Iraqi troops battle al-Qaida militants in fighting that kills 34; deadly bombs hit Baghdad

BAGHDAD (AP) -- The Iraqi military tried to dislodge al-Qaida militants in Sunni-dominated Anbar province Sunday, unleashing airstrikes and besieging the regional capital in fighting that killed at least 34 people, officials said. A series of bombs in Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad, meanwhile, killed at least 20 people.

The recent gains by the insurgents have been a blow to the Shiite-led government -- as sectarian violence has escalated since the U.S. withdrawal. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington was "very, very concerned" by the fighting but would not send in American troops.

Video of the airstrikes in Anbar -- apparently taken by aircraft at night -- was released by Iraq’s Defense Ministry showing al-Qaida hideouts being bombarded. It showed men gathered around a vehicle, then running away as the site was struck.

A ministry statement said the air force struck a militants’ hideout overnight, identifying them as belonging to the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which the government refers to as "terrorists."

The army and allied tribesmen also fought al-Qaida militants around the provincial capital of Ramadi on Sunday, two Anbar government officials told The Associated Press by telephone. They said 22 soldiers and 12 civilians were killed, along with an unknown number of militants, and 58 people were wounded. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.

Kerry: US will support fight against al-Qaida-linked militants in Iraq without troops

JERUSALEM (AP) -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday that the United States will support Iraq’s fight against al-Qaida-linked militants who have overrun two cities, but won’t send in American troops.

Kerry said the militants are trying to destabilize the region and undermine a democratic process in Iraq, and that the U.S. is in contact with tribal leaders in Anbar province who are standing up to the terrorists.

But, he said, "this is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis. That is exactly what the president and the world decided some time ago when we left Iraq, so we are not obviously contemplating returning. We are not contemplating putting boots on the ground. This is their fight. ... We will help them in their fight, but this fight, in the end, they will have to win and I am confident they can."

Al-Qaida linked gunmen have largely taken over the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in an uprising that has been a blow to the Shiite-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Bombings in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, killed at least 20 people Sunday.

Anbar, a vast desert area on the borders with Syria and Jordan, was the heartland of the Sunni insurgency that rose up against American troops and the Iraqi government after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Colorado sheriff’s dispatcher: 1 person killed and 2 injured, 1 severely, in Aspen plane crash

DENVER (AP) -- A fiery plane crash at the Aspen airport Sunday afternoon killed one person and injured two others, one severely, Colorado authorities said.

The three were the only ones aboard the plane, said Thomas Wright, a dispatcher with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office. One of those hurt had injuries that were not serious.

Ginny Dyche, a spokeswoman for Aspen Valley Hospital, said the facility admitted two patients who were involved in the crash. She said they were still being evaluated, but she declined to release any other information.

Allen Kenitzer, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman said the aircraft appeared to be a Bombardier Challenger 600, a midsized private jet.

FAA spokesman said the plane was headed from Tucson, Ariz., and crashed upon landing. Attempts by The Associated Press to reach airport officials in Colorado and Arizona were not immediately successful.

Across parts of northern
Syria, rebels battle
al-Qaida-linked insurgents

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian opposition fighters battled rival rebels from an al-Qaida-linked faction across parts of northern Syria on Sunday, as deep fissures within the insurgency erupted into some of the most serious and sustained violence between groups opposed to President Bashar Assad since the country’s conflict began.

The clashes, which broke out on Friday and have spread to parts of four provinces, pit an array of moderate and ultraconservative Islamist brigades against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an extremist group that has become both feared and resented in parts of opposition-held areas for trying to impose its hardline interpretation of Islam.

The fighting did not appear to be a turn in unison by Syrian rebel groups against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, activists and analysts said, but rather an outburst of violence against the al-Qaida-linked group in certain communities where tensions with other opposition factions were already simmering.

In a reflection of the fragmented and localized nature of much of the fighting in Syria’s civil war, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant continued to cooperate with rebel factions against government forces in other parts of the country.

