BAGHDAD (AP) — Skirmishes broke out Tuesday between Iraqi security forces and militants on the outskirts of Tikrit, a local official and a resident said, a day after the Iraqi and Kurdish troops backed by U.S. airstrikes dislodged Islamic militants from a strategic dam in the country's north.
The United Nations refugee agency, meanwhile, said it is launching one of its largest aid pushes aimed at helping close to a half million people who have been forced to flee their homes by the violence in Iraq.
The clashes in Tikrit, some 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad, began on the militant-held city's southwestern outskirts when a military convoy was travelling along the main highway that links Baghdad with the northern provinces, they said. The Iraqi military shelled militant positions inside and outside the city.
There were no immediate reports of casualties. The local official and resident both spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for their safety.
Sunni extremists from the Islamic State group have occupied Tikrit and the northern city of Mosul since early June, as well as large parts of the country's north and west. The militant onslaught has plunged Iraq into its worst crisis since the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011.
The group since has declared a self-styled caliphate in territory it controls in Iraq and neighboring Syria, imposing their own harsh interpretation of Islamic law.
The Iraqi military launched an operation in late June to try to wrest back control of Tikrit, but that quickly stalled after making little headway. Sporadic clashes have been reported around the city and surrounding areas since then, but efforts by Iraqi government forces and allied Sunni tribal militiamen have failed to push out the militants.
Earlier this month, the tomb of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein just south of Tikrit was damaged in clashes between security forces and the radical group.
Iraqi army spokesman, Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, said Tuesday that a "slow and gradual" push to retake areas around Tikrit is underway, an effort he described as "biting back the land." Al-Moussawi said security forces dismantled more than 40 bombs in the area.
"There are still a lot of challenges and difficulties ahead of us," he said in a live briefing aired on state TV. "The war needs time, but we are determined to annihilate the Islamic State (group) and to liberate all the areas they occupy — even if we suffer heavy causalities, because we have no other choice."
On Monday, Iraqi and Kurdish forces recaptured the Mosul Dam in northern Iraq less than two weeks after it was seized by the militants. The dam is the largest in Iraq and a vital power and water resource for the country.
The gains made by the militants brought U.S. forces back into the conflict for the first time since they withdrew in 2011. America's renewed involvement on the battlefield was a reflection of the growing international concern over the Sunni extremist group. Washington began carrying out dozens of airstrikes on Aug. 8.
Hours after retaking the dam, U.S. President Barack Obama called the development a "major step forward" in the fight against the group.
Obama said a breach of the dam could have had catastrophic consequences and endangered U.S. Embassy personnel in Baghdad. He said the U.S. was urgently providing arms and assistance to Iraqi security forces as well as Kurdish fighters fighting the extremists.
"We've got a national security interest in making sure our people are protected and in making sure that a savage group that seems willing to slaughter people for no rhyme or reason other than they have not kowtowed — that a group like that is contained, because ultimately it can pose a threat to us," Obama told reporters.
Al-Moussawi on Tuesday hailed the "big success and achievement" of security forces, reiterating that the dam "is now under security forces' full control."
Also Tuesday, Iraq's designate-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi issued a statement praising security forces as "heroes" for confronting "the terrorist gangs." He also called on security forces to ensure "precise targeting" so as not to hit the civilians.
Some 1.5 million people have been displaced by fighting in Iraq since the Islamic State's rapid advance began in June, and thousands more have died. The scale of the humanitarian crisis prompted the U.N. to declare its highest level of emergency last week.
On Tuesday, the U.N. refugee agency announced that it will begin a massive air, road and sea operation Wednesday, starting with a four day airlift using Boeing 747s from Aqaba in Jordan to Iraq's northern Kurdish region.
"Many are still coming to grips with the tragedy they've been through in recent weeks - fleeing homes with nothing, and many trying to cope with the loss of loved ones," Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for UNHCR, said in a statement. "Emergency support is an urgent need that we are trying to meet."
Associated Press reporter Bram Janssen in Irbil, Iraq contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Hundreds of photographs, papers and historical objects documenting the history of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are being added to the Smithsonian Institution's collection Tuesday, including items from the popular TV show "Will and Grace."
