- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Doubts raised about Iraqi premier as US prepares new assistance to combat violent insurgency

WASHINGTON (AP) - The United States is preparing to send new aid to Iraq to help slow a violent insurgent march that is threatening to take over the nation’s north, officials said Wednesday. But the Obama administration offered only tepid support for Iraq’s beleaguered prime minister, and U.S. lawmakers openly questioned whether he should remain in power.

With no obvious replacement for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki - and no apparent intent on his part to step down - Washington is largely resigned to continue working with his Shiite-led government that has targeted Sunni political opponents and, in turn, has inflamed sectarian tensions across Iraq.

“He’s obviously not been a good prime minister,” said Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “He has not done a good job of reaching out to the Sunni population, which has caused them to be more receptive to al-Qaida efforts.”

The panel’s chairman, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., noted only lukewarm support for al-Maliki, both in Iraq and among U.S. officials. “I don’t know whether or not he will actually be the prime minister again,” Menendez said. “I guess by many accounts, he may very well ultimately put (together) the coalition necessary to do that.”

Insurgents with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is inspired by al-Qaida, overran the northern Iraqi town of Tikrit on Wednesday, a day after seizing Mosul, the nation’s second-largest city. The insurgent network has controlled the western city of Fallujah since the start of this year, and is fighting to take over Beiji, a key northern oil refinery town.

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Al-Qaida-inspired militants seize Iraqi city of Tikrit, pushing deeper into Sunni areas

BAGHDAD (AP) - Al-Qaida-inspired militants pushed deeper into Iraq’s Sunni heartland Wednesday, swiftly conquering Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit as soldiers and security forces abandoned their posts and yielded ground once controlled by U.S. forces.

The advance into former insurgent strongholds that had largely been calm before the Americans withdrew less than three years ago is spreading fear that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, struggling to hold onto power after indecisive elections, will be unable to stop the Islamic militants as they press closer to Baghdad.

Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militant group took control Tuesday of much of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, sending an estimated half a million people fleeing from their homes. As in Tikrit, the Sunni militants were able to move in after police and military forces melted away after relatively brief clashes.

The group, which has seized wide swaths of territory, aims to create an Islamic emirate spanning both sides of the Iraq-Syria border.

The capture of Mosul - along with the fall of Tikrit and the militants’ earlier seizure of the western city of Fallujah - have undone hard-fought gains against insurgents in the years following the 2003 invasion by U.S.-led forces.

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AP Analysis: 13 years into war on terror, Islamic militants as bold as ever across region

CAIRO (AP) - It has been a week of stunning advances by Islamic militants across a belt from Iraq to Pakistan. In Iraq, jihadi fighters rampaged through the country’s second-largest city and swept farther south in their drive to establish an extremist enclave stretching into Syria. Pakistan’s largest airport was paralyzed and rocked by explosions as gunmen stormed it in a dramatic show of strength.

More than a decade after the U.S. launched its “war on terrorism,” Islamic militant groups are bolder than ever, exploiting the erosion or collapse of central government control in a string of nations - Syria, Iraq and Pakistan - that are more strategically vital than the relatively failed states where al-Qaida set up its bases in the past: Somalia, Yemen and 1990s Afghanistan.

Most galling to Washington, the crumbling state power has come in countries that the United States has spent billions of dollars to try to strengthen over the past 13 years.

Policy failings by those governments have contributed to giving militants an opening.

Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has alienated the country’s Sunni community, which feels sidelined by his Shiite-led government. That has pushed some Sunnis into supporting the militants and undermined the military, which includes many Sunnis.

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10 Things to Know for Thursday

Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Thursday:

1. TIKRIT, SADDAM’S HOMETOWN, FALLS TO ISLAMIC FIGHTERS

The militants, who have seized wide swaths of territory, aim to create an Islamic emirate spanning the Iraq-Syria border.

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Cantor shock waves: Big changes ahead for GOP in House after tea party upends majority leader

WASHINGTON (AP) - Repudiated at the polls, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor announced Wednesday that he will resign his leadership post at the end of next month, clearing the way for a potentially disruptive Republican shake-up just before midterm elections with control of Congress at stake.

Cantor informed fellow Republicans of his intentions at an emotional closed-door meeting, then made his public announcement at a news conference where he appeared upbeat, all less than 24 hours after losing Virginia’s GOP primary election to David Brat, a little-known and underfunded rival backed by tea party groups.

Lawmakers in both parties said Cantor’s defeat and the prospect of a change within the Republican high command probably signal the demise of immigration legislation along the lines President Barack Obama is seeking and will also have a negative impact on the balance of his second-term agenda.

Even so, Obama disputed the notion that Cantor’s surprise loss crushed the prospects of House Republican leaders bringing an immigration bill to the floor this year. Addressing Democratic donors in Massachusetts, Obama rejected what he called “conventional wisdom” proffered by Washington pundits.

“I fundamentally reject that and I will tell the speaker of the House he needs to reject it,” Obama said.

