QAIM, Iraq (AP) — From their outpost on Iraq’s westernmost edge, U.S. 1st Lt. Kyle Hagerty and his troops watched civilians trickle into the area after American and Iraqi forces drove out the Islamic State group. They were, he believed, families returning to liberated homes, a hopeful sign of increasing stability.

But when he interviewed them on a recent reconnaissance patrol, he discovered he was wrong. They were families looking for shelter after being driven from their homes in a nearby town. Those who pushed them out were forces from among their “liberators” — Shiite militiamen who seized control of the area after defeating the IS militants.

It was a bitter sign of the mixed legacy from the United States’ intervention in Iraq to help defeat the militants. American-backed military firepower brought down the IS “caliphate,” but many of the divisions and problems that helped fuel the extremists’ rise remain unresolved.

The U.S.-led coalition, which launched its fight against IS in August 2014, is now reducing the numbers of American troops in Iraq, after Baghdad declared victory over the extremists in December. Both Iraqi and U.S. officials say the exact size of the drawdown has not yet been decided.

U.S. and Iraqi commanders here in western Iraq warn that victories over IS could be undercut easily by a large-scale withdrawal. Iraq’s regular military remains dependent on U.S. support. Many within Iraq’s minority communities view the U.S. presence as a buffer against the Shiite-dominated central government. Still, Iranian-backed militias with strong voices in Baghdad are pushing for a complete U.S. withdrawal, and some Iraqis liken any American presence to a form of occupation.

That has left an uncomfortable limbo in this area that was the last battlefield against the extremists. Coalition commanders still work with Iraqi forces to develop long-term plans for stability even as a drawdown goes ahead with no one certain of its eventual extent.

HEARTS AND MINDS — AGAIN

“Let’s go win us some hearts and minds,” Sgt. Jonathan Cary, 23, joked as he and Hagerty and the patrol convoy set off from a base outside the town of Qaim, evoking a phrase used in American policy goals for Iraq ever since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.

After just a few hours moving on foot across farmland and orchards to a cluster of modest houses, Hagerty realized the families he thought were returnees to the area were in fact newly displaced. Their homes in Qaim had been confiscated by the government-affiliated Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF, made up mainly of Shiite paramilitary fighters backed by Iran.

“Our end goal is a stable Iraq, right?” Hagerty said later, back at the base. “But when you see stuff like that, it makes you wonder if they are ever going to be able to do it themselves.”

After victories against IS, the PMF has built up a presence in many parts of Sunni-majority provinces, including western Anbar. It formally falls under the command of the prime minister, but some Iraqi commanders accuse the PMF of being a rival to government power.

PMF flags line highways crisscrossing Anbar. At a PMF checkpoint outside al-Asad airbase — a sprawling complex used by both Iraqi and coalition forces — U.S. convoys are regularly stopped for hours while busloads of PMF fighters are waved through.

U.S. Marine Col. Seth Folsom works closely with the branches of Iraq’s security forces — Sunni tribal fighters and the Iraqi army — who are increasingly concerned about the rise in power of the PMF. Iran has given no indication of dialing back its support after the defeat of IS extremists.

“The biggest question I get now is, ‘how long can we count on you being here?'” Folsom said of his conversations with Iraqi commanders and local politicians.

That decision ultimately rests with Iraq’s political leadership, he said.

“I guess some people could see that as a cop-out, but at the same time it’s not my place as a lowly colonel to define how long the U.S. presence is going to be.”

‘FORWARD LINE OF FREEDOM’

For the senior officers leading the current fight against IS, decades of U.S. military intervention in Iraq has defined their careers.

The top U.S. general in Iraq — Lt. Gen. Paul Funk — served in Iraq four times: in the Gulf war in 1991; in the 2003 invasion; in the surge when some 170,000 American troops were serving in Iraq in 2007; and most recently in the fight against IS.

“It will definitely be positive,” Funk said of the legacy of the U.S. role against IS in Iraq. “People see their young men and women out here defeating evil. That’s a positive thing.”

