BEIRUT (AP) — As the U.S. strikes Islamic State targets in Iraq, extremists belonging to the same militant group across the border in Syria are capturing new territory and becoming bolder by the day.
There, in its power base, the Islamic State group controls thousands of square kilometers (miles) of territory, including most of Syria's oil-producing region. In the areas under its control, it has established an elaborate governing system that oversees every aspect of people's lives.
The U.S. has begun surveillance flights over Syria as a possible precursor for airstrikes against Islamic State targets there. U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said the group cannot be defeated "without addressing that side of the organization which resides in Syria."
A look at the Islamic State group in Syria:
SCOPE AND SIZE
By some estimates, the Islamic State group occupies up to 35 percent of Syria, or about a third of the country. It has consolidated its hold over an impressive stretch of territory from its westernmost end on the outskirts of the city of Aleppo, across northern Syria and most of the east. It spreads into most of the Sunni-dominated areas of northern and western Iraq, right up to the edges of Baghdad. That terrain includes the oil fields of Syria's eastern Deir el-Zour province and parts of Hassakeh. It also includes parts of Aleppo province, including the major towns of Manbej and al-Bab, where the group's black flags flutter over government buildings and main squares. Because it controls territory on both sides of the border, the group can move fighters, weapons and goods between Iraq and Syria with relative ease.
The Islamic State's declared capital is Raqqa, a city in northeastern Syria along the Euphrates River. With a population of 500,000, Raqqa is the group's power base. Foreign fighters, some with their families, have flocked there from all over the world. Although it always has been a conservative city with strong tribal presence, Raqqa was once a diverse, thriving commercial center. Today, it is patrolled 24 hours a day by vice squads known as the Hisba — armed fighters in long robes who make sure their strict interpretation of Islam is observed. The militants have banned music and smoking, and have forced women to cover up. They have carried out beheadings in the main square for violators of Shariah, or Islamic law. People who were killed have had their bodies hung from crosses. The group recently imposed a curriculum in Raqqa schools, scrapping subjects such as philosophy and chemistry.
RESOURCES AND GOVERNING
The group controls virtually all major oil fields of eastern Syria, including the Omar oil field, Syria's largest, with a capacity to produce 75,000 barrels a day. According to several activists, the group has resumed some pumping and has secured revenue by selling crude oil at lower-than-market prices and exporting to Iraq and Turkey through middlemen with tankers. The group also enjoys other assets, such as three major border crossings, grain silos and the al-Furat dam, Syria's largest. In the past two years, the group has become entrenched in parts of Syria, establishing a governing system that includes administrative offices, Islamic courts and traffic police.
The group is a formidable fighting force in Syria, battling anyone who stands in its way. Since about the beginning of the year, the group has been engaged in a war of attrition with Western-backed rebels, overwhelming their outposts and picking off towns and villages one by one through force and intimidation. Hundreds of people have been killed in the fighting, which has detracted from the rebellion's main goal of toppling President Bashar Assad. More recently, the jihadists have turned their attention to Assad's forces, seizing a series of military bases, including the Tabqa airfield in Raqqa province. Following its blitz in Iraq, the group has moved tanks, cannons, Humvees and surface-to-surface missiles into Syria, parading the hardware recently in Raqqa. Most of the group's leaders are believed to be in Syria, including Omar al-Shishani, a Chechen and one of its most prominent military figures.
Assad has recently stepped up airstrikes against strongholds of the Islamic State group, perhaps to try to ward off U.S. involvement, to show he can do the job himself and to portray himself as a partner for the international community. The Syrian government has opened the door for potential cooperation with the U.S. to contain the Islamic State group but says any strikes should be done in coordination with Damascus. That's a problem for the U.S., which risks appearing on the same side as Assad, whose ouster the Obama administration has sought for years. U.S. strikes against the Islamic State group in Syria may help Assad by legitimizing his government at the expense of those seeking to topple him. Any U.S. airstrikes would likely focus on areas near the Iraqi border and militant targets such as training camps in Raqqa, where Assad's air defense capabilities are almost nonexistent.
