BAGHDAD (AP) — The wave of attacks by al-Qaida-led Sunni extremists that has killed thousands of Iraqis this year, most of them Shiites, is provoking ominous calls from Shiite leaders to take up arms in self-defense.
They generally insist they'll do it legally, under the banner of the security forces. But Iraq's young democracy is still struggling, nearly two years after U.S. troops withdrew, and the specter of armed Shiite and Sunni camps revives memories of the sectarian fighting that took the country to the brink of civil war in the mid-2000s.
Since April, bombings and shootings have killed more than 5,500 people. Averaging at least two a week, they target outdoor markets, cafes, bus stations, mosques and pilgrimages in Shiite areas.
Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who will meet with President Barack Obama on Friday, says he wants American help in quelling the violence.
Departing for Washington, he appealed for quicker delivery of offensive weapons such as helicopters that Baghdad says it needs.
Since late December, Iraq's minority Sunnis have been protesting what they perceive as discrimination and tough anti-terrorism measures against them by the Shiite-led government. The Sunni attacks followed a government crackdown on a Sunni protest camp in the northern town of Hawija in which 44 civilians and one member of the security forces dead, according to U.N. estimates.
Now high-profile calls are being made for Shiites to play a role in their own defense by creating armed "popular committees," attached in some form to the regular security forces. The idea raises the specter of some of Iraq's darkest years following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime, paving the way for long-repressed majority Shiites to seize power.
Iranian-backed Shiite death squads roamed the city from 2006-2008, killing Sunnis by the dozens and dumping their often mutilated bodies on the streets or in the river in retaliation for the devastating bombings and suicide attacks blamed on Sunni insurgents.
It was a cease-fire by militia leader and anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, along with a Sunni revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq and a series of U.S.-Iraqi offensives that helped quell the bloodshed. While Iraqis continued to face near-daily attacks, they hoped the days of rampant sectarian warfare were behind them. Now a politician, Al-Sadr has urged calm among his followers and made no public statements about the calls to take up arms to protect Shiites.
Zuhair al-Araji, a Sunni lawmaker, pointed out that the insurgents are targeting not only Shiites but moderate Sunnis, and that arming Shiite groups would backfire. "We are worried that some militias will infiltrate these proposed committees and we will see grave consequences," he said.
But Jassim Mohammed al-Fartousi, whose 24 year old son was among some 80 people killed in a suicide attack Sept. 21, reflects growing public demand for a response.
"The government and the security forces are incompetent," he said. "The popular committees will make us feel safe."
The civil war in neighboring Syria is also stoking the tensions as it takes on increasingly sectarian undertones, with many Shiites traveling to the country to support President Bashar Assad's government against mainly Sunni rebels.
Qais al-Khazali heads a feared Shiite militia, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (Band of the Righteous), an Iranian-backed group that repeatedly attacked U.S. forces in Iraq and says it is sending fighters to Syria to support government forces against Sunni-led rebels. He spent years in U.S. detention but was released after he was handed over to the Iraqi government.
Last year, the group decided to lay down its weapons and join the Iraqi political process, a move welcomed by al-Maliki. But addressing a conference of tribal leaders and clerics on Oct. 9, al-Khazali said his group needed to react to the "killings and destruction."
He said his "committees" would not participate in raids, but would cooperate with security forces in "patrolling their areas and setting up roadblocks."
Still, the security forces are supposed to be nonsectarian, and the suggestion of a Shiite militia in league with a Shiite prime minister's security forces is sure to heighten Sunni distrust.
Ali al-Moussawi, al-Maliki's spokesman, sounded lukewarm to the idea, saying the security forces "do not need armed committees; they need help with intelligence."
The law bans the formation of armed groups outside the state security forces, but the government made an exception for the Sunni militia formed by U.S. forces to fight al-Qaida.
Also calling for Shiite self-defense measures are Shiite lawmakers, one of them affiliated with Al-Maliki's parliamentary bloc, and some clerics connected to parties with militant wings.
Earlier this year, Wathiq al-Batat, a Shiite cleric who was a senior official in the Hezbollah Brigades in Iraq, formed what he calls the Mukhtar Army to protect Shiites. He claims to have more than 1 million members, a number that has not independently verified.
In an interview with the Beirut-based Iraqi satellite channel al-Sumaria last week, he said his militia was "well-intentioned" and wouldn't attack Sunnis as such, only "takfiri" groups, a term applied to Sunni radicals.
Al-Batat demanded that in order to be within the law, some of his followers should be integrated into the Defense or Interior Ministries to work with the security forces.