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Buoyed by Cantor loss, GOP insurgents in Mississippi, elsewhere, look for their own victories

LAUREL, Miss. (AP) - Conservative insurgents rallied Wednesday to capitalize on the downfall of their party’s House majority leader, whose loss to a tea party-backed challenger put the differences dividing Republicans back at the forefront of this year’s midterm elections.

“Did you see what happened in Virginia?” Mississippi Senate candidate Chris McDaniel said to uproarious cheers at a Republican women’s luncheon in his home county.

“The people always matter. It’s your government. … If you’ll take it again, just fight for it, you’ll win the day.”

The stunning Virginia victory of economics professor David Brat over Majority Leader Eric Cantor probably isn’t a harbinger of a new tea party wave crashing over a primary season that, so far, has been mostly dominated by the Republican establishment. It came on the same day South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham dismissed six challengers in a race that, like Brat’s defeat of Cantor, included lots of talk about the nation’s immigration system.

“South Carolina was a referendum on whether or not you can be a conservative and solve a problem or at least try,” said Graham, a major player in the immigration debate.

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Bergdahl’s Facebook posts, personal writings show frustration, struggle to maintain stability

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - In Facebook posts written before he vanished from his military base in Afghanistan, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl spoke of his frustration with the world and his desire to change the status quo.

He criticized unnamed military commanders and government leaders and mused about whether it was the place of the artist, the soldier or the general to stop violence and “change the minds of fools.”

In his personal writings, he seemed to focus his frustrations on himself and his struggle to maintain his mental stability.

Together, the writings paint a portrait of a young man who was dealing with two conflicts - one fought with bullets and bombs outside his compound, the other fought within himself.

Bergdahl’s Facebook page was found by The Associated Press Wednesday, and it was suspended by Facebook for a violation of its terms a short time later. Bergdahl opened the page under the name “Wandering Monk.” His last post was made May 22, 2009, a few weeks before he was taken prisoner.

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Long waits persist for vets seeking mental health care at VA medical centers

EL PASO, Texas (AP) - Nick D’Amico, a deeply troubled Army veteran, had been seeing a counselor every other week. But he found it next to impossible to get a follow-up appointment at the El Paso VA with a psychiatrist who could adjust his medication, according to his mother.

The best the system could offer, she says, was a half-year wait for a teleconference with a Veterans Affairs psychiatrist in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

That appointment was still two months away when D’Amico, 45, left his wallet, phone, watch and Desert Storm hat at home and committed suicide by driving off a cliff outside El Paso last September.

“It’s shameful. It’s disgusting. It’s got to stop,” says his mother, Bonnie D’Amico.

For years, veterans have complained about maddening waits for mental health services at VA medical centers, and for years federal officials have responded by hiring more clinicians and expanding programs. This week, a devastating internal investigation that looked at wait times for all sorts of care across the VA system showed that the agency hasn’t solved the problem.

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Senate approves veterans’ health care bill as FBI opens investigation into wait times

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Senate acted Wednesday to help thousands of military veterans enduring long wait times for VA medical care, as the FBI revealed it has opened a criminal investigation into a Veterans Affairs Department reeling from allegations of falsified records and inappropriate scheduling practices.

The Senate bill, approved 93-3, makes it easier for veterans who have encountered delays getting initial visits to receive VA-paid treatment from local doctors instead. The measure closely resembles a bill approved unanimously Tuesday in the House, prompting optimism among lawmakers from both parties that a compromise version could be on its way soon to President Barack Obama for his signature.

The White House said Wednesday that Obama supports the Senate bill.

The Senate bill would authorize about $35 billion over three years to pay for outside care for veterans, as well as hire hundreds of doctors and nurses and lease 26 new health facilities in 17 states and Puerto Rico. The House bill would spend about $620 million over the same period.

The Veterans Affairs Department released an audit this week showing that more than 57,000 veterans have had to wait at least three months for initial appointments. Another 64,000 veterans who asked for appointments over the past decade never got them.

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Pouliot’s 1st period goal gives desperate Rangers 1-0 lead over Los Angeles Kings

NEW YORK (AP) - Benoit Pouliot scored 7:25 into the first period to give the New York Rangers a 1-0 lead Wednesday as they tried to stave off a sweep by the Los Angeles Kings in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals.

Two nights after Jonathan Quick made 32 saves in a 3-0 victory that put the Kings on the brink of their second title in three years, Pouliot got a puck past him.

The Kings won the first two games at home in overtime in building their 3-0 series lead and are trying to become the first team to complete a sweep in the finals since Detroit did it to Washington in 1998. That completed a run of four straight Stanley Cup sweeps.

Pouliot broke Quick’s shutout streak at 123 minutes, 1 second. New York hadn’t scored since Derick Brassard’s second-period goal in Game 2. Pouliot’s fifth goal of the playoffs came 2 seconds after Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell finished serving a high-sticking penalty.

John Moore fired a drive from the center of the blue line that Pouliot deflected high with his stick blade into the top right corner behind Quick.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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