up the pressure this week when, faced with a 12-page letter from the White House counsel saying Congress had no “legislative purpose” in its investigations, shot back that the purpose could, in fact, be for impeaching the president.

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Missouri’s GOP-led Legislature passes 8-week abortion ban

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri’s Republican-led House on Friday passed sweeping legislation designed to survive court challenges, which would ban abortions at eight weeks of pregnancy.

If enacted, the ban would be among the most restrictive in the U.S. It includes exceptions for medical emergencies, but not for pregnancies caused by rape or incest. Doctors would face five to 15 years in prison for violating the eight-week cutoff. Women who receive abortions wouldn’t be prosecuted.

Republican Gov. Mike Parson pledged to sign the bill , but it’s unclear when he’ll take action. When pressed on the lack of exceptions, he told reporters that “all life has value.”

The Missouri legislation comes after Alabama’s governor signed a bill Wednesday making performing an abortion a felony in nearly all cases.

Supporters say the Alabama bill is meant to conflict with the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationally in hopes of sparking a court case that might prompt the current panel of more conservative justices to revisit abortion rights.

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‘Shocking’: Ohio State doc abused 177, officials were aware

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A now-dead Ohio State team doctor sexually abused at least 177 male students from the 1970s through the 1990s, and numerous university officials got wind of what was going on over the years but did little or nothing to stop him, according to a report released by the school Friday.

Dr. Richard Strauss groped or ogled young men while treating athletes from at least 16 sports and working at the student health center and his off-campus clinic, investigators from a law firm hired by the university found.

“We are so sorry that this happened,” Ohio State President Michael Drake said at a news conference, using words like “shocking,” ‘’horrifying” and “heartbreaking” to describe the findings.

He said there was a “consistent institutional failure” at Ohio State, the nation’s third-largest university, with nearly 65,000 students and a half-million living alumni. The school “fell short of its responsibility to its students, and that’s regrettable and inexcusable.”

At the same time, Drake, who has led the institution since 2014, sought to distance Ohio State from what happened more than two decades ago: “This is not the university of today.”

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Prosecutor: Mom plotted to kill pregnant woman, steal baby

CHICAGO — A mother plotted for months to acquire a newborn before she and her daughter strangled a pregnant Chicago woman and cut her baby from her womb using a butcher’s knife, prosecutors said Friday as they revealed gruesome new details about the case.

Marlen Ochoa-Lopez, 19, was lured to the home where Clarisa Figueroa lived with her daughter, Desiree, by Facebook postings offering free baby clothes. When she arrived, the daughter showed her a photo album of her late brother to distract her as her mother started trying to strangle her with a chord, prosecutor Jim Murphy said.

When Ochoa-Lopez managed to get her fingers under the cord, Clarisa Figueroa yelled at her 24-year-old daughter — “You’re not doing your f---ing job!” The daughter then pried Ochoa-Lopez’s fingers from the cord “one by one” while her mother continued to strangle the teen for another five minutes, Murphy said.

Once Ochoa-Lopez showed no signs of life, Clarisa Figueroa cut her open with a butcher’s knife, removed the placenta and the baby, then put the baby in a bucket with the umbilical cord still attached, said Murphy, reading from court documents .

The plot may have originated in late 2018, when Clarisa Figueroa told her family she was pregnant and later posted on Facebook an ultrasound and photos of a room decorated for a baby. Desiree Figueroa was surprised, Murphy said, because her mother had previously had her fallopian tubes tied to prevent pregnancy.

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Louisiana governor breaks with Democratic Party on abortion

BATON ROUGE, La. — Nearly three decades ago, when Democratic Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’ wife was 20 weeks pregnant with their first child, a doctor discovered their daughter had spina bifida and encouraged an abortion. The Edwardses refused.

Now, daughter Samantha is married and working as a school counselor, and Edwards finds himself an outlier in polarized abortion politics.

“My position hasn’t changed. In eight years in the Legislature, I was a pro-life legislator,” he said. When he ran for governor, his view was the same. “I’m as consistent as I can be on that point.”

Edwards, who has repeatedly bucked national party leaders on abortion rights, is about to do it again. He’s ready to sign legislation that would ban the procedure as early as six weeks of pregnancy, before many women know they are pregnant, when the bill reaches his desk.

Louisiana’s proposal , awaiting one final vote in the state House, would prohibit abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, similar to laws passed in Kentucky, Mississippi, Georgia and Ohio that aim to challenge the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. Alabama has gone even further, enacting a law that makes performing abortions a felony at any stage of pregnancy with almost no exceptions.

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Leaders campaign until the end of Australian election day

CANBERRA, Australia — Political leaders continued frenetic 11th-hour campaigning as Australians vote on Saturday in an election likely to deliver the nation’s sixth prime minister in as many years.

Opinion polls suggest the conservative Liberal Party-led coalition will lose its bid for a third three-year term and Scott Morrison will have had one of the shortest tenures as prime minister in the 118-year history of the Australian federation.

Morrison is the conservatives’ third prime minister since they were first elected in 2013. He replaced Malcolm Turnbull in a leadership ballot of government colleagues in August.

Morrison began the day campaigning in the island state of Tasmania in seats he hopes his party will win from the center-left Labor Party opposition. He then flew 900 kilometers (560 miles) home to Sydney to vote and to campaign in Sydney seats.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten contained his campaigning to polling centers in his home town of Melbourne where he voted Saturday morning with his wife Chloe Shorten.

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Utility, regulatory failures led to biggest US gas leak

LOS ANGELES — A blowout at a Los Angeles natural gas well in 2015 that led to the largest-known release of methane in U.S. history was the result of a corroded pipe casing, safety failures by a utility and inadequate regulations, according to an investigation report released Friday.

Southern California Gas Co. failed to investigate previous well failures at the Aliso Canyon storage field and didn’t adequately assess its aging wells for disaster potential before the Oct. 23, 2015, blowout, the report released by the California Public Utilities Commission said.

The disaster led to stricter state regulations and improved policies that would have addressed most of the causes, the report found.

Robert Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said the report shows the blowout was a “predictable and preventable disaster” and likened it to oil spills, a dam spillway collapse and deadly wildfires he said were due in part to failures by regulators.

“Collectively, we seem to be using ‘reactive risk mismanagement’: Patch and Pray, Watch it Fail, Fix it Fast, Return to Business As Usual As Soon As Possible,” Bea said. “Several of my colleagues who live in other countries have called this approach as ‘stuck in stupid.’”

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Government audit: Carson’s $40K office purchases broke law

WASHINGTON — Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson violated the law when his department spent more than $40,000 to purchase a dining set and a dishwasher for his office’s executive dining room, government auditors concluded.

In a report released Thursday, the Government Accountability Office said HUD failed to notify Congress before exceeding a $5,000 limit set by Congress to furnish or make improvements to the office of a presidential appointee. The dining set cost more than $31,000 and the dishwasher cost nearly $9,000.

Carson told lawmakers last year that he was unaware of the purchase and canceled it as soon as he learned about it in news reports. He also told a House Appropriations subcommittee that he left furniture purchasing decisions to his wife. But emails released by watchdog group American Oversight suggested that Carson and his wife, Candy Carson, both played a role in choosing the furniture.

The GAO said HUD did not break the law when it paid more than $4,000 for new blinds for Carson’s office suite.

Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees HUD, said that while the amount of money may be small, it’s a “willful disregard for the appropriate use” of taxpayer dollars.

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