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US civilians join fight against ISIS

RAQQA, Syria  The heavily armed fighters peered out of a broken second-story window at their outpost in a crumbling house on the western edge of this shell-shocked city, where the Islamic State is fighting a furious battle to hold on to the capital of its self-declared caliphate.

They ducked to avoid snipers camped in nearby high-rise apartments. Armed drones hovered nearby. Just before 2 p.m. came the crack of sniper fire.

"That's our guy," Kevin Howard, 28, said as he rose and prepared to return fire.

Howard is not one of the hundreds of U.S. troops deployed in Syria. The U.S. Marine Corps veteran from San Francisco came here as a volunteer, part of a small group of freelance recruits who have traveled to Syria from the U.S., Europe and other regions to help local forces fight the Islamic State. Americans have a history of volunteering to fight overseas. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade fought fascists in the Spanish Civil War; U.S. pilots flew for Britain and China before World War II; and U.S. citizens have served in the Israel Defense Forces.

The war in Syria and Iraq has been more problematic. Americans who try to travel there to fight alongside the Islamic State face immediate arrest, and many have been detained at U.S. airports as they prepared to respond to the militant group's global call to arms. Those who volunteer to fight the jihadis with U.S.-allied Kurdish and Syrian militias, though the State Department advises against it, face no such legal consequences.

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