---- — BAGHDAD (AP) — Sunni insurgents led by an al-Qaida breakaway group expanded their offensive in a volatile western province yesterday, capturing three strategic towns and the first border crossing with Syria to fall on the Iraqi side.
It’s the latest blow against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is fighting for his political life even as forces beyond his control are pushing the country toward a sectarian showdown. In a reflection of the bitter divide, thousands of heavily armed Shiite militiamen — eager to take on the Sunni insurgents — marched through Iraqi cities in military-style parades on streets where many of them battled U.S. forces a half decade ago
The towns of Qaim, Rawah and Anah are the first territory seized in predominantly Sunni Anbar province, west of Baghdad, since fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group overran the city of Fallujah and parts of the provincial capital of Ramadi earlier this year. The capture of Rawah on the Euphrates River and the nearby town of Anah appeared to be part of march toward a key dam in the city of Haditha, which was built in 1986 and has a hydraulic power station that produces some 1,000 megawatts. Destruction of the dam would adversely impact the country’s electrical grid and cause major flooding.
NYC mayor reigns over Mermaid Parade
NEW YORK (AP) — New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio portrayed himself as a man of the people in last year’s election. Yesterday he became a pirate among mermaids.
De Blasio showed up for yesterday’s zany Coney Island Mermaid Parade wearing a puffy pirate shirt and brandishing a fake sword. Organizers say he’s the first mayor to come in costume.
De Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, and their daughter, Chiara de Blasio, chose blue and gold mermaid dresses.
De Blasio’s son, Dante, was bare-chested and painted blue.
Dante and Chiara were chosen King Neptune and Queen Mermaid of the parade.
Putin backs Ukraine cease-fire
KIEV, Ukraine — Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed support yesterday for Ukraine’s unilateral cease-fire in its battle against pro-Russian separatists and appealed to both sides to halt all military operations.
But he warned that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s blueprint for peace would not be viable without action to start peace negotiations.
The qualified Russian backing for Poroshenko’s effort to halt the conflict was another in a series of shifting Kremlin moves and statements that leave unclear the level of Moscow’s commitment to de-escalating the conflict.
Putin’s conciliatory words came on the same day he ordered large-scale military exercises that NATO criticized as likely to raise tensions. U.S. officials also accused Russian troops of moving back into positions near the border with Ukraine’s troubled east.
The Kremlin said in a statement that Putin “calls on the opposing sides to halt any military activities and sit down at the negotiating table.”
Defense in Blackwater case cries foul
WASHINGTON — Defense lawyers for the ex-Blackwater security guards accused of killing 14 Iraqis in Baghdad nearly seven years ago are raising the possibility that prosecution witnesses, with direction from Iraqi law enforcement investigators, have orchestrated their stories.
The defense has been bedeviled by the fact that no one has come forward to support its self-defense theory — that the guards acted because they were under attack.
The most prevalent explanation since the shootings on Sept. 16, 2007, is that there were no incoming shots.
The carnage at Nisoor Square turned out to be the darkest episode of contractor violence during the war and inflamed anti-American feelings around the world. The trial, which began June 11 and is expected to last months, could feature the largest group of foreign witnesses ever to travel to the U.S. to participate in a criminal trial, according to the Justice Department.
The first witness to testify, a man whose 9-year-old son was killed at the square, told an intriguing tale this past week about money and contacts between the victims’ families and a top Iraqi investigator who looked into the shootings.
Redskins case forces hard questions
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Something is happening just beneath the fight over the name of a certain Washington, D.C., pro football team: America is working through the process of determining what is — or is not — racially offensive.
What is a slur, and who gets to decide? How many people must be offended to tip the scales? Why should some be forced to sacrifice their traditions out of respect for others?
We are a long way from consensus on these questions, judging by the response to a federal ruling that the “Redskins” team name is disparaging and its trademarks should be canceled.
The team is appealing the decision, and even if it loses its trademark, it can still use the name. But this latest development highlights the limitations of how America wrestles with certain racial statements, and our struggle to balance free speech and social good.
A rapidly diversifying nation has more need than ever to figure out what is racially offensive.
Adoptees give fresh DNA samples
DUCKTOWN, Tenn. – About 30 people showed up at a Tennessee motel yesterday to give cheek-swab DNA samples as people adopted through a nearby Georgia clinic hope to identify biological relatives before time for reconnecting runs out.
With no records of their birth parents, DNA testing may be the only way to confirm biological links for some of the 200-plus infants handed off to new parents in the 1950s and ‘60s through the late Dr. Thomas Hicks’ clinic in McCaysville, near the Tennessee-North Carolina line.
Several adoptees gave fresh DNA samplesat a motel in nearby Ducktown, Tenn., while hoping potential relatives from the area might participate. Melinda Elkins Dawson, an organizer and one of the adoptees, estimated about 70 percent of those who participated could be potential relatives.
“I’m very happy with the turnout,” said Dawson, who lives near Canton, Ohio. “This solidified for me that people are ready to embrace the subject and help us in our journey.”
Fairfield, Ohio-based DNA Diagnostics Center will compare samples if there are indications of possible matches between the people who gave them. Testing could be done within weeks.
Obama advocates for transgender rights
SAN FRANCISCO — President Barack Obama, who established his bona fides as a gay and lesbian rights champion when he endorsed same-sex marriage, has steadily extended his administration’s advocacy to the smallest and least accepted band of the LGBT rainbow: transgender Americans.
With little of the fanfare or criticism that marked his evolution into the leader Newsweek nicknamed “the first gay president,” Obama became the first chief executive to say “transgender” in a speech, to name transgender political appointees and to prohibit job bias against transgender government workers. Also in his first term, he signed hate crime legislation that became the first federal civil rights protections for transgender people in U.S. history.
Since then, the administration has quietly applied the power of the executive branch to make it easier for transgender people to update their passports, obtain health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, get treatment at Veteran’s Administration facilities and seek access to public school restrooms and sports programs — just a few of the transgender-specific policy shifts of Obama’s presidency.
“He has been the best president for transgender rights, and nobody else is in second place,” Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said of Obama, who is the only president to invite transgender children to participate in the annual Easter egg roll at the White House.
Religious conservative groups quick to criticize the president for his gay rights advocacy have been much slower to respond to the administration’s actions. The leader of the Traditional Values Coalition says there is little recourse because the changes come through executive orders and federal agencies rather than Congress.