Despite some attacks on Sunni mosques following Sunni actions, Shiite reprisals are far less intense than they were in the tit-for-tat bloodshed of 2006-2007, when Sunnis would be snatched off the streets and killed and many families were driven from their homes.
But that may change if the "popular committees" come into being, some warn.
Hadi Jalo, a political analyst in Baghdad, said the government "could implicitly give the green light to some armed groups to help the security forces struggling to put an end to violence and to ease the pressure from the public."
Shwan Mohammed Taha, a Kurd who serves on the parliament's defense and security committee, warned such a move could prove a turning point.
"The atmosphere is already tense and such move will lead to the militarization of society and then to all-out civil war," he said.
LOS ANGELES (AP) — A dry ice explosion occurred late Monday at Los Angeles International Airport, but there were no reports of any injuries or evacuations, authorities said.
The incident was reported shortly before 8:30 p.m. at the airport's Tom Bradley International Terminal. There was no immediate word where the dry ice was found or whether there was any significant damage.
Two other devices also were found at the airport but they did not explode, Detective Gus Villanueva said.
Investigators don't believe the incident is linked to terrorism and no threat was called into the airport, Villanueva said.
No flights were affected by the explosion, authorities said.
On Sunday night, someone planted a plastic bottle containing dry ice that exploded in an employee bathroom in LAX's terminal 2. Up to four flights were delayed after airport police halted security screening for more than an hour.
No arrests have been made in either case.
A bomb squad was at the airport late Monday and investigators from the LAPD's criminal conspiracy division were assisting, Villanueva said.
TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) - Libya's state news agency says Prime Minister Ali Zidan, abducted by gunmen at dawn, has now been freed.
Government Spokesman Mohammed Kaabar told the agency, LANA, that Zidan has been "set free" and was on his way to his office on Thursday.
The brief report gave no further information. Details were sketchy but it appeared Libyan forces had intervened in some way and that the abductors did not free Zidan voluntarily.
Hours earlier, Zidan was snatched by gunmen before dawn from a Tripoli hotel where he resides.
The abduction appeared to be in retaliation for the U.S. special forces' raid over the weekend that seized a Libyan al-Qaida suspect from the streets of the capital.d by an incident, even if it is a serious one," Zidan said at a press conference in Tripoli.
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Leaders of the nation's largest Somali community say some of their young men are still being enticed to join the terror group that has claimed responsibility for the deadly mall attack in Kenya, despite a concentrated effort to shut off what authorities call a "deadly pipeline" of men and money.
Six years have passed since Somali-American fighters began leaving Minnesota to become part of al-Shabab. Now the Somali community is dismayed over reports that a few of its own might have been involved in the violence at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
"One thing I know is the fear is growing," said Abdirizak Bihi, whose nephew was among at least six men from Minnesota who have died in Somalia. More are presumed dead.
Since 2007, at least 22 young men have left Minnesota to join al-Shabab, including two who did so last summer. Unconfirmed reports that two more left earlier this month have deepened concerns.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said Tuesday that initial reports had suggested a British woman and two or three American citizens may have been involved in the attack. But neither Kenyan authorities nor the Minneapolis FBI office had any confirmation.
Minnesota's Somali community, concentrated in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, includes people who fled the long civil war in their east African homeland and children born in the U.S. Many are now American citizens.
The movement of Somalis who've come to be known as "travelers" remains "a priority investigation for the Minneapolis office," FBI Special Agent Kyle Loven said.
At least 18 men and three women have been charged in the ongoing Minnesota investigation. Some went to Somalia while others were accused of aiding the effort mainly by raising money.
Seven men pleaded guilty to various charges. One man was convicted on terrorism-related charges last year. Two women were convicted in 2011 of being fundraisers for al-Shabab. A third woman pleaded guilty last month to lying to a grand jury. The other defendants remain at large, or are confirmed or presumed dead.
Al-Shabab means "The Youth" in Arabic. The group uses a mixture of religion, nationalism and deception to lure young people, said Omar Jamal, a longtime local activist who now serves as the first secretary for the Somali mission to the United Nations.
"They misinform people, and they target young, impressionable kids," Jamal said. "They literally brainwash them. It's a very dangerous cult."
Al-Shabab's local recruitment efforts began in 2007 when small groups began discussing returning home to fight Ethiopian troops who entered Somalia to prop up a weak U.N.-backed government and were seen by many Somalis as foreign invaders. The recruiters aimed their appeal at the young men's patriotic and religious ideals.