Show creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick along with NBC are donating objects to the National Museum of American History. The collection includes original scripts, casting ideas, political memorabilia surrounding the show and the series finale. The network agreed to donate props, including a pill bottle and flask, a sign from "Grace Adler Interior Design" and Will Truman's framed college diploma.
Kohan told The Associated Press that the Smithsonian's interest in the show featuring gay principal characters was a validation they never dreamed about when the sitcom began airing in 1998. "Will and Grace" ran through May 2006 depicting four friends both gay and straight, eventually ending with the main characters coupled off with children.
"These particular guests that were invited into people's living rooms happened to be your gay friends," Kohan said. "I don't think people really had the opportunity to have that before, and it served to, I think, make people recognize that your close friends were gay."
"The fact that it's in the American history (museum), maybe we were a part of something that was bigger than we ever imagined," Kohan said.
The donation is part of larger effort to document gay and lesbian history, an area that has not been well understood at the museum. Curators are collecting materials from LGBT political, sports and cultural history objects from Arizona to Maryland.
Some items being donated include the diplomatic passports of Ambassador David Huebner, the first openly gay U.S. ambassador confirmed by the Senate, and his husband; materials from a gay community center in Baltimore; and photography collections from Patsy Lynch and Silvia Ros documenting gay rights activism.
From sports history, the museum will receive a tennis racket from former professional player Renee Richards who won a landmark New York Supreme Court decision for transgender rights after she was denied entry to the U.S. Open in 1975.
"There have always been gender non-conforming people in the U.S., and we've made contributions and lived life since the beginning of the country," said Curator Katherine Ott who focuses on sexuality and gender. "It's not talked about and analyzed and understood in the critical ways in which it should be. So for us to build the collection means we can more fully document the history of this country."
"Will and Grace" used comedy to familiarize a mainstream audience with gay culture, said Curator Dwight Blocker Bowers. It was daring and broke ground in the same way "All in the Family" did in the 1970s around issues of bigotry and tolerance, Bowers said.
OAKHURST, Calif. (AP) — Firefighters from throughout California were being dispatched Tuesday to protect homes threatened by an out-of-control wildfire burning in the foothills near Yosemite National Park, the second fire around the park in recent weeks.
The nearly 2-square-mile, wind-whipped blaze in Madera County had destroyed eight structures and was threatening 500 homes around Oakhurst, a community about 16 miles from a Yosemite entrance, fire and sheriff's officials said. Mandatory evacuation orders were in place for about 1,000 people, and another 4,000 were told to prepare to leave their homes, Madera County sheriff's spokeswoman Erica Stuart said.
"This is a wind-dominated fire," Stuart said. "We have no control of that."
The fire comes as California is in the midst of its third straight year of drought, creating tinder-dry conditions that have significantly increased the fire danger around the state.
Evacuated residents in Oakhurst braced for the worst.
"There is nothing you can do when a fire is raging," said Clement Williams, 67. "You just have to flee. It's a real sinking feeling."
Williams and his wife, Gretchen Williams, 63, were trying to get information about the fire and their home from fire officials. They spent the night at a nearby hotel and casino.
Oakhurst was smoky, though no flames were visible from the downtown area. The fire was moving away from town toward a nearby reservoir and resort community, state fire spokesman Chris Christopherson said. Fire crews, however, were anticipating some help from cooler temperatures, higher humidity and calmer winds.
Winds pushed embers from the blaze up to a half-mile after the fire began Monday afternoon, Christopherson said.
It was unclear how many of the eight structures that were destroyed were homes.
State Route 41 toward Yosemite was closed in the area and travelers would need to use different routes into the park, authorities said.
The fire was burning near a propane business with 30,000 gallon tanks on site, but the tanks were spared, Stuart said.
The fire comes on the heels of another blaze around Yosemite this summer and last year's Rim Fire, which raged for two months across 400 square miles of land including part of Yosemite National Park. The Rim Fire threatened thousands of structures, destroyed 11 homes and cost more than $125 million to fight.
Last month's fire, which also burned in the park, threatened about 100 homes and sent smoke into Yosemite's famed valley before it was brought under control.