U.S. airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State group would be much more complicated than in Iraq, where they are sanctioned by Baghdad and where battle lines are more clearly drawn. The picture in Syria is more complex, with a host of military players operating in close proximity to each other, including the Islamic State group, the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, Western-backed rebels and pro-government forces. While the Western-backed rebels have urged the U.S. to extend airstrikes to target the Islamic State group, more hard-line groups in Syria oppose any U.S. involvement.
LAS VEGAS (AP) — The death of an Arizona firearms instructor by a 9-year-old girl who was firing a fully automatic Uzi displayed a tragic side of what has become a hot industry in the U.S.: gun tourism.
With gun laws keeping high-powered weapons out of reach for most people — especially those outside the U.S. — indoor shooting ranges with high-powered weapons have become a popular attraction.
Tourists from Japan flock to ranges in Waikiki, Hawaii, and the dozen or so that have cropped up in Las Vegas offer bullet-riddled bachelor parties and literal shotgun weddings, where newly married couples can fire submachine gun rounds and pose with Uzis and ammo belts.
"People just want to experience things they can't experience elsewhere," said Genghis Cohen, owner of Machine Guns Vegas. "There's not an action movie in the past 30 years without a machine gun."
The accidental shooting death of the firing-range instructor in Arizona set off a powerful debate over youngsters and guns, with many people wondering what sort of parents would let a child handle a submachine gun.
Instructor Charles Vacca, 39, was standing next to the girl Monday at the Last Stop range in White Hills, Arizona, about 60 miles south of Las Vegas, when she squeezed the trigger. The recoil wrenched the Uzi upward, and Vacca was shot in the head.
Prosecutors say they will not file charges in the case. The identities of the girl and her family have not been released.
The dusty outdoor range calls itself the Bullets and Burgers Adventure and touts its "Desert Storm atmosphere."
Similar attractions have been around since the 1980s in Las Vegas, although the city has experienced a boom of such businesses in the past few years. Excitement over guns tends to spike when there's fear of tighter gun restrictions, according to Dan Sessions, general manager of Discount Firearms and Ammo, which houses the Vegas Machine Gun Experience.
There's also the prohibitive cost of owning an automatic weapon — an M5 might go for $25,000, while a chance to gun down zombie targets with an AR-15 and three other weapons costs less than $200.
"It's an opportunity that people may not come across again in their lifetime," Sessions said.
Tourists from Australia, Europe or Asia, where civilians are barred from many types of guns, long to indulge in the quintessentially American right to bear arms.
"People have a fascination with guns," said Cohen, who is from New Zealand and estimates about 90 percent of his customers are tourists. "They see guns as a big part of American culture, and they want to experience American culture."
The businesses cast a lighthearted spin on their shooting experiences, staging weddings in their ranges and selling souvenir T-shirts full of bullet holes.
But behind the bravado, owners acknowledge they are one errant movement away from tragedy. Cohen's business, for example, is installing a tethering system that will prevent machine guns from riding upward after firing — the same motion that killed the gun instructor this week.
"Guns are designed to cause damage, and if they're mishandled, they'll do exactly that," said Bob Irwin, owner of The Gun Store, the original Las Vegas machine gun attraction. "They have to be respected."
Sam Scarmardo, who operates the outdoor range in Arizona where the instructor was killed, said Wednesday that the parents had signed waivers saying they understood the rules and were standing nearby, video-recording their daughter, when the accident happened.
"I have regret we let this child shoot, and I have regret that Charlie was killed in the incident," Scarmardo said. He said he doesn't know what went wrong, pointing out that Vacca was an Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Jace Zack, chief deputy for the Mohave County Attorney's Office, said the instructor was probably the most criminally negligent person involved in the accident for having allowed the child to hold the gun without enough training.
"The parents aren't culpable," Zack said. "They trusted the instructor to know what he was doing, and the girl could not possibly have comprehended the potential dangers involved."
Still, the accident has raised questions about whether children that young should be handling such powerful weapons.
