13 years into war on terror, Islamic militants as bold as ever across region

CAIRO (AP) -- It has been a week of stunning advances by Islamic militants across a belt from Iraq to Pakistan. In Iraq, jihadi fighters rampaged through the country’s second-largest city and swept farther south in their drive to establish an extremist enclave stretching into Syria. Pakistan’s largest airport was paralyzed and rocked by explosions as gunmen stormed it in a dramatic show of strength.

More than a decade after the U.S. launched its "war on terrorism," Islamic militant groups are bolder than ever, exploiting the erosion or collapse of central government control in a string of nations -- Syria, Iraq and Pakistan -- that are more strategically vital than the relatively failed states where al-Qaida set up its bases in the past: Somalia, Yemen and 1990s Afghanistan.

Most galling to Washington, the crumbling state power has come in countries that the United States has spent billions of dollars to try to strengthen over the past 13 years.

Policy failings by those governments have contributed to giving militants an opening.

Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has alienated the country’s Sunni community, which feels sidelined by his Shiite-led government. That has pushed some Sunnis into supporting the militants and undermined the military, which includes many Sunnis.

Big changes ahead for GOP in House after tea party upends majority leader

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Repudiated at the polls, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor announced Wednesday that he will resign his leadership post at the end of next month, clearing the way for a potentially disruptive Republican shake-up just before midterm elections with control of Congress at stake.

Cantor informed fellow Republicans of his intentions at an emotional closed-door meeting, then made his public announcement at a news conference where he appeared upbeat, all less than 24 hours after losing a primary election to David Brat, a little-known and underfunded rival backed by tea party groups.

Lawmakers in both parties said Cantor’s defeat and the prospect of a change within the Republican high command probably signal the demise of immigration legislation along the lines President Barack Obama is seeking and will also have a negative impact on the balance of his second-term agenda.

Even so, White House spokesman Josh Earnest disputed the notion that Cantor’s surprise loss crushed the prospects of House Republican leaders putting an immigration bill on the floor this year. He noted that Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., had been deeply involved in passing the Senate immigration bill and still defeated his primary opponents Tuesday night.

The outcome of Tuesday’s primary represented the biggest victory by far this year for tea party forces, and it holds the potential to unsettle other incumbents facing GOP challengers this summer.

Groups allege abuse of children at U.S. border facilities amid surge of crossings

SAN DIEGO (AP) -- Unaccompanied children arrested by U.S. border authorities are packed in frigid cells and sleep on hard floors without enough food or medical care, advocacy groups said in a complaint Wednesday that alleges widespread abuses amid a surge of illegal crossings by young immigrants from strife-torn Central American countries.

The Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project and four other groups produced 116 allegations of abuse of children who were in Customs and Border Protection custody. They said more than 80 percent received inadequate food and water, about half were denied medical care, and about one of every four was physically abused.

A 13-year-old boy said he was threatened by an official with a metal rod and was later sexually molested while in custody, a 14-year-old girl reported her asthma inhaler was confiscated, and a 14-year-old boy was unable to sleep for five days because the lights were always on. A 16-year-old boy said an official told him, "You are in my country now, and we are going to bury you in a hole."

The allegations described in the administrative complaint to the Department of Homeland Security were based on interviews with the children from around March to May. The complaint doesn’t provide dates of the alleged abuse, but authors said much of it occurred over the last year. The locations are not listed because, the authors said, the children were frequently shuttled around and didn’t know where they were.

Oil boom produces rare jobs bonanza for archaeologists to survey sites ahead of development

TIOGA, N.D. (AP) -- Drilling crews are eager to plunge their equipment into the ground. Road builders are ready to start highway projects, and construction workers need to dig.

But across the hyperactive oil fields of North Dakota, these and other groups have to wait for another team of specialists known for slow, meticulous study: archaeologists.

