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Craig Matthews / Staff Photographer  

Pleasantville Noel Gonzalez in action against Father Judge in the Boardwalk Basketball Classic in Wildwood Convention Center. Dec. 31, 2019 (Craig Matthews / Staff Photographer)

Protesters attack US Embassy in Baghdad after airstrikes

BAGHDAD — Angered by deadly airstrikes targeting an Iran-backed militia, dozens of Iraqi Shiite militiamen and their supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday, smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area in one of the worst attacks on the embassy in recent memory.

American guards fired tear gas, and palls of smoke rose over the embassy grounds.

An Associated Press reporter at the scene saw flames rising from inside the compound and U.S. soldiers on the roof of the main embassy building with their guns pointed at protesters.

A man on a loudspeaker urged the mob not to enter the compound, saying, “The message was delivered.”

There were no reports of casualties. The State Department said all American personnel were safe and that there were no plans to evacuate the embassy. The government planned to send more troops to protect the compound.

The breach followed U.S. airstrikes Sunday that killed 25 fighters of the Iran-backed militia in Iraq, the Kataeb Hezbollah. The U.S. military said the strikes were in retaliation for last week’s killing of an American contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that the U.S. blamed on the militia.

President Donald Trump blamed Iran for the embassy breach and called on Iraq to protect the diplomatic mission.

“Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. We strongly responded, and always will. Now Iran is orchestrating an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. They will be held fully responsible. In addition, we expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the Embassy, and so notified!” he tweeted from his estate in Palm Beach, Florida.

By early evening, the protesters had retreated from the compound but set up several tents outside where they said they intended to stage a sit-in. Dozens of yellow flags belonging to Iran-backed Shiite militias fluttered atop the reception area and were plastered along the embassy’s concrete wall along with anti-U.S. graffiti. American Apache helicopters flew overhead and dropped flares over the area.

Trump, who is spending the holiday week at his Florida home, is in “close touch” and receiving regular updates from his national security team, said White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham. She echoed the sentiment contained in Trump’s tweet earlier Tuesday.

“As the president said, Iran is orchestrating this attack, and they will be held fully responsible,” Grisham said in an emailed statement. “It will be the president’s choice how and when we respond to their escalation.”

The developments also represent a major downturn in Iraq-U.S. relations that could further undermine U.S. influence in the region and American troops in Iraq and weaken Washington’s hand in its pressure campaign against Iran.

Iraq has long struggled to balance its ties with the U.S. and Iran, both allies of the Iraqi government. But the government’s angry reaction to the U.S. airstrikes and its apparent decision not to prevent the protesters from reaching the embassy signaled a sharp deterioration of U.S.-Iraq relations.

Iraqi security forces made no effort to stop the protesters as they marched to the heavily fortified Green Zone after a funeral for those killed in the airstrikes. The demonstrators were allowed to pass through a security checkpoint leading to the area.

The marchers, many of them in militia uniforms, shouted “Down, down USA!” and “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” outside the compound, hurling water and stones over its walls. The mob set fire to three trailers used by security guards along the wall. AP journalists saw some try to scale the walls.

Others then smashed the gates used by cars to enter, and dozens pushed into the compound. The protesters stopped in a corridor after about 16 feet, and were only about 200 meters away from the main building.

The sprawling embassy compound enjoys a prominent position on the banks of the Tigris River in the heart of the Iraqi capital. Resembling a fortified college campus, the complex is rimmed with thick blast walls and cylindrical watch towers, lending it the look of a modern-day castle.

Gates visitors use to enter the complex consist of an airlock-like vestibule fortified with heavy doors and bulletproof glass. Even if protesters breached the first set of doors, they would have to force past heavily armed military contractors and U.S. Marine guards and a second set of heavy doors before entering the main compound.

Numerous buildings are inside the walls, including dormitories for staff, well-stocked dining and recreation facilities, and a power station.

The protesters taunted the embassy’s security staff, which remained behind glass windows in the gates’ reception area. They hung a poster on the wall declaring “America is an aggressor” and sprayed graffiti on the wall and windows reading, “Closed in the name of the resistance.”