"We have better safety standards for who gets to ride a roller coaster at an amusement park," said Gerry Hills, founder of Arizonans for Gun Safety, a group seeking to reduce gun violence. Referring to the girl's parents, Hills said: "I just don't see any reason in the world why you would allow a 9-year-old to put her hands on an Uzi."
In 2008, an 8-year-old boy died after accidentally shooting himself in the head with an Uzi at a gun expo near Springfield, Massachusetts. Christopher Bizilj was firing at pumpkins when the gun kicked back. A former Massachusetts police chief whose company co-sponsored the gun show was later acquitted of involuntary manslaughter.
Dave Workman, senior editor at thegunmag.com and a spokesman for the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, said it can be safe to let children shoot an automatic weapon if a properly trained adult is helping them hold it.
After viewing the video of the Arizona shooting, Workman said Vacca appeared to have tried to help the girl maintain control by placing his left hand under the weapon. But automatic weapons tend to recoil upward, he noted.
"If it was the first time she'd ever handled a full-auto firearm, it's a big surprise when that gun continues to go off," said Workman, a firearms instructor for 30 years. "I've even seen adults stunned by it."
Scarmardo said his policy of allowing children 8 and older to fire guns under adult supervision and the watchful eye of an instructor is standard practice in the industry. The range's policies are under review, he said.
Associated Press Writer Gene Johnson contributed to this report from Seattle.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal researchers next week will start testing humans with an experimental vaccine to prevent the deadly Ebola virus.
The National Institutes of Health announced Thursday that it is launching the safety trial on a vaccine developed by the agency's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and GlaxoSmithKline. Beginning Tuesday, it will test 20 healthy adult volunteers to see if the virus is safe and triggers an adequate response in their immune systems.
Even though NIH has been testing other Ebola vaccines in people since 2003, this is a first for this vaccine and its trial has been speeded up because the outbreak in West Africa "is a public health emergency that demands an all-hands-on-deck response," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the NIAID.
This isn't a treatment for the disease, but a hoped-for preventative measure. Fauci said the vaccine cannot cause Ebola in the volunteers being tested.
He cautioned that there is no guarantee it will work: "I have been fooled enough in my many years of experience."
Fauci doesn't expect results from this initial round of testing until the end of the year, emphasizing that public health measures such as quarantine, isolation, infection control and personal protective devices are still the best way to fight the outbreak that so far has killed at least 1,552 people in West Africa.
The World Health Organization Thursday estimated that the death toll could eventually exceed 20,000, while announcing new efforts to fight what Fauci called the "rapidly evolving and currently uncontrolled outbreak."
The major target of the vaccine, if it works, would be health care workers, although residents of the area could also be eligible for the shots, Fauci said. More than 240 health workers have become infected in this outbreak, and more than 120 have died, he said.
If it works, people would get one shot in the arm to protect them from an immediate threat and eventually a second shot for longer-term immunity, Fauci said.
Testing will be at NIH's campus in Bethesda, Maryland, and involve a mixture that uses both the current Zaire strain and another strain, Sudan. In the second week of September, NIH and a British team will test that vaccine on 100 volunteers in the United Kingdom; tests will commence in Gambia and Mali in the middle of the month. American health officials are also talking about a future trial in Nigeria.
Then a different version of the vaccine, using only the Zaire strain, will be tested on another 20 adults in October at NIH and elsewhere in the United States.
Also sometime in fall, Canadian and U.S. health officials will start safety testing a different type of Ebola vaccine developed by NewLink Genetics Corp. of Ames, Iowa.
The U.S. vaccine takes a single protein from the Ebola virus and pairs it with a chimpanzee cold virus to help as a delivery system. Past vaccines have the used the same protein but different delivery systems.
Usually, the second stage of drug trials involve testing on larger numbers of people before it goes into final testing.
A British consortium has pledged $4.6 million to help speed up the vaccine tests. With some of that money, GlaxoSmithKline will be able to begin manufacturing up to 10,000 doses of the U.S. vaccine, if the tests are successful. The 10,000 doses will be ready by the end of the year and if needed, production can be ramped up for stockpiling, GSK spokeswoman Sarah Alspach said.
This testing "is exactly what needs to be done," said Pardis Sabeti, a Harvard University professor who has been studying Ebola and was in Africa working the outbreak.
