Here are today's top stories from The Associated Press.
Declaring himself a 'simple pilgrim,' Benedict XVI becomes 1st pope to resign in 600 years
CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy — As bells tolled and the clock struck 8, the brass-studded wooden doors swung shut Thursday at this palace in the Italian hills, marking an end to Benedict XVI's papacy and the start of his final journey as a "simple pilgrim."
Capping a day of tearful farewells that included an extraordinary pledge of obedience to his successor, Benedict entered history as the first pope in 600 years to resign — leaving the Catholic Church in unprecedented limbo and ending a pontificate shaped by struggles to move beyond clerical sex abuse scandals and reawaken Christianity in an indifferent world.
On Benedict's last day, the mood was vastly different inside the Vatican than at Castel Gandolfo, the 17th-century papal retreat set in the hills south of Rome, where he will spend the first two months of his retirement.
At the seat of the popes, Benedict's staff bade the pontiff goodbye in scenes of dignified solemnity, with Swiss Guards in full regalia and prelates kneeling to kiss his papal ring one last time.
A livelier atmosphere reigned in the countryside, with well-wishers jamming the hilltop town's main square, shouting "Viva il Papa!" and waving the yellow and white flags of the Holy See.
Obama administration asks high court to overturn California gay marriage ban
WASHINGTON — In a historic argument for gay rights, President Barack Obama on Thursday urged the Supreme Court to overturn California's same-sex marriage ban and turn a skeptical eye on similar prohibitions across the country.
The Obama administration's friend-of-the-court brief marked the first time a U.S. president has urged the high court to expand the right of gays and lesbians to wed. The filing unequivocally calls on the justices to strike down California's Proposition 8 ballot measure, although it stops short of the soaring rhetoric on marriage equality Obama expressed in his inaugural address in January.
California is one of eight states that give gay couples all the benefits of marriage through civil unions or domestic partnership, but don't allow them to wed. The brief argues that in granting same-sex couples those rights, California has already acknowledged that gay relationships bear the same hallmarks as straight ones.
"They establish homes and lives together, support each other financially, share the joys and burdens of raising children, and provide care through illness and comfort at the moment of death," the administration wrote.
The brief marks the president's most expansive view of gay marriage and signals that he is moving away from his previous assertion that states should determine their own marriage laws. Obama, a former constitutional law professor, signed off on the administration's legal argument last week following lengthy discussions with Attorney General Eric Holder and Solicitor General Donald Verrilli.
With time short, Senate scuttles rival plans to head off automatic budget cuts
WASHINGTON — Squabbling away the hours, the Senate swatted aside last-ditch plans to block $85 billion in broad-based federal spending reductions Thursday as President Barack Obama and Republicans blamed each other for the latest outbreak of gridlock and the administration readied plans to put the cuts into effect.
So entrenched were the two parties that the Senate chaplain, Barry Black, opened the day's session with a prayer that beseeched a higher power to intervene.
"Rise up, O God, and save us from ourselves," he said of cuts due to take effect sometime Friday.
The immediate impact of the reductions on the public was uncertain, and the administration pulled back on its earlier warnings of long lines developing quickly at airports and teacher layoffs affecting classrooms.
On the Senate floor, a Republican proposal requiring Obama to propose alternative cuts that would cause less disruption in essential government services fell to overwhelming Democratic opposition, 62-38.
U.S. soldier pleads guilty in WikiLeaks case, faces 20 years in prison
FORT MEADE, Md. — Bradley Manning, the Army private arrested in the biggest leak of classified material in U.S. history, pleaded guilty Thursday to charges that could send him to prison for 20 years, saying he was trying to expose the American military's "bloodlust" and disregard for human life in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Military prosecutors said they plan to move forward with a court-martial on 12 remaining charges against him, including aiding the enemy, which carries a potential life sentence.
"I began to become depressed at the situation we found ourselves mired in year after year. In attempting counterinsurgency operations, we became obsessed with capturing and killing human targets on lists," the 25-year-old former intelligence analyst in Baghdad told a military judge.
He added: "I wanted the public to know that not everyone living in Iraq were targets to be neutralized."
It was the first time Manning directly admitted leaking the material to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks and detailed the frustrations that led him to do it.
Officials say French forces to remain in Mali until at least July
PARIS — French troops will stay in the West African country of Mali at least until July, amid tougher-than-expected resistance from Islamic fighters, officials have told The Associated Press, despite earlier government promises to begin a quick pullout within weeks.
France's leadership has painted the intervention against al-Qaida-backed radicals in Mali, which began in January, as a swift and limited one, and said that France could start withdrawing its 4,000 troops in Mali in March and hand over security duties to an African force.
But the combat in rugged Sahara Desert mountains is growing harder, and there's a rising threat that the militants will turn to suicide bombings, hostage-taking and other guerrilla tactics.
One French diplomat acknowledged this week that a French military presence is expected to remain for at least six months. Two other French officials told The Associated Press that the French will remain at least until July, when France is hoping that Mali can hold elections.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the military campaign.
South Africa: Police watchdog investigates death of man who was dragged by police van
JOHANNESBURG — They bound his hands to the rear of a van, and then sped off, dragging the slender taxi driver along the pavement as a crowd of onlookers shouted in dismay. The man was later found dead.
A gut-wrenching video of the scene is all the more disturbing because the men who abused the Mozambican immigrant were uniformed South African police officers and the van was a marked police vehicle.
The graphic scenes of the victim struggling for his life shocked a nation long accustomed to reports of police violence.
"The visuals of the incident are horrific, disturbing and unacceptable. No human being should be treated in that manner," said South African President Jacob Zuma.
The Daily Sun, a South African newspaper, posted the video footage Thursday and it was quickly picked up by other South African news outlets and carried on the Internet. It sparked immediate outrage about police behavior.
Speedometers often show far higher top speeds than cars can travel
DETROIT — The speedometer on the Toyota Yaris says the tiny car can go 140 miles per hour.
In reality, the bulbous subcompact's 106-horsepower engine and automatic transmission can't push it any faster than 109.
So why do the Yaris — and most other cars sold in the U.S. — have speedometers that show top speeds they can't possibly reach?
The answer has deep roots in an American culture that loves the rush of driving fast. The automakers' marketing departments are happy to give people the illusion that their family car can travel at speeds rivaling a NASCAR racer. And companies often use one speedometer type in various models across the world, saving them money.
But critics say the ever-higher numbers are misleading. Some warn they create a safety concern, daring drivers to push past freeway speed limits that are 65 to 75 mph in most states.