Ethiopian troops pulled out of Somalia in 2009, but al-Shabab kept up its fight for power. According to Valentina Soria, a security analyst with London-based IHS Jane's, al-Shabab has increasingly focused in the past three years on the recruitment of western nationals and members of the Somali diaspora in the U.S. and Europe to offset its declining domestic support.
Anders Folk was an assistant U.S. attorney in Minneapolis for several years of the recruiting investigation before leaving for private practice. Al-Shabab's recruiting was at least as effective after the Ethiopians left as before, he said.
"Al Shabab's recruiting technique was essentially a call to jihad, that this is a religious duty," Folk said. "It was a call to jihad to come and fight."
Internet videos are a major tool for the group. Many feature scenes of men with covered faces firing automatic weapons, marching or practicing martial arts, as well as images of dead bodies and religious documents. Some show English-speaking suicide bombers reciting last wills.
The group often appeals young men who've had trouble assimilating into American life, perhaps because they are unable to get a job, dropped out of school or got involved in gangs, Jamal said.
He cited a recently released al-Shabab propaganda video that lauded three "Minnesotan martyrs," including the American-born non-Somali Troy Kastigar, a convert to Islam.
Smiling and laughing in the footage, Kastigar called his battle experiences "the real Disneyland" and urged other Muslims to come and "take pleasure in this fun." He was killed in 2009 in Mogadishu, according to the video.
The recruiters masquerade "as people who are there for you at your lowest point," said Abdul Mohamed, a spokesman for Ka Joog, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit whose name means "stay away," which works to provide positive alternatives for Somali youth through education, the arts and mentorship.
"Instead of shying away from this issue and letting it separate us, it's best if we take it on headstrong and steadfast so in the future we can prevent it from happening," Mohamed said. "At the end of the day, these kids are full of potential."
Associated Press writer Amy Forliti contributed to this report from New York.
NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — The militant group that attacked a Nairobi mall and killed at least 60 people says it is still holding hostages alive inside and that its fighters are "still holding their ground."
The Twitter messages posted Tuesday by the al-Qaida-linked rebel group al-Shabab came after Kenyan government assurances of success in the fourth-day of the standoff.
Al-Shabab says the hostages "are still alive, looking quite disconcerted but, nevertheless, alive."
A security expert with contacts inside said Monday night there were at least 30 hostages when the assault began Saturday and at least 10 were believed to be still inside the upscale mall. Officials did not give a figure, saying only that "most" hostages had been released.
Sporadic gunfire could be heard from the building Tuesday as government forces pressed on inside.
NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — A Kenyan military spokesman Monday said that the fate of hostages inside a mall besieged by al-Qaida-linked terrorists was not clear despite earlier statements that "most" hostages had been rescued.
Military helicopters circled over the mall at daybreak, when about five minutes of sustained gunfire broke out at the mall, a clear indication that at least one of the estimated 10 to 15 gunmen who attacked the mall when it was filled with shoppers Saturday was still on the loose.
A large military assault began on the mall shortly before sundown on Sunday, with one helicopter skimming very close to the roof of the shopping complex as a loud explosion rang out, far larger than any previous grenade blast or gunfire volley. Officials said the siege would soon end and said "most" hostages had been rescued and that officials controlled "most" of the mall.
But officials never said how many hostages had been rescued, and Kenya's military spokesman on Monday was still not able to provide clear details.
"We are yet to get confirmation from what's happening in the building," Col. Cyrus Oguna, a Kenyan military spokesman, told The Associated Press.
Late on Sunday, Kenya's National Disaster Operation Centre said on Twitter that "this will end tonight. Our forces will prevail."
Late on Sunday, Oguna said that many of the rescued hostages — whom he said were mostly adults — were suffering from dehydration. An Associated Press reporter at a triage center next to the mall said no hostages ever showed up there.
As the crisis neared the 48-hour mark, video taken by someone inside the mall's main department store when the assault began emerged. The video showed frightened and unsure shoppers crouching as long and loud volleys of gunfire could be heard.
The assault came about 30 hours after 10 to 15 al-Shabab extremists stormed the mall Saturday from two sides, throwing grenades and firing on civilians.
Loud exchanges of gunfire rang out from inside the four-story mall throughout Sunday. Kenyan troops were seen carrying in at least two rocket-propelled grenades. Al-Shabab militants reacted angrily to the helicopters on Twitter and warned that the Kenyan military action was endangering hostages.