But in some corners of opposition-held northern Syria, the backlash against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has been brewing for months. The group, which analysts say boasts more than 5,000 fighters, many of whom are foreigners, elbowed its way into rebel-held areas in the spring, co-opting some weaker armed opposition groups and crushing others as it consolidated its grip on new turf.

With Congress returning to work, election-year politics are certain to shape limited agenda

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Congress returns to work Monday with election-year politics certain to shape an already limited agenda.

Republicans intend to focus on every facet of President Barack Obama’s health care law. They see a political boost in its problem-plagued rollout as the GOP looks to maintain its House majority and seize control of the Democratic-led Senate.

First up in the House, according to Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., is legislation addressing the security of personal data, part of his party’s effort "to protect the American people from the harmful effects of Obamacare."

Republicans also promise closer scrutiny of the administration’s tally of enrollment numbers in the program.

Democrats will press to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour and extend unemployment benefits, trying to cast the party as more concerned with the less fortunate and intent on dealing with income inequality. The issues resonate with liberals, the core Democratic voters crucial in low-turnout midterm elections.

New York Fire Department: 1 dead, 1 critically hurt in midtown Manhattan high-rise fire

NEW YORK (AP) -- Authorities say one person has died and another has been critically injured in a three-alarm high-rise apartment fire in midtown Manhattan.

Firefighter spokesman Danny Glover said the fire reported to authorities shortly after 11 a.m. Sunday was in an apartment on the 20th floor of a building at 43rd Street and 10th Avenue. He says it was under control shortly before 1 p.m. He says smoke spread to several apartments around the affected apartment. Glover says it was not immediately clear what caused the fire.

He says about 40 units responded to the fire.

Two civilians with critical injuries were taken to separate New York hospitals where police say one of the victims later died.

Pope to travel to Holy Land, Jordan in May amid new
U.S.-backed Israeli-Palestinian peace push

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Pope Francis says his upcoming trip to the Holy Land aims to boost relations with Orthodox Christians. But the three-day visit in May also underscores Francis’ close ties to the Jewish community, his outreach to Muslims and the Vatican’s longstanding call for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

The announcement was made Sunday just as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up three days of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in a new U.S. bid for peace.

Francis told thousands gathered in the rain for his weekly Sunday blessing that he would visit Amman, Bethlehem and Jerusalem on May 24-26. It is the only papal trip confirmed so far for 2014 and the second foreign trip of Francis’ pontificate, following his 2013 visit to Brazil for World Youth Day.

Francis, an Argentine Jesuit, will be the fourth pope to visit the Holy Land after Paul VI’s landmark visit in 1964.

In his Christmas address, Francis singled out the Holy Land for prayers, saying "Bless the land where you chose to come into the world, and grant a favorable outcome to the peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians."

Selling clicks to boost social
media accounts brings
hundreds of millions of dollars

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) -- Celebrities, businesses and even the U.S. State Department have bought bogus Facebook likes, Twitter followers or YouTube viewers from offshore "click farms," where workers tap, tap, tap the thumbs up button, view videos or retweet comments to inflate social media numbers.

Since Facebook launched almost 10 years ago, users have sought to expand their social networks for financial gain, winning friends, bragging rights and professional clout. And social media companies cite the levels of engagement to tout their value.

But an Associated Press examination has found a growing global marketplace for fake clicks, which tech companies struggle to police. Online records, industry studies and interviews show companies are capitalizing on the opportunity to make millions of dollars by duping social media.

For as little as a half cent each click, websites hawk everything from LinkedIn connections to make members appear more employable to Soundcloud plays to influence record label interest.

"Anytime there’s a monetary value added to clicks, there’s going to be people going to the dark side," said Mitul Gandhi, CEO of seoClarity, a Des Plaines, Ill., social media marketing firm that weeds out phony online engagements.