“This is a victory in retaliation to the American airstrike. This is the initial retaliation, God willing, there will be more,” said Mahmoud, a fighter with the Imam Ali Brigades who was carrying a black bag filled with electricity cables that he said he took from the reception area.

A video obtained by the AP showed militiamen trashing the reception area and taking away paperwork.

The embassy, on its Facebook page, urged American citizens not to approach the compound and “to review their personal security and emergency preparedness.”

An Iraqi employee at the embassy told the AP that the embassy’s security team had evacuated some local staff from a rear gate while others left by helicopters and the rest remained inside “safe” areas within the embassy. The employee spoke on condition of anonymity because of not being authorized to speak to journalists.

The U.S. ambassador was traveling outside Iraq at the time of the attack and planned to return, the State Department said.

Some commanders of militia factions loyal to Iran joined the protesters outside the embassy in a strikingly bold move. Among them was Qais al-Khizali, the head of one of the most powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq who is on a U.S. terror list, and Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the state-sanctioned paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units, the umbrella group for the Iran-backed militias.

Jaafar al-Husseini, a spokesman for Kataeb Hezbollah, said the protesters had no intention of storming the embassy. He told the AP that the sit-in will continue “until American troops leave Iraq and the embassy is closed.”

The U.S. airstrikes — the largest targeting an Iraqi state-sanctioned militia in recent years — and the subsequent calls by the militia for retaliation, represent a new escalation in the proxy war between the U.S. and Iran playing out in the Middle East.

The attack also outraged the Iraqi government, which said it will reconsider its relationship with the U.S.-led coalition — the first time it has said it will do so since an agreement was struck to keep some U.S. troops in the country. It called the attack a “flagrant violation” of its sovereignty.


Associated Press writers Darlene Superville in West Palm Beach, Florida, Adam Schreck in Chicago, Samya Kullab in New York and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.

Will the Somers Point plastic bag ban make a difference?

SOMERS POINT — It sounded like a great idea at the time: ban all single-use plastic bags.

Blamed for killing and maiming sea life and clogging landfills, plastic bag detractors are many. Americans use 100 billion of them a year, with only 1% of those bags being recycled, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

But for the past year, Somers Point has been trying to orient residents to a life without the flimsy plastic bags. The city first tried the carrot-and-stick approach — charging shoppers for single-use bags, and encouraging them to bring reusable bags to local stores.

But beginning Jan. 16, it will be illegal in Somers Point for businesses to supply single-use bags. Customers must either bring their own bags or purchase reusable ones.

And while many agree it’s a good idea, not everyone is embracing the ban.

“I feel that it is a necessity,” said Florence Straubmuller, of Linwood, while shopping at Acme recently. Straubmuller said too many bags are floating in the ocean. “Looking at the future, if we don’t do something about it, it will be catastrophic.”

Bob Carr, of Northfield, had a different view.

Even though Carr was already adapting to the new requirements by shopping with a cart full of reusable bags, he thought the restrictions were “a pain in the butt.”

“There’s so much more that can be done than worrying about plastic bags,” he said, referring to the sustainability aspect of the law.

“I think it’s terrible,” agreed Dave Kelso, of Linwood. ”Come up with a better way where it doesn’t cost the consumer.”

Somers Point City Council President Sean McGuigan was not a proponent of the ban. He voted against the initial ordinance to charge customers for plastic bags to discourage using them and against the ordinance that will go into effect this month that will ban them totally.

McGuigan doesn’t believe banning plastic bags will have enough of an impact, and will not be good for local businesses.

“I think it puts our businesses at a disadvantage,” McGuigan said. “If plastic bags are going to to be banned, they’re going to have to be banned statewide, or region-wide.”

McGuigan says research shows most of the plastic found in the ocean comes from other countries and attacking the problem here will not be that effective in solving the larger environmental issue.

Councilwoman Janice Johnston disagrees. Voting for the ban was a tough decision for her, but after extensive research of banning plastic bags in other cities, states and countries, she felt the environmental impact of plastic was the overriding factor in voting to ban them here.

One thing most shoppers agreed on was the learning curve involved with going plastic-free. Having reusable bags is one thing, remembering to bring them into the store can be a challenge.