Kenyan authorities said they would do their utmost to save hostages' lives, but no officials could say precisely how many people were being held captive. Kenya's Red Cross said in a statement, citing police, that 49 people had been reported missing. Officials did not make an explicit link but that number could give an indication of the number of people held captive.
Kenya's Red Cross said the death toll rose to 68 after nine bodies were recovered Sunday. More than 175 people were injured, including many children, Kenyan officials said.
Somalia's al-Qaida-linked rebel group, al-Shabab, claimed responsibility for the attack that specifically targeted non-Muslims, saying it was in retribution for Kenyan forces' 2011 push into neighboring Somalia.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry condemned what he called "an enormous offense against everybody's sense of right and wrong," and called the attackers "ruthless and completely reckless terrorists."
Kerry, who was in New York for meetings at the United Nations, spoke Sunday with Somalia's foreign minister and U.N. ambassador.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said U.S. law enforcement, military and civilian personnel in Nairobi were providing advice and assistance to the Kenyan authorities. She said five Americans were among the scores of people injured in the attack, but the U.S. had no reports of any American deaths.
Earlier in the day, al-Shabab said on its new Twitter feed — after its previous one was shut down Saturday — that Kenyan officials were asking the hostage-takers to negotiate and offering incentives.
"We'll not negotiate with the Kenyan govt as long as its forces are invading our country, so reap the bitter fruits of your harvest," al-Shabab said in a tweet.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who lost a nephew and the nephew's fiancee in the attack, reiterated his government's determination to continue fighting al-Shabab.
"We went as a nation into Somalia to help stabilize the country and most importantly to fight terror that had been unleashed on Kenya and the world," said Kenyatta. "We shall not relent on the war on terror."
Although this violent attack had succeeded, the Kenyan leader said, the country's security forces had "neutralized" many others.
Former Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga told reporters that "quite a number" of people were being held hostage in two areas of the sprawling complex, which includes stores for such retail giants as Nike, Adidas and Bose. Many hostages were believed to be in a grocery and general department store called Nakumatt.
Kenyan security officials sought to reassure the families of hostages but implied that some of those being held could be killed.
"The priority is to save as many lives as possible," said Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Lenku, adding that more than 1,000 people escaped the attack inside the mall on Saturday.
"We have received a lot of messages from friendly countries, but for now it remains our operation," Lenku said, adding that Kenyan forces controlled the mall's security cameras.
Westgate Mall is at least partially owned by Israelis, and reports circulated that Israeli commandos were on the ground to assist in the response. Four restaurants inside the mall are Israeli-run or owned.
In Israel, a senior defense official said there were no Israeli forces participating in an assault, but said it was possible that Israeli advisers were providing assistance. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing a classified military issue, would not elaborate.
Israel has close ties to Kenya going back many years. In recent years, Israel has identified East Africa as an area of strategic interest and stepped up ties with Kenya and other neighboring countries, due to shared threats posed by al-Qaida and other extremist elements. In 2002, militants bombed an Israeli-owned luxury hotel near Mombasa, killing 13 people, and tried to shoot down an Israeli airliner at the same time.
Kenyans and foreigners were among those confirmed dead, including British, French, Canadians, Indians, a Ghanaian, a South African and a Chinese woman.
Britain's prime minister, in confirming the deaths of three British nationals, told the country to "prepare ourselves for further bad news."
Kofi Awoonor, a Ghanaian poet, professor and former ambassador to Brazil, Cuba and the United Nations, died after being wounded in the attack, Ghana's presidential office confirmed. Ghana's ministry of information said Awoonor's son was injured and is responding to treatment.
Kenya's presidential office said that one of the attackers was arrested on Saturday and died after suffering from bullet wounds.
Britain's Foreign Office said that Foreign Secretary William Hague chaired a meeting of Britain's crisis committee and sent a rapid deployment team from London to Nairobi to provide extra consular support.
The United Nations Security Council condemned the attacks and "expressed their solidarity with the people and government of Kenya" in a statement.
There was some good news on Sunday, as Kenyan media reported that several people in hiding in the mall escaped to safety in the morning, suggesting that not everyone who was inside overnight was being held by al-Shabab.
Police lobbed multiple rounds of tear gas throughout the day to disperse hundreds of curious Kenyans who gathered near the mall.
Associated Press reporters Jacob Kushner in Nairobi, Kenya; Josef Federman in Jerusalem; Louise Watt in Beijing; and Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this report.
FORT HOOD, Texas (AP) - A military jury has sentenced Maj. Nidal Hasan to death for the 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood, giving the Army psychiatrist what he believed would be a path to martyrdom in the attack on unarmed fellow soldiers.