WINSLOW, Ariz. (AP) — A dusty, barren field in the shadow of a busy Arizona interstate was for decades a place where children played freely, teenagers spooked themselves on Halloween and locals dumped trash, seemingly unaware of the history beneath them.
Inside cotton sacks, burlap bags and blankets buried in the ground are the remains of stillborn babies, tuberculosis patients, and sick and malnourished Native Americans from Winslow and the nearby Navajo and Hopi reservations.
It's hard, if not impossible, to know where each grave, some just 18 inches deep, is located at the Winslow Indian Cemetery. The aluminum plates and crosses that once marked them were trampled on, washed away or carried off.
It was no place to mourn, thought local historical preservationist Gail Sadler, before she made it her mission to unearth the identities of the roughly 600 people buried there and help their descendants reconnect with their history.
"If anyone is searching for family, I don't want these little ones to be lost," said the soft-spoken child welfare worker.
What she learned, however, was that not everyone wanted to reconnect.
Her Mormon belief about the value of knowing one's ancestry suddenly came up against traditional Navajo beliefs about death as something one rarely discusses, and Navajo and Hopi tradition about not visiting burial sites.
Some warned her that she risked inviting evil spirits if she continued her pursuit of the dead.
Sadler, 58, said she was both heartbroken — and appalled — at the condition of the cemetery when she first laid eyes on it in 2008, soon after she had been appointed to the Winslow Historic Preservation Commission.
On her first visit, she climbed through a barbed wire fence and found liquor bottles, roofing shingles and a washing machine. She wondered if a hole in the corner meant someone was trying to dig a fresh grave or dig up an old one.
She said she was moved by a "sweet spirit" and a desire restore respect and dignity to the burial ground, with a better security fence and a monument. "It just struck me that it was going to need a champion or nothing would be done," she said.
The cemetery was an afterthought in Winslow, a railroad city on the edge of the Navajo and Hopi reservations that was immortalized in 1972 by the Eagles' song, "Take it Easy," with the lyrics: "Standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona."
In the early 1930s, the land where the cemetery is was tied to a tuberculosis sanatorium that broadened its patient base and finally became the Winslow Indian Health Care Center.
Native Americans who died there were taken the half-mile to the cemetery and largely forgotten over time.
Finding out who was buried there became Sadler's main fundraising tool to get a more secure fence built. With the names of only a few dozen that she gathered from a former commissioner, she said city officials initially were hesitant to contribute to the cause.
Her mission quickly became an obsession. On nights after work and on weekends, Sadler would go online and scour death certificates — some 8,800 from 1932 to 1962 — looking for the Indian Cemetery as the final resting place.
Sadler then would painstakingly enter each detail into a spreadsheet, from parents' names to birthplaces to causes of death.
Her project also kept her up at night. Lying restless in her bed, she would slip out of the blankets and walk barefoot in the dark to a corner bedroom set up as an office. She would flip on the light and get to work.
She would imagine the stories and the faces of the people she read about.
Sadler struggled with reading about a mother who died in labor, along with her newborn. The placenta preceded the child, and the mother hemorrhaged. Sadler experienced hemorrhaging in successfully delivering one of her own children.
"I shed more than one tear, especially when I would see the same mother, several times over the years burying a baby there. It just melted my heart," said Sadler, who has eight children in a blended family, and 17 grandchildren.
So far, she has found at least 543 names of people buried at the cemetery, and publicized her index in local papers and at the "Standing on the Corner" festival and others that attracted townsfolk, tourists and Navajo and Hopi tribal members.
Sadler was met with blank stares, raised eyebrows and warnings not to press forward with her work when she spoke with traditional Navajos, whose culture teaches that death is not something to dwell on and that burial sites should be avoided.
"If you talk about death, you're in a sense luring death to come to you," said Paul Begay, whose knowledge of Navajo culture and history was passed down through his father and grandfather, both medicine men.
Burials of Hopi generally are private and occur within a day of a person's death to allow the physical and spiritual journey of a person to begin simultaneously. Once a person is buried, Hopis don't revisit the burial site.