On a recent flight from Baghdad to a small U.S. outpost in northern Syria near Manbij — a trip that traversed the heart of the battlefield with IS for the past 3½ years — Funk described the future of the fight as ideological and open-ended.

“The problem is people believe it’s already over, and it’s not,” he said. “Beating the ideology, destroying the myth, that’s going to take time.”

Touching down outside an orchard on the perimeter of the Manbij base, Funk exclaimed: “Welcome to the front line of freedom!”

Funk predicts the ideological fight could take years and easily require U.S. troop deployments elsewhere. He said that is one reason he believes it’s so important to visit U.S. troops on the current front lines — to show them “the American people believe in their purpose.”

“We have got to recruit the next generation,” he said.

Many of the young U.S. troops interviewed by The Associated Press said they didn’t know anything about the Islamic State group when they enlisted.

Rayden Simeona, a 21-year-old corporal in the Marines, enlisted in 2014, when all he knew about the U.S. military was from movies and video games.

“I felt like I wasn’t going anywhere with my life, I had no idea what IS was. I just knew I wanted to go to war,” he said. Once deployed, he said talk rarely broached the big questions of “What we are doing here?” or “Why?”

“But I do wonder all the time: Why are we spending all this money in Iraq?” he said. “There’s probably some greater plan or reason that someone much higher up than me knows.”

IS THE JUICE WORTH THE SQUEEZE?

Along Iraq’s border with Syria, the two Iraqi forces charged with holding a key stretch of territory lack direct communication. Because one force falls under the Defense Ministry and the other under the Interior Ministry, their radios are incompatible.

Instead, the troops use Nokia cellphones in a part of the country where network coverage is spotty to nonexistent.

At the nearby coalition outpost near Qaim, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Brandon Payne spends much of his time filling communications gaps by relaying messages between different branches of Iraq’s military.

“The coordination is not where we hoped it would be,” Payne said. “But they do talk to each other, and we see that as a sign of progress.”

Tactical shortcomings within Iraq’s military are partially what fueled the expansion of the coalition’s footprint in Iraq in the past three years. As Iraqi ground forces demonstrated an inability to communicate and coordinate attacks across multiple fronts, U.S. forces moved closer to the fighting and sped up the pace of territorial gains.

Despite the caliphate’s collapse, those weaknesses have persisted. Iraqi forces remain dependent on coalition intelligence, reconnaissance, artillery fire and airstrikes to hold territory and fight IS insurgent cells.

Payne regularly shuttles between his base, Qaim and the Syrian border, meeting with different members of Iraqi forces to coordinate security and repel IS attacks from the Syrian side.

“I would say we are still needed,” Payne said. “We are getting great results with this model, but you see how much goes into it.”

The base, once a small, dusty outpost, now houses a few hundred coalition troops and is a maze of barracks, gyms, a dining facility, laundry services and a chapel.

“At some point, someone much higher up than me is going to decide the juice is just not worth the squeeze,” Payne said, referring to the cost of such a large outpost in a remote corner of the country.

ROTTEN LEADERSHIP

Iraqi army Lt. Col. Akram Salah Hadi, who works closely with Payne’s soldiers at the Qaim outpost, said coalition training and intelligence sharing have improved the performance of his unit. But overall, the U.S. effort in Iraq gives him little hope for the future.

Corruption in the military, Hadi said, remains as bad as it was in 2014, when it was seen as a major reason why entire Iraqi divisions simply dissolved in the assault on Mosul by a few hundred IS fighters.

Young Iraqi soldiers with ambition and talent can’t rise through the ranks without political connections. Top ranks are bloated with officers who have bought their promotions. Within his division alone, Hadi said he can think of 40 officers with no military background who attained their rank because of their membership in a political party.

“With leadership like this, the rest will always be rotten,” he said.

Coalition programs that have trained tens of thousands of Iraqi troops have largely focused on the infantry, not the junior officers needed to lead units and instill a culture of service that will make a professional force.