“You go home and empty them out, you forget to put them back in the car and when you get to the store you say, ‘I don’t have my bags,’” said Claribel Howarth, of Ventnor, who echoed the most common response when asked about making reusable bags a part of her daily routine.

Phil Bleznak, of Somers Point, agreed there is a learning curve, but it gets easier with practice.

“At first it was a little difficult, remembering to bring the bags. We actually bring them everywhere now, even to other towns where it isn’t banned yet. It’s pretty simple,” he said.

Angelo Sica, of Margate, has made it a point to always be prepared to do his part to reduce plastic bag use.

“We use too much plastic,” said Sica. “I don’t know why people can’t just buy a bag and use it again and again. I always have the bags with me.”

Other shoppers echoed the sentiment that building the habit of having reusable bags handy is not difficult.

Even so, there’s still the lingering belief that, without other towns, or better yet, the state, adopting a wider ban, their efforts may not make a difference.

But there is evidence that even small changes can make a difference. ShopRite in Somers Point has seen a 90% decline in the number of plastic and paper bags provided to customers in 2019 compared to 2018, according to a company spokesperson.

Meanwhile, support is growing elsewhere for banning plastic bags. The state Senate Budget Committee passed legislation Dec. 5 that would ban not only single-use plastic bags but also paper bags and plastic foam containers used for takeout, according to an Associated Press report. Eight states, including California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont, have also banned single-use plastic bags, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“I just came to the conclusion that we have to be environmentally responsible, and this is something that we need to do,” Johnston said. “We’re a small town, but we have to start somewhere.”

This story was produced in collaboration with the New Jersey Sustainability Reporting Hub project.

PHOTOS: Somers Point adjusting to life without plastic bags

Dipping into a new decade: Polar plunges set for New Year’s Day

New Year’s is a holiday full of traditions. Resolutions. Midnight kisses. Parties.

And for people within driving distance of the Jersey Shore, there’s that first frigid dip into the Atlantic Ocean.

Atlantic City, Ocean City, Margate and Brigantine all will hold polar plunges Wednesday. Each will attract hundreds of people in colorful bathing suits, bathrobes and costumes on a day months after even the hardiest locals have put their beach chairs away for the year.

Which begs the question: Why? It’s cold out.

“I think people want to celebrate the new year in a funky way,” said Shannon Wray-Norris, promotions and marketing director for Equity Communications, an advertising company for WZXL-FM 100.7, the radio station organizing the Atlantic City plunge. “It’s something exciting and different from the norm, especially for 2020. If you had a funky year, it gets rid of all the bad luck and brings good luck.”

WZXL took over the plunge from its original organizers, Pennsylvania natives Michael and Patricia Kahlenburg, about two years ago after partnering with them for about five years.

“They were getting older,” she said. “But they used to get bus trips together for the plunge. People used to bus down and party and bus back up.”

The Kahlenburgs still organize a bus trip for the plunge, Wray-Norris said.

To enhance the event, the radio station added ways to keep warm, including a bonfire and a heated deck for spectators at LandShark Bar and Grill at Resorts Casino Hotel. T-shirts and prizes are also given out.

“It’s really fun to bring family and friends and kids because you’re watching from the heated deck and not on the cold beach,” she said.

Last year, about 300 people came out for the plunge. This year, about 350 people are expected, Wray-Norris said.

“A lot of people come from the tri-state area, like Pennsylvania and New York,” she said. “But we’ve seen a real growth in locals.”

Proceeds from the plunge are donated to charity. Last year about $2,800 was raised for the Boys & Girls Club of Atlantic City. This year proceeds will go to Gilda’s Club South Jersey and the Atlantic County Toys for Kids Program.

Meanwhile, Ocean City is expecting close to 1,000 people for its 28th plunge, city spokesman Doug Bergen said.

“It really depends on the weather,” Bergen said. “But we’re looking at what looks like a fairly mild and sunny day on Wednesday.”

Temperatures during the late morning will be in the upper 30s along the shore, rising into the low 40s in the early afternoon. But winds could make it feel a little colder. Water temperatures have been steady in the mid-40s, which is right around average.

Plunges have been canceled or postponed before, as in January 2017, when South Jersey was under the grip of record cold.