They are the experts who must survey the land before a single spade of dirt can be turned, a requirement that has produced a rare jobs bonanza in a field that forces many highly educated professionals to hop from project to project around the world and still struggle to make a living.

Without the oil boom, a lot of young archaeologists might "never get the experience," said Tim Dodson, who endured a long job search before finding work overseas and later coming to North Dakota.

The positions also come with a constant tension: The archaeologists are trained to find evidence of the past, but the companies that pay them would prefer not to turn up anything that gets in the way of profits.

Doubts raised about Iraqi premier as U.S. prepares new assistance to combat violent insurgency

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The United States is preparing to send new aid to Iraq to help slow a violent insurgent march that is threatening to take over the nation’s north, officials said Wednesday. But the Obama administration offered only tepid support for Iraq’s beleaguered prime minister, and U.S. lawmakers openly questioned whether he should remain in power.

With no obvious replacement for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki -- and no apparent intent on his part to step down -- Washington is largely resigned to continue working with his Shiite-led government that has targeted Sunni political opponents and, in turn, has inflamed sectarian tensions across Iraq.

"He’s obviously not been a good prime minister," said Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "He has not done a good job of reaching out to the Sunni population, which has caused them to be more receptive to al-Qaida efforts."

The panel’s chairman, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., noted only lukewarm support for al-Maliki, both in Iraq and among U.S. officials. "I don’t know whether or not he will actually be the prime minister again," Menendez said. "I guess by many accounts, he may very well ultimately put (together) the coalition necessary to do that."

Insurgents with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is inspired by al-Qaida, overran the northern Iraqi town of Tikrit on Wednesday, a day after seizing Mosul, the nation’s second-largest city. The insurgent network has controlled the western city of Fallujah since the start of this year, and is fighting to take over Beiji, a key northern oil refinery town.

Citing risk and uncertainty, Hagel says not enough time to tell lawmakers about Bergdahl trade

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel delivered an aggressive defense Wednesday of the secret prisoner exchange of five Taliban detainees for a U.S. soldier, telling Congress that the risks were too great and the situation too uncertain for the administration to tell lawmakers about the plan.

In a nearly five-hour Capitol Hill hearing that was at times contentious, House members accused Hagel and the White House of not trusting them enough to follow the law and fill them in on the decision to exchange Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five detainees at the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

An equally combative Hagel said the deal provided "the best possibility that we had to get him out, and we were concerned we might lose it." He said officials discussed the law requiring that Congress get a 30-day notice of detainee exchanges but said the Justice Department told them that in such extreme circumstances President Barack Obama had the constitutional authority to forego the notice.

The Justice Department declined to comment on advice it gave the White House.

The first Obama administration official to testify about the prisoner swap, Hagel acknowledged up front that the matter could have been handled better. But he offered no apology for keeping Congress in the dark, insisting that Qatari officials negotiating the swap between the U.S. and the Taliban made it clear that "time was not on our side."

Al-Qaida-inspired militants seize Iraqi city of Tikrit, pushing into Sunni areas

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Al-Qaida-inspired militants pushed deeper into Iraq’s Sunni heartland Wednesday, swiftly conquering Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit as soldiers and security forces abandoned their posts and yielded ground once controlled by U.S. forces.

The advance into former insurgent strongholds that had largely been calm before the Americans withdrew less than three years ago is spreading fear that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, struggling to hold onto power after indecisive elections, will be unable to stop the Islamic militants as they press closer to Baghdad.

Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militant group took control Tuesday of much of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, sending an estimated half a million people fleeing from their homes. As in Tikrit, the Sunni militants were able to move in after police and military forces melted away after relatively brief clashes.

The group, which has seized wide swaths of territory, aims to create an Islamic emirate spanning both sides of the Iraq-Syria border.

The capture of Mosul -- along with the fall of Tikrit and the militants’ earlier seizure of the western city of Fallujah -- have undone hard-fought gains against insurgents in the years following the 2003 invasion by U.S.-led forces.