Folsom, the U.S. Marine colonel, said military power will not root out corruption or heal Iraq’s longstanding divisions.

“I have a saying out here,” he added, “‘You can’t want it more than them.'”

 

You may take the school bus to school every day — but can you imagine living in one? A new trend is putting a spin on the all-too-familiar yellow vehicle and turning it into a cozy and affordable housing space. Skoolies have become popular in places where rent and home prices are high, and for young people who can’t afford the cost of living, skoolies offer a fun and cost-effective alternative to own a home. Plus, you can travel the country without ever having to leave the comfort of your home!

So what do you think — are skoolies the Next Big Thing? Vote and tell us your opinion in the comments section below. Or submit your video comments to nbt@channelone.com. We will feature the results of the poll and some of your comments on the show!

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The NBA dunk contest was a throwback in many ways, with a 21-year-old rookie and a 25-year-old, third-year pro fighting it out for the trophy.

Larry Nance Jr. rolled out his father’s old uniform — down to the knee-high socks — and then rolled out his father himself to help with one of his dunks. But he came up short against Donovan Mitchell, the precocious Utah Jazz rookie with his own sense of history.

Mitchell put on a show at Staples Center to win the slam dunk contest and cap off NBA All-Star Saturday.

Mitchell edged Nance Jr. 98-96, sealing his victory with a close approximation of the 360-degree spin dunk that Vince Carter used to win the 2000 contest.

“I wanted this so badly,” Mitchell said. “This is one of my favorite events of All-Star weekend. To not only be in it, but to win it, it’s crazy.”

Before making his winning dunk, Mitchell peeled off his Jazz jersey to reveal a vintage Carter jersey from the Toronto Raptors.

Mitchell — three inches shorter than the 6-foot-6 Carter — needed a score of 47 to beat Nance, and he got a 48 from the five judges: DJ Khaled, Mark Wahlberg, Chris Rock and Hall of Famers Julius Erving and Lisa Leslie.

Minutes earlier, Nance, who was trying to win the contest 34 years after his father won it, had earned a perfect 50 with a slam off a double alley-oop off the glass.

“Growing up I was a big dunker,” Mitchell said. “I wasn’t much of a basketball player. I just dunked and played defense, and I watched a lot of Vince’s videos. I’ve been seeing what he’s been doing all year at his age, it’s incredible. I figured at my size if I was able to get it, it would be a great dunk. It would finish it.

“Actually, funny story, I haven’t made that dunk in half a year. I tried in in practice the past two days. I tried it in practice this morning, didn’t make it.”

Mitchell, the Jazz’s 21-year-old guard out of Louisville, is among the NBA’s top first-year players with a rookie-best 19.6 points per game. Though the 13th overall pick in last year’s draft might seem slightly undersized for a high-flying dunk champion, he showed more than enough athleticism to compete with the league’s best.

Mitchell advanced to the finals with a creative dunk in the first round that used his sister, Jordan, as well as Kevin Hart and the comedian’s son as props. For that dunk, Mitchell wore a Darrell Griffith Jazz jersey. Griffith participated in the first slam dunk contest in 1984.

Mitchel’s sister, Hart and the comedian’s son, crouched in a line in front of the basket. Mitchell had an assistant toss the ball off the side of the backboard. He caught it and did a one-handed tomahawk dunk as he jumped over his sister, Hart and his son.

It earned a perfect 50.

“I appreciate Kevin Hart coming out there and helping me out,” Mitchel said. “He’s my favorite comedian.”

Nance wore his father’s No. 22 Phoenix Suns jersey for his first dunk, replicating his dad’s rim-rattling cradle windmill that won the contest in 1984.

Nance was competing on his old team’s home floor nine days after being traded from the Lakers to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“I felt great about it,” Nance said. “I felt great about it last Thursday, and then I got traded. I didn’t get to practice it again until yesterday.”

Later, Nance brought his dad out to toss him the ball for an alley-oop that earned a perfect score.

“It was obviously a big moment for my family,” Nance Jr. said. “It’s something I will cherish forever.”