But with mild temperatures, a new year and a new decade, shore towns are expecting lots of people to make a splash and start anew.

“People love the beach, and it’s a fun way to start the new year,” Bergen said. “It certainly provides that fun photo that you can share and brag about.”

Press Meteorologist Joe Martucci contributed to this report.

SEEN at 2019 Atlantic City Polar Bear Plunge

Turkavage switches to Democrat for 2nd District congressional race

Another political party change is affecting the 2nd Congressional District race.

Former FBI agent Robert Turkavage, 64, of Brigantine, who lost to Seth Grossman in the 2018 Republican primary for the 2nd District, will run this year as a Democrat, he said Tuesday.

President Donald Trump’s attacks on the press, the intelligence community and his mishandling of national security convinced him to make the switch about two weeks ago, Turkavage said.

He will face at least three Democrats for the right to challenge incumbent Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd.

Van Drew, one of two Democrats to vote against both articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, announced his party switch in a Dec. 19 news conference with Trump in the Oval Office.

Like Van Drew, Turkavage left a party he had been with for most of his life. But Turkavage said he agrees with the Democratic platform on the need to tax the wealthy more and middle class less, and in his opposition to the death penalty.

“It’s going to be challenging,” Turkavage said Tuesday of breaking through in a crowded Democratic field. “I will be knocking on doors every day from January till primary day” on June 2.

Turkavage provided a long list of reasons for his party change, starting with saying the GOP “bears primary responsibility for the $3.1 trillion increase in our national debt since 2017, accomplished largely through tax cuts to even the wealthiest of Americans.”

Atlantic County Democratic Chairman Michael Suleiman wished Turkavage luck, “as all the other candidates.”

“I don’t really know Bob that well, but he seems like a genuine guy,” Suleiman said. “He seems sincere in the reason he’s switching — because of Trump’s disastrous effects on foreign policy and how he’s treated the intelligence community.”

By contrast, Suleiman called Van Drew’s switch “purely political.”

“Bob’s seems more of a philosophical change. We’re a big-tent party. We welcome him in,” Suleiman said.

Turkavage also said Trump “has relentlessly attacked the pillars of our democracy that have served our country well for over 200 years,” citing Trump’s attacks on the press, the election process and the courts; and Trump’s questioning “the accuracy of reporting by our intelligence agencies ... while alleged intelligence provided to him by our Russian adversary is routinely accepted at face value.”

National Security has always been, and remains, his top concern, Turkavage said.

“To the delight of our adversaries, President Trump’s immigration policy has caused many Americans to view immigration as the preeminent national security threat,” Turkavage said. “I disagree. The threats posed by hypersonic weapons being developed by Russia and China, and the lack of cyber security as it pertains to our missile defense systems and our electrical grid pose a far greater risk to our security than immigration lawbreakers.”

Turkavage said he learned the importance of meeting people in the 2018 primary.

“I was a relative unknown in the party, while everyone had heard of Seth Grossman,” Turkavage said. “When people actually hear me speak and articulate what the issues are, I could bring a lot of Democrats and probably a good 10% of Republicans that I believe are vehemently opposed to President Trump.”

But he said he has “no illusions it’s going to be easy.”

On the Democratic side, announced candidates include Atlantic County Freeholder Ashley Bennett; West Cape May Commissioner John Francis; and Longport homeowner and Montclair State University professor Brigid Callahan Harrison, who has the support of six of the eight Democratic county chairmen in the district.

Considering runs are Brigantine’s Amy Kennedy, a former teacher and wife of former U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy; Tanzie Youngblood, a candidate against Van Drew in the 2018 Democratic primary who lives in Swedesboro and is a retired educator; and Cumberland County Freeholder Jack Surrency.

The three GOP primary challengers are Egg Harbor Township’s Brian Fitzherbert, founder of the Atlantic County Young Republicans; Bob Patterson, of Haddonfield and Ocean City, a former acting associate commissioner at the Social Security Administration; and David Richter, of Avalon, the former head of a Philadelphia-based contracting firm.

Who is running in the 2nd Congressional District race?

Kristian Gonyea / For The Press 

About 350 Atlantic City polar plungers will run into the ocean at noon Wednesday on the beach in front of Resorts Casino Hotel.