Meanwhile, another out-of-control blaze that began Monday some 50 miles northeast of Bakersfield surged to 3,195 acres, or nearly 5 square miles.
"It burned north, south and east," said Cindy Thill, a fire spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service. "It went uphill and downhill at the same time."
The fire burning near Lake Isabella in Kern County brought recommended evacuation orders for about 200 homes in several neighborhoods, the Forest Service said. A Red Cross evacuation center was set up at Kern Valley High School in Lake Isabella.
Some structures burned, but it wasn't immediately clear how many or if any were homes, Thill said. There was no containment of the fire early Tuesday.
More than 450 firefighters with air support were battling the flames in steep terrain amid low humidity and high temperatures.
Northeast of Los Angeles, crews were making quick work of a 275-acre wildfire that forced the evacuation of 200 people from a campground and recreational areas.
The blaze that broke out Sunday afternoon above the foothill community of Glendora was 60 percent contained by Monday night and largely reduced to smoking embers.
Associated Press writers Chris Weber in Los Angeles and Sudhin Thanawala in San Francisco contributed to this report.
LONDON (AP) — Calling all London tourists: Peter Pan, Sherlock Holmes and Queen Victoria want a word with you.
Statues of some three dozen historical and fictional characters in London and Manchester are coming to life thanks to a new interactive project that gives them a voice to tell their stories.
Passers-by can swipe their smartphones on a tag or type in a web address to get an instant call from the characters depicted. Actors including Patrick Stewart and Downton Abbey's Hugh Bonneville perform the monologues, which last a few minutes each.
The project, launched Tuesday, features Isaac Newton at the British Library, Sherlock Holmes at Baker Street station, and Queen Victoria at Blackfriars Bridge, among others.
The statues will talk for a year and organizers hope to bring them to other cities.
The U.S. Department of Justice has mounted an unusually swift and aggressive response to the death of Michael Brown, from an independent autopsy to dozens of FBI agents combing Ferguson, Missouri, for witnesses to the shooting of the unarmed black 18-year-old by a white police officer.
The goal, legal observers say, is to ensure that the truth about the killing is revealed, to ease racial tensions, and to reassure those fearing a cover-up that justice will be done.
Brown was shot dead in the street in the St. Louis suburb on Aug. 9. Gov. Jay Nixon asked for a federal investigation two days later, after riots erupted when the county police force confronted protesters with armored vehicles, tear gas and dogs. After the images of the military-style police response drew widespread criticism, federal officials said they were coaching local authorities on different tactics.
On Saturday, 40 FBI agents started going door-to-door in the neighborhood where the shooting took place, interviewing witnesses and gathering information. An independent federal autopsy was announced Sunday, and Attorney General Eric Holder said it was performed Monday. President Barack Obama also announced Monday that Holder would travel to Ferguson to meet with investigators and community leaders.
"What they usually do is wait for the local investigation to complete itself," said Alberto Gonzales, former attorney general under President George W. Bush.
Gonzales said that although he did not have all the information being evaluated by federal officials, it appeared to be an aggressive and unusual response to an unusual case.
"They're going in with one goal: to ascertain the truth. And to do so in a way that raw feelings can be comforted and soothed," said Gonzales, who is now dean of the Belmont College of Law in Nashville.
Ferguson is about 70 percent black. Ferguson's mayor is white, as are five of six city council members and 50 of its 53 police officers. Many in Ferguson and beyond fear that local officials will not act fairly in determining whether to charge the officer, Darren Wilson, with a crime.
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch, who is in charge of the investigation, also is white. He comes from a family of police officers, including his father. When he was 12, his father was fatally shot by a black man while responding to a call. In a 2000 case, McCulloch brought no charges against two officers who fired 21 shots into a vehicle, killing two black men during an attempted drug arrest.
McCulloch has declined calls to step away from the case, saying in a television interview, "I've been as fair and impartial and done as thorough of a job as we could."
At the Department of Justice, Holder, the first black attorney general, who took office promising to fiercely fight discrimination and inequality, has been an increasingly visible presence during the Ferguson case.
That is reassuring to Blair L.M. Kelley, a history professor at North Carolina State University.