"We allow nature to take its course, and the spirit has journeyed already," said Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the tribe's cultural preservation office, but talking about a deceased person isn't frowned upon.
"When you remember your people, you recognize that spiritually they are still with us," he said.
In April, Sadler accomplished one of her goals: A simple black iron fence replaced the barbed wire fence at the cemetery, paid for by donations and the city. She still is seeking funds to build a monument to those who were buried there.
Her index, however, continues to inspire discussions among Native American families, unearthing lost history.
Sylvia John, 63, found out five years ago that she had a brother who died after a fall as a toddler. She asked her mother about him after seeing him in old family photos but didn't push for more details in deference to her traditional Navajo beliefs.
On a recent day, they took a break from a quilting class and flipped through photos of the chubby-cheeked toddler wearing a western shirt, sitting on his mother's lap and standing next to his father.
Only then did John, who is Mormon, ask her 89-year-old mother where her brother was buried.
At the Winslow Indian Cemetery, she said. His name is on the first page of Sadler's index.
"I'm just wanting to go there to the cemetery and look for him," Sylvia John said.
MILWAUKEE (AP) — Dairy farmers squeezed in recent years by low milk prices and high feed costs can begin signing up next week for a new program replacing old subsidies that didn't factor in the price of corn.
Signups for the new program will run Sept. 2 to Nov. 28, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Thursday. Farmers must enroll then to participate in the program in what's left of 2014 and in 2015. They will have annual signups after that.
The new program is a kind of insurance that pays farmers when the difference between milk prices and feed prices shrink to a certain level. The previous program paid farmers when milk prices sank too low, but didn't account for their costs.
Dairy farmers have struggled in recent years even with good milk prices. Feed costs rose because of demand for corn from the ethanol industry and droughts, including one in 2012 that covered two-thirds of the nation.
The price for benchmark December corn on Thursday as $3.67, compared to about $5.90 two years ago.
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, warned farmers not to be complacent. In 2009 and 2012, milk gluts sent prices tumbling below the cost of production.
"Dairy prices are very high right now ... but you only have to have about a 1 or 1.5 to 2 percent surplus, and every dairy farmer knows that can go into a tailspin," said Leahy, who joined Vilsack in announcing the program.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has an online tool to help farmers figure out how much insurance they need.
Farmers can buy catastrophic coverage for $100 per year. It would pay if the difference between milk prices and feed costs sank to less than $4 per hundred pounds of milk on average. If a bigger margin is needed to make ends meet, farmers can buy additional coverage and pay a higher premium.
Ralph McNall, who has 200 Holsteins in Fairfax, Vermont, said the margin protection program is "as fair a program as they could hope to achieve." He said he appreciated the fact that it took feed prices into account.
Dairy economist Mark Stephenson said one difference between the dairy program and home or auto insurance is that most people don't know when they will have a car accident or home fire, but dairy farmers often have some warning of a milk glut or spike in feed prices.
"It's not going to be a perfect forecast, but you'll know generally if it's going to be a good year or bad year," he said.
Another challenge is that the program uses national averages to calculate the margin, so farmers have to figure out how their local markets compare, said Stephenson, the director of the Center for Dairy Profitability at the University of Wisconsin.
"So, if you knew that in 2013, you were OK, but you had some difficulties — 2012 was really bad — you might decide that a $5 margin was when you had a really hard time," Stephenson said. But, he added, "Once you determine that, you don't have to do that all the time. You just need to look at the forecast for the year ahead."
State extension services and USDA's Farm Service Agency will provide training for farmers signing up for the program, Vilsack said.
Greg Tauchen, whose family has 1,000 cows in Bonduel, Wisconsin, attended training offered earlier this year by the Land O'Lakes farmer cooperative. He decided his best options were either buying catastrophic insurance for $100 or going up to the $6.50 margin, which would cost roughly $60,000 in premiums. He's still debating what to do, given this year's forecast is good.
"I think farmers are going to jump in and out," when it comes to buying extra coverage, he said. But, he added, signing up for catastrophic coverage "is a no brainer."