Militants try to tighten grip in Iraq, Syria

By RYAN LUCAS and ZEINA KARAM Associated Press Published:

BAGHDAD -- Fresh from success in Iraq, a Sunni extremist group tried to tighten its hold Wednesday on territory in Syria and crush pockets of resistance on land straddling the border where it has declared the foundation of an Islamic state.

Embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned that the entire region is endangered by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, whose gunmen have rampaged across his country in recent weeks.

Facing pressure to step aside, al-Maliki said the focus must be on countering the threat -- not wholesale leadership changes.

Led by an ambitious Iraqi militant known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group this week unilaterally declared the establishment of an Islamic state, or caliphate, in the land it has seized.

President Barack Obama has been hesitant to send much military aid to Iraq for fear of dragging the U.S. into another long war.

The White House has ruled out sending combat troops, but this week dispatched more soldiers to Baghdad to help bolster the U.S. Embassy.

Officials say there are about 750 U.S. troops in Iraq -- about half of which are advising Iraqi forces. U.S. manned and unmanned aircraft are also flying dozens of reconnaissance missions a day over Iraq to gather intelligence.

Meanwhile, Iraq is increasingly turning to other governments like Russia, Iran and Syria for help.

Iraqi air force commander Lt. Gen. Anwar Hama Amin told the AP a third batch of Russian-made Su-25 warplanes arrived in the country Wednesday, bringing the total delivered to 13. He said all 13 planes were second-hand aircraft purchased from Russia to help fight the insurgents.

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