"I'm glad to see him being proactive," she said. "That's the best way to tamp down anger on the streets, is to pursue justice in an evenhanded manner. I think he knows that and is using his position to best serve a broader sense of justice."
"It puts pressure on the local investigators to do their best, because he's there," Kelley said.
Sampson Cheney III, a Ferguson resident who lives 50 yards from where Brown was shot, is glad that federal agents are on the scene. He was interviewed by an FBI agent Saturday. He doubts that local officials would file charges against the officer.
"It seems (federal officials) don't have a horse in the race," Cheney said.
Holder and White House adviser Valerie Jarrett spoke with representatives of civic groups who had been invited to participate in a White House call Monday afternoon.
A person on the call said participants were told that federal investigators have interviewed about 200 people so far, some referred through the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The call was closed to reporters, and the participant spoke on condition of anonymity because of the no-media ground rules.
Kelley said Holder's actions have been reminiscent of the role played by Attorney General Robert Kennedy (whose portrait hangs outside Holder's office) during the civil rights movement, when President John F. Kennedy was trying to navigate black resistance to white supremacy in the Jim Crow South. Ultimately, the Kennedys used federal authority to ensure equal treatment for African-Americans. They also brought federal civil rights charges in some cases — a possibility that Holder's Justice Department is investigating in Ferguson.
The Justice Department investigated civil rights charges after the unarmed teen Trayvon Martin was killed by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in Florida. No charges were filed, despite requests by the NAACP and other advocacy groups.
But there are important differences between the Kennedy years and now, said John Malcolm, a former deputy assistant attorney general, who now is director of the Meese Legal Center at the Heritage Foundation.
"I don't think in this case police are like, we want to oppress black people and deny them their constitutional rights," Malcolm said. "They're responding to a riot situation, and it got out of control."
Malcolm could not recall a similar federal response to a case like Michael Brown's.
"It's certainly aggressive," he said. "It sends a message that the federal government is concerned and wants to get involved and de-escalate the tension as soon as possible."
Malcolm said that strategy could backfire, if it fans false assumptions that there is a racial component to the case. But overall he did not have any criticism of the DOJ's actions.
"This is a rapidly deteriorating situation," he said. "Clearly in the public mind there is a racial component to how police have acted. Police have not helped themselves with their overreaction to the situation. So I think there are times when (federal involvement) can help defuse the situation. Let's hope that's what happens here."
SOUTH PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — Police said they prevented a "horrific tragedy" by arresting two teenage boys who plotted to kill three high school staffers then gun down as many students as possible in a quaint Los Angeles suburb.
The boys, who were trying to get weapons, had been under constant surveillance since the school district informed police of their plans last Thursday, South Pasadena police Sgt. Brian Solinsky said Monday.
He would not elaborate on the plans or what form they took, but Solinsky said they were "very specific" and included named targets. The boys' names haven't been released. Police planned a news conference Tuesday to provide more information.
"This is a prime example of school officials recognizing suspicious behavior," Solinsky said in a statement. "It was this information that helped prevent a horrific tragedy."
Police found evidence the boys were looking for information on submachine guns, rifles, bombs and other explosives, especially propane.
"They were researching weapons and how to fire and assemble them," police Sgt. Robert Bartl told the Pasadena Star-News.
Enough evidence was gathered to serve warrants at the boys' homes Monday.
Police had to break into one boy's house as he resisted and they took him into custody as he tried to run, Solinsky said.
The boys were both about to begin their senior year at South Pasadena High School, a well-regarded school. The leafy San Gabriel Valley suburb of about 25,000 people 6 miles from downtown Los Angeles is known for its high-quality schools, which drive up the price of homes. Small two-bedroom bungalows can easily top $700,000.
Police aimed to make the arrests before the first day of class Thursday, though they found no evidence of a date for a planned attack, Bartl told the Star-News.
Detectives had been working around the clock and monitoring the boys since the threat first emerged. Relatives of both boys had been questioned, Solinsky said, but would not elaborate further.
The arrests came the day after another Los Angeles County boy was arrested on suspicion of posting online threats to shoot students at local schools, though sheriff's officials acknowledged that those threats were intended as pranks.