US officials say al-Qaida is gaining a stronger foothold in Syria as the civil war drags on
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Al-Qaida has advanced beyond isolated pockets of activity in Syria and now is building a network of well-organized cells, according to U.S. intelligence officials, who fear the terrorists could be on the verge of establishing an Iraq-like foothold that would be hard to defeat if rebels eventually oust President Bashar Assad.
At least a couple of hundred al-Qaida-linked militants are already operating in Syria, and their ranks are growing as foreign fighters stream into the Arab country daily, current and former U.S. intelligence officials say. The units are spreading from city to city, with veterans of the Iraq insurgency employing their expertise in bomb-building to carry out more than two dozen attacks so far. Others are using their experience in coordinating small units of fighters in Afghanistan to win new followers.
In Syria on Friday, rebel commanders appealed anew for new and better weapons from abroad, complaining that Assad's forces have them badly outgunned from the air and on the ground. In fact, rebel leaders say that with so little aid coming to them from the U.S. and other nations, they are slowly losing the battle for influence against hardline militants. They say their fighters are sometimes siding with extremists who are better funded and armed so they can fight the far stronger Syrian army.
It all could point to a widening danger posed by extremists who have joined rebels fighting the Assad government. Although the extremists are ostensibly on the same side as Washington by opposing Assad, U.S. officials fear their presence could fundamentally reshape what began as a protest movement for reform composed of largely moderate or secular Syrians. The opposition expanded into a civil war pitting Assad's four-decade dictatorship against a movement promising a new, democratic future for the country.
The intelligence also offers some explanation for the Obama administration's reluctance to offer military aid to the anti-Assad insurgency, which Washington says it is still trying to better understand. U.S. officials have repeatedly rejected providing any lethal assistance to the conflict that has killed at least 19,000 people over the past 17 months. With the U.S. weighing its options, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will discuss the situation with top Turkish officials and Syrian opposition activists in Istanbul on Saturday.
AP Sources: Air Force relieves basic training commander over widening Lackland sex scandal
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- A widening sex scandal at Lackland Air Force Base has led to the dismissal of the top commander who oversees basic training for every new American airman, officials said Friday.
Col. Glenn Palmer was commander of basic training for the 737th training group at the Texas base, where more than a dozen military instructors in the past year have been investigated or charged with sexually assaulting recruits. Officials familiar with the decision said Palmer has been relieved from those duties, speaking on condition of anonymity because the announcement was not yet public.
The officials said there was no indication Palmer was facing any criminal charges. In all, six instructors have been charged with offenses ranging from rape to adultery.
Investigators say more than three dozen female trainees have been victimized by male instructors at Lackland, where approximately 35,000 airmen graduate each year.
About one in five recruits are female, while most instructors are male. The most serious allegations involved an instructor sentenced to 20 years in prison last month after being convicted of raping one female recruit and sexually assaulting several others.
AWOL soldier sentenced to life in prison for planning bomb attack on Fort Hood troops
WACO, Texas (AP) -- Naser Jason Abdo sat alone in court with his hands shackled and a white cloth secured over his mouth and neck. The soldier who went AWOL and plotted to kill other troops outside a Texas Army post remained defiant Friday as he was sentenced to life in prison, not asking for mercy and vowing to never end what he considers his holy war.
"I will continue until the day the dead are called to account for their deeds," Abdo said in a low, gravelly voice through the cloth mask.
A federal judge sentenced Abdo, 22, to two life terms plus additional time. The federal prison system offers no chance of parole. He was convicted of planning what he claimed would have been a massive attack on a Texas restaurant filled with troops from Fort Hood.
In court, Abdo referred to Maj. Nidal Hasan -- the Army psychiatrist soon to be tried in a deadly shooting rampage at that Army post -- as "my brother." He said he lived in Hasan's shadow despite "efforts to outdo him."
Abdo became a Muslim at age 17.
US nuns facing Vatican order to reform, quash dissent will hold talks with church leaders
ST. LOUIS (AP) -- An American nuns group rebuked by the Vatican said Friday it would hold talks with the bishops appointed to overhaul the organization but would not "compromise its mission."
Sister Pat Farrell, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, called a Vatican assessment charging the sisters with tolerating dissent a "misrepresentation." But she said the more than 900 women who attended the group's national assembly this week decided they would stay open to discussion for now with three bishops the Vatican appointed to oversee them.
"The officers will proceed with these discussions as long as possible but will reconsider of LCWR is forced to compromise the integrity of its mission," Farrell said at a news conference, where she declined to discuss specifics.
The organization represents about 80 percent of the 57,000 Roman Catholic nuns in the U.S.
The St. Louis meeting was the group's first national gathering since a Vatican review concluded the sisters had "serious doctrinal problems" and promoted "certain radical feminist themes" that undermine Catholic teaching on all-male priesthood, birth control and homosexuality. The nuns also were accused of remaining nearly silent in the fight against abortion.