Victor Oladipo of the Indiana Pacers and Dennis Smith Jr. of the Dallas Mavericks were eliminated after the first round.

Earlier, Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns won the 3-point contest with a record 28 points in the final round and Spencer Dinwiddie of the Brooklyn Nets won the skills challenge.

Booker beat 2016 champion Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors and Tobias Harris of the Los Angeles Clippers.

“It feels really good,” Booker said. “I wanted to go out there and make a name for myself.”

Did he ever.

Booker was sensational in the final round, when he missed only five of 25 shots.

The previous record was 27 points, set by Stephen Curry in 2015 and matched by Thompson the following year.

Booker, the 21-year-old sharpshooter in his third season with Phoenix, is averaging 24.2 points per game this season as the NBA’s 12th-leading scorer. Eleven months after the shooting guard dropped 70 points against Boston to become the youngest player in NBA history to score even 60 in a game, Booker added another accolade to his promising career with the 3-Point title.

Dinwiddie, who played at Taft High in the Woodland Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, beat Lauri Markkanen of the Chicago Bulls in the final round of the skills challenge, which included dribbling around pylons, passing the ball into a net and shooting 3-pointers.

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More AP NBA: www.apnews.com/tags/NBAbasketball

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — A South Pacific cruise was interrupted by brawls apparently caused by a 23-member family who threw punches at other passengers, some of whom said they locked themselves in cabins to escape three days of violence.

The Carnival Legend arrived in its home port of Melbourne on Saturday, a day after a family was offloaded in an unscheduled stop in Eden, New South Wales in Australia. Police said they were investigating the incident and the operator apologized for the “disruptive behavior” by the group that was removed from the cruise liner.

The “big Italian family” spent days attacking Australians aboard the ship, with people “getting strangled and punched up,” passenger Lisa Bolitho told reporters.

“Very violent, they were full-on attacks,” she said.

She also questioned the ship’s management, quoting the captain as saying, “‘What do you want me to do about it — throw them overboard?'”

Cellphone video footage purportedly of the brawl on Friday shows security guards fighting and trying to separate passengers amid shouting and kicking.

Bolitho’s son Jarrah said he was among those targeted and fled and locked himself in the cabin with his mother.

“I was watching the fight and one guy came up to me and said ‘Do you want to go too bro?'” he said, adding the offenders were in their late teens and early 20s. “My mum had to drag me away from it all. They were trying to pick on any Aussie they could find.”

Carnival Cruise Line said it was offering guests a 25 percent future cruise credit as a “goodwill gesture” but some passengers criticized the offer.

“I won’t be travelling Carnival ever again so a 25 percent off a future cruise in my eyes is unacceptable,” Mark Morrison said.

The cruise liner with more than 2,000 passengers was on a 10-day trip from Melbourne to New Caledonia, a French territory in the South Pacific.

LOS ANGELES (AP) — LeBron James says he will not stick to sports.

The Cleveland Cavaliers superstar reiterated his determination to speak out on social issues and the nation’s political climate Saturday during his media availability for the NBA All-Star Game.

“I will not just shut up and dribble,” James said. “I get to sit up here and talk about what’s really important.”

James spoke publicly after Fox News host Laura Ingraham criticized the three-time NBA champion for his recent comments about social issues. James previously responded with an Instagram post containing similar sentiments.

“We will definitely not shut up and dribble,” James said. “I will definitely not do that. I mean too much to society. I mean too much to the youth. I mean too much to so many kids that feel like they don’t have a way out and they need someone to help lead them out of the situation they’re in.”

James made the initial public comments in question during a recent video segment on Uninterrupted, a platform co-founded by James. He was joined by Kevin Durant, and both superstars were sharply critical of President Donald Trump and the nation’s racial climate.

James referenced Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Jackie Robinson as athletes who previously spoke up for equality and change with no concerns about the consequences or any rewards.

