AP Analysis: Attacks show emboldened militants

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FILE – This undated file image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014 shows fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria. The Islamic State was originally al-Qaida’s branch in Iraq, but it used Syria’s civil war to vault into something more powerful. It defied orders from al-Qaida’s central command and expanded its operations into Syria, ostensibly to fight to topple Assad. But it has turned mainly to conquering territory for itself, often battling other rebels who stand in the way. (AP Photo/Militant Website, File)

FILE – This undated file image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014 shows fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria. The Islamic State was originally al-Qaida’s branch in Iraq, but it used Syria’s civil war to vault into something more powerful. It defied orders from al-Qaida’s central command and expanded its operations into Syria, ostensibly to fight to topple Assad. But it has turned mainly to conquering territory for itself, often battling other rebels who stand in the way. (AP Photo/Militant Website, File)

FILE – In this Tuesday, June 10, 2014 file photo, refugees fleeing from Mosul head to the self-ruled northern Kurdish region in Irbil, Iraq, 350 kilometers (217 miles) north of Baghdad. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the al-Qaida breakaway group, on Monday and Tuesday took over much of Mosul in Iraq and then swept into the city of Tikrit further south. An estimated half a million residents fled the economically important city. (AP Photo, File)

FILE – In this Tuesday, June 10, 2014 file photo, A Kurdish policeman stands guard while refugees from Mosul head to the self-ruled northern Kurdish region in Irbil, Iraq, 350 kilometers (217 miles) north of Baghdad. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the al-Qaida breakaway group, on Monday and Tuesday took over much of Mosul in Iraq and then swept into the city of Tikrit further south. An estimated half a million residents fled Mosul, the economically important city. (AP Photo, File)

FILE – This file image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, which is consistent with AP reporting, shows a convoy of vehicles and fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters in Iraq’s Anbar Province. The Islamic State was originally al-Qaida’s branch in Iraq, but it used Syria’s civil war to vault into something more powerful. It defied orders from al-Qaida’s central command and expanded its operations into Syria, ostensibly to fight to topple Assad. But it has turned mainly to conquering territory for itself, often battling other rebels who stand in the way. (AP Photo/militant website, File)

FILE – This undated file image posted on a militant website on Jan. 4, 2014, which is consistent with other AP reporting, shows Shakir Waheib, a senior member of the al-Qaida breakaway group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), left, next to a burning police vehicle in Iraq’s Anbar Province. The Islamic State was originally al-Qaida’s branch in Iraq, but it used Syria’s civil war to vault into something more powerful. It defied orders from al-Qaida’s central command and expanded its operations into Syria, ostensibly to fight to topple Assad. But it has turned mainly to conquering territory for itself, often battling other rebels who stand in the way. (AP Photo via Militant Website, File)

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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.

Notably, the military and police fell apart, abandoning their posts and arsenals of weapons, when Islamic extremist gunmen overran the city of Mosul earlier this week, then swept south into other Sunni-dominated areas Wednesday.

For years, Pakistan has supported militant groups to promote its interests in Afghanistan and against its bitter rival, neighboring India. Now it faces a bloody insurgency by the Pakistani Taliban, an offshoot of the Afghan Taliban that has vowed to topple a government it accuses of being a tool of the Americans.

Islamabad’s authority has always been tenuous in Pakistan’s rugged, tribal-dominated and underdeveloped northwest, near the Afghan border — and for years that was where militant groups, from al-Qaida to the Taliban, operated. Now, the Pakistani Taliban have expanded to develop a strong presence in the country’s largest city, Karachi, where the airport attack took place and where police are gunned down almost daily.

The Afghan Taliban won a diplomatic victory of its own when the U.S. freed five Taliban detainees last month in a swap for the release of the only remaining U.S. prisoner of war in Afghanistan, Bowe Bergdahl.

U.S. policies have shrunk its options in all these regions. American forces left Iraq

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