EYES ON LONDON: Jeter leads US to gold in world record time, love is in the air
LONDON (AP) -- Around the 2012 Olympics and its host city with journalists from The Associated Press bringing the flavor and details of the games to you:
FAST AND FLASH
Carmelita Jeter has some flash to go with her speed.
Jeter crossed the finish line pointing the baton at the clock, which showed a world record of 40.82 for the U.S. women's 4x100-meter relay team. That shattered the old record of 41.37 set by East Germany way back in 1985. It also was the Americans' first gold in the relay since 1996.
US gasoline prices spike amid refinery problems and Mideast turmoil; risk seen for Obama
NEW YORK (AP) -- A surprise surge in gasoline prices is taking some of the fun out of summer.
The national average for a gallon of gas at the pump has climbed to $3.67, a rise of 34 cents since July 1. An increase in crude oil prices and problems with refineries and pipelines in the West Coast and Midwest, including a fire in California, are mostly to blame.
Analysts don't expect gas prices to get as high as they did in April, when 10 states passed $4 a gallon and the U.S. average topped out at $3.94. But this is still unwelcome news in this sluggish economy, since any extra money that goes to fill gas tanks doesn't get spent on movies and dinners out.
The rising prices could also put pressure on President Barack Obama in the heat of his re-election campaign.
When Phil Van Schepen recently went to fill up his dry-cleaning delivery van in Coon Rapids, Minn., he found a Post-it note a driver before him had placed on the pump faulting Obama for high gasoline prices.
USDA estimates of corn and soybean production drop as drought takes its toll on farmers
ST. LOUIS (AP) -- The government slashed its expectations for U.S. corn and soybean production for the second consecutive month Friday, predicting what could be the lowest average corn yield in more than 15 years as the worst drought in decades scorches major farm states.
Nonetheless, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in a statement supplied exclusively to The Associated Press, insisted U.S. farmers and ranchers remain resilient and the country will continue to meet demand as the global leader in farm exports and food aid.
The U.S. Agriculture Department cut its projected U.S. corn production to 10.8 billion bushels, down 17 percent from its forecast last month of nearly 13 billion bushels and 13 percent less than last year. That also would be the lowest production since 2006.
The USDA, in its World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report, now expects corn growers to average 123.4 bushels per acre, down 24 bushels from last year in what would be the lowest average yield in 17 years.
Soybean production is now forecast at 2.69 billion bushels, a 12 percent decline from last year and well off the 3.05 billion bushels the USDA had expected last month. The expected average yield of 36.1 bushels per acre would be the lowest since 2003.
Hillary Clinton's Africa trip dodges disease, bees, even features a bit of snow and dancing
COTONOU, Benin (AP) -- On an epic journey through Africa, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton braved an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in Uganda, escaped a swarm of angry bees in Malawi and witnessed a rare snow in South Africa. She even shimmied on a dance floor, gaining the nickname "Secretary of Shake."
As she wrapped up her nine-nation African tour Friday in Benin, Clinton shattered her own travel record, logging 865,000 miles and stops in 108 countries -- 10 more countries than her nearest competitor, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Circling from Senegal around the Cape of Good Hope to Kenya and back to the West African nation of Benin, she also engineered an oil deal between fractious Sudan and South Sudan, read the riot act to feuding politicians in Kenya, visited freedom icon Nelson Mandela and got Nigeria's leaders to step up their efforts against terrorism.
Clinton's grueling journey -- her second major African swing -- may be remembered best for visiting Uganda amid a deadly Ebola outbreak, for the bees that didn't sting her in Malawi and for the dance moves she displayed in South Africa on the same day that snow fell in the capital for the first time since 1968.
On Tuesday in Pretoria, as South Africans reveled in the unusual winter snowfall, Clinton hosts dubbed her "Nimkita," or "the one who brought the snow," at a gala dinner that would provide perhaps the most-viewed television footage of the trip.
Offering apology, Time columnist Fareed Zakaria suspended for copying another writer's work
NEW YORK (AP) -- Columnist and TV host Fareed Zakaria has apologized for lifting several paragraphs by another writer for use in his column in Time magazine. His column has been suspended for a month.
Zakaria said in a statement Friday he made "a terrible mistake," adding, "It is a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault."
In a separate statement, Time spokesman Ali Zelenko said the magazine accepts Zakaria's apology, but would suspend his column for one month, "pending further review."
"What he did violates our own standards for our columnists, which is that their work must not only be factual but original; their views must not only be their own but their words as well," Zelenko said.
Media reporters had noted similarities between passages in Zakaria's column about gun control that appeared in Time's Aug. 20 issue, and paragraphs from an article by Harvard University history professor Jill Lepore published in April in The New Yorker magazine.