“We know it’s bigger than us,” James said. “It’s not about us. I’m going to continue to do what I have to do to play this game that I love to play, but this is bigger than me playing the game of basketball.”

James was backed at media day by several All-Stars including Stephen Curry, Paul George, Draymond Green and Durant. They all believe athletes have an important opportunity to advocate for positive social change.

“We’re a part of what’s going on this world, what’s going on in this society, just as much as anybody else,” said George, the Oklahoma City Thunder forward from nearby Palmdale, California. “We’re fathers. We’re sons. We’re brothers. We’ve got family to look after. We’re connected as deeply in this as anybody else is. For someone to go out and say, ‘Stick to dribbling a basketball,’ that’s pretty ignorant. That just goes to show you where we are as a country right now.”

Commissioner Adam Silver strongly supported James and other outspoken NBA players later Saturday, saying he was “incredibly proud” of James and Durant in particular.

Silver compared the current players’ outspoken passion to the stances taken by past greats including Russell, who is in attendance at All-Star weekend. Silver noted that Russell was the MVP of Los Angeles’ first All-Star Game in 1963, a year in which Russell also won a championship in Boston and stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

“As commissioner of the NBA, this is a legacy of important work that I’ve inherited, that I continue to encourage,” Silver said. “These players are not just basketball players. They’re multi-dimensional. They care about their communities, and they care about what’s happening in their country. They then care enough to speak out, and sometimes at great risk to themselves, because it’s not lost on them that there are some people who will disagree with them.

“Social media is full of hate as well. … I’m really proud of them.”

During the All-Star Saturday festivities at Staples Center, singer Andra Day and hip-hop star Common invited several athletes on stage in a show of unity during a performance of their Academy Award-nominated anthem “Stand Up for Something,” from the 2017 film “Marshall.”

The performers were joined by Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dwyane Wade, Grant Hill, WNBA star Sue Bird and current All-Stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Kemba Walker.

Earlier, Curry called the Fox News host’s comments and dismissive tone “aggressive and just out of line … but not surprising, because I’ve heard that plenty of times before.”

“That’s the tone that people (utilize to) try to put athletes and black athletes in a box, to say, ‘Basketball is the only thing that you can provide in this world,'” Curry said. “It’s really, obviously, very upsetting. I think the way that we handle the response is to highlight all the good that we’re doing … Every single NBA athlete here that plays this game, that’s not what we’re about. That’s not all that we contribute to this world.

“Guys are going out, putting resources and funds, and raising awareness in the community and trying to make the world a better place through what we do.”

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More AP basketball: www.apnews.com/tags/NBAbasketball

BEIRUT (AP) — The Latest on Turkey’s attack on a Kurdish-controlled enclave in Syria (all times local):

1 a.m.

A White House official says the United States thinks it is “extremely unlikely” Turkey used chemical weapons against the Kurds.

The official says that they are aware of the reports, but cannot confirm them and called for the protection of civilians.

Local doctors and Syria’s state-run news agency reported Saturday that six civilians suffered breathing difficulties and other symptoms indicative of poison gas inhalation after an attack launched by Turkey on the Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin.

State-run news agency SANA and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group also quoted local doctors in their reports.

The claims could not be independently verified, and videos released from the hospital showed people being fitted with oxygen masks who did not otherwise show symptoms of poison gas inhalation.

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8 p.m.

Local doctors and Syria’s state-run news agency say six civilians suffered breathing difficulties and other symptoms indicative of poison gas inhalation after an attack launched by Turkey on the Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin.

The Turkish military repeated in a weekly statement published Saturday that it does not use internationally “banned ammunition” in its Afrin operation.

A doctor at Afrin’s main hospital tells The Associated Press that the facility was treating six people who had been poisoned who arrived Friday night from the village of Arandi after it was attacked by Turkish troops. Another doctor says the victims suffered shortness of breath, vomiting and skin rashes.

The claims could not be independently verified, and videos released from the hospital showed people being fitted with oxygen masks who did not otherwise show symptoms of poison gas inhalation such as twitching, foaming at the mouth or vomiting.