The American-born Muslim, who has said he acted to protect Islamic insurgents abroad from American aggression, never denied being the gunman. In opening statements, he acknowledged to the jury that he pulled the trigger in a crowded waiting room where troops were getting final medical checkups before deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hasan could become the first American soldier executed in more than half a century once automatic appeals are exhausted. But the lead prosecutor assured jurors that Hasan would "never be a martyr" despite his attempt to tie the attack to his Islamic faith.
Gale Hunt, whose son was killed in the shooting, told reporters, "Anyone who would use their religion to commit acts of terrorism serves no god except their own hatred and self-interest."
EL-ARISH, Egypt (AP) - Egyptian security officials say suspected militants have ambushed two police minibuses in northern Sinai, firing rocket-propelled grenades and killing 24 policemen.
The officials say the Monday morning attack took place as the two vehicles were driving through a village near the border town of Rafah in the volatile Sinai Peninsula.
They say the attack also left three policemen wounded. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Sinai has been witnessing almost daily attacks by suspected militants since the July 3 ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in a military coup.
The strategic region borders the Gaza Strip and Israel.
MIAMI (AP) - Two men accused in South Florida of providing thousands of dollars and fighter recruits to terrorist organizations overseas have pleaded not guilty to a 15-count federal indictment.
A judge on Tuesday also ordered 30-year-old Gufran Ahmed Kauser Mohammed and 25-year-old Mohamed Hussein Said held without bail. Both men are charged with conspiracy and attempting to provide material support to al-Qaida and two affiliated terrorist organizations in Syria and East Africa.
Prosecutors say an FBI undercover agent posing as a terror financing middleman used Internet chat rooms to build cases against the men. They were both arrested in Saudi Arabia earlier this month and flown to the U.S. to face the charges.
The indictment says Mohammed sent thousands of dollars in wire transfers intended to support the terror groups.
ISLAMABAD (AP) — The State Department has warned Americans not to travel to Pakistan and evacuated nonessential government personnel from the country's second largest city because of a specific threat to the consulate there, a U.S. official said Friday.
The move was not related to the threat of an al-Qaida attack that prompted Washington to close temporarily 19 diplomatic posts in the Middle East and Africa.
According to U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Meghan Gregonis, the U.S. is shifting its nonessential staff from the consulate in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore to the capital, Islamabad.
Emergency personnel will stay in Lahore, and embassy officials do not know when the consulate will reopen, she said.
"We received information regarding a threat to the consulate," said Gregonis. "As a precautionary measure, we are undertaking a drawdown of all except emergency personnel."
The consulate in Lahore was already scheduled to be closed for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr from Thursday through Sunday.
The personnel drawdown at the Lahore consulate was precautionary and wasn't related to the recent closures of numerous U.S. diplomatic missions in the Muslim world, said two U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the order.
Earlier this week, 19 U.S. diplomatic outposts in 16 countries in the Middle East and Africa were closed to the public through Saturday and nonessential personnel were evacuated from the U.S. Embassy in Yemen after U.S. intelligence officials said they had intercepted a recent message from al-Qaida's top leader about plans for a major terror attack.
None of the consulates in Pakistan or the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad were affected by the earlier closures.
On Thursday, the State Department issued a travel warning saying the presence of several foreign and indigenous terrorist groups posed a potential danger to U.S. citizens throughout Pakistan.
The country has faced a bloody insurgency by the Pakistani Taliban and their allies in recent years that has killed over 40,000 civilians and security personnel, and is also believed to be home base for al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Most of the militant attacks have been in the northwest and southwest along the border with Afghanistan.
Gunmen killed six people and wounded 15 others Friday in an attack on a former lawmaker outside a mosque in Quetta, the capital of southwest Baluchistan province, said police officer Bashir Ahmad Barohi. The lawmaker escaped unharmed. A day earlier, a Taliban suicide bomber killed 30 people at a police funeral in Quetta.
Pakistan's major cities, including Lahore, have also experienced periodic attacks.
A powerful bomb exploded at a busy market street in Lahore in early July, killing at least four people and wounding nearly 50.
Lahore is considered Pakistan's cultural capital and has a population of at least 10 million people.
A CIA contractor shot to death two Pakistanis in Lahore in January 2011 who he said were trying to rob him. The incident severely damaged relations between Pakistan and the U.S. The contractor, Raymond Davis, was released by Pakistan in March 2011 after the families of the victims were paid over $2 million.
Associated Press writer Abdul Sattar in Quetta, Pakistan, and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.