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A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter on the front line in Bashiqa, a village near Mosul. (AFP/Getty Images)

Kurdish Forces Say They're Waiting For U.S. Weapons

Aug 23, 2014 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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Iraq's ethnic Kurds are longtime U.S. allies and have put up the toughest resistance to the Sunni extremists in the so-called Islamic State that has captured swaths or Iraq's north and west.

They're getting help from U.S. air strikes, but also need heavier weapons of their own to match the firepower of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Weapons have been promised by the U.S. and other countries, but getting them through the central government in Baghdad has hampered the mission, according to Kurdish commanders.

"We have heard weapons are coming, but so far we haven't seen any. As you know, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense doesn't give us any weapons. And that just encourages ISIS to attack us," says Esmat Rajab, a commander in the Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga.

Rajab speaks on a hilltop overlooking the terrain that's at stake in the Islamic State onslaught. Before him is the village of Bashiqa, which minority Yazidis fled as the Islamic State took over. They still hold it. Beyond the village is the large city of Mosul, which the Islamic State took over in June.

The Pentagon said this week that Baghdad is shipping some "equipment and assistance" to the Kurds, but the U.S. is exploring more direct options.

In Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish northern region, peshmerga spokesman Helgurd Ali says morale is strong since the Kurds retook the Mosul dam from the Islamists. But he's frustrated at Baghdad's attitude toward arming the Kurds.

"In the face of this crisis, if Baghdad still says 'no' to international weapons, then let them send us the weapons. We've waited for 8 years; they didn't send anything. Not one belt of ammunition," he says. "We can't trust Baghdad, and that's why we have to turn to the international community."

Baghdad's Mistrust Of The Kurds

But countries have been reluctant to ignore Baghdad's objections and arm the Kurds directly — though the Kurds say a small amount of arms has started coming into Erbil's airport.

Ali says they need heavier weapons, including something strong enough to pierce the armor on the U.S.-made vehicles the Islamists captured from the Iraqi army when its fleeing soldiers left them behind.

Baghdad's reluctance to see weapons flowing to the peshmerga — which is widely considered the most able fighting force to counter the Islamic State — seems counter-productive. But analysts say there's some logic to it.

Toby Dodge, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, says one reason for Baghdad's distrust of the Kurds was apparent as the Islamic State took Mosul in early June.

Amid the confusion and fear of the Islamic State advance, Kurdish forces swept into the city of Kirkuk and took over. Control of the oil-rich city has been contested between Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) for a decade. Dodge says that overall, the Kurds have expanded their territory by some 40 percent recently.

"That's what's worrying Baghdad. The KRG has expanded its territory by 40 percent by force of arms," he says. "Once ISIS has been defeated, that will become a profound problem going forward for all parties concerned, the Kurds as well as the government in Baghdad."

A 'Coup-Proof' Iraqi Army

That dispute complicates any sustainable solution to the security problems in the north. Dodge says the mistakes date back at least as far as the Bush administration, which rebuilt the Iraqi army more to police the country internally than to handle military offenses or protect the borders. Outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made things worse, according to Dodge.

"In effect what he did was to 'coup-proof' the army by breaking the chain of command, rubbishing its esprit de corps, and placing of men loyal to him at the senior ranks," Dodge says. "Which explains, along with the profound corruption, why the Iraqi army collapsed so quickly in Mosul."

The Kurdish forces are one-fifth the size of the Iraqi army. They can be increased somewhat, but are not suited to fighting a mobile, opportunistic adversary like ISIS. Once the peshmerga ventures out of areas populated by Kurds, they are off their familiar home turf and surrounded by suspicious locals.

Dodge says that what Iraq needs is a new government in Baghdad, which is currently under negotiation, that can undo the damage caused by Maliki's rule.

"(They need to) refocus on restructuring the Iraqi army, to make it a fighting force that can defend the territory of Iraq for all of Iraq's citizens, not just for its ex-prime minister," Dodge says.

That's essentially what American forces thought they were on the way to doing before they pulled out of Iraq.

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Many residents of Ferguson, Mo., would like to see the police wear video cameras, like this one worn by a Los Angeles police officer. (AP)

Even Police Body Cameras Can Lose Sight Of The Truth

Aug 23, 2014 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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Ferguson, Mo., found a degree of civic calm this week after days and nights of angry clashes between protestors and the police.

Now the city is working to restore trust with residents after a white police officer fatally shot black teenager Michael Brown on Aug. 9. City leaders and residents say one way to do that might be to equip police with personal video cameras.

"All the cops have to have body cameras and dashboard cameras," says resident Alonzo Bond, "so everybody can be accountable."

Bond is not alone. Around the country, body-worn cameras have become the go-to technology for troubled police departments.

Police chiefs are just as enthusiastic about the cameras as police reformers, sharing a belief that the cameras can resolve disputes by recording what really happens.

"Everybody's got their version of a story, but when it's on tape, it's on tape," says Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, president of the Police Executive Research Forum. "It is what it is."

But is it? Howard Wasserman, a law professor at Florida International University who has written about police cameras, says lawyers are starting to discover what any college film student could have told them: Recorded images are not neutral.

"How the camera is held, the angle at which the camera is held, is the camera sort of panning, is the camera held steady — all of that affects the perception of what you see," Wasserman says.

He says in court, video — even if it's fragmentary or confusing — has the potential of becoming the star of the show.

"The problem that I think we get into is the assumption that the video shows all, so we can disregard all the other evidence that's not the video," Wasserman says.

The other big concern with police videos is control. In New Orleans, where all patrol officers started wearing the cameras this spring, the department has given officers mixed signals about when to press the record button, says Susan Hutson, the city's independent police monitor.

"We saw the department was struggling with that a little bit, trying to make sure that officers knew when they can turn it off and when they can't," Hutson says.

Even when an officer willfully refuses to record, it's not a fireable offense in New Orleans. Then there's the potential for technical glitches, which has long been an issue with the dashboard cameras. They frequently malfunction, one of Hutson's staffers says — a complaint heard in other cities.

Finally, there's the matter of the 30-second buffer. When an officer presses record, the camera saves the 30 seconds of images that led up to that moment, but not the audio. The manufacturer designed the buffer to protect the privacy of police officers — but it also means the cameras may miss crucial noises or words that trigger an incident. Wasserman thinks that's a mistake.

"I think if we're going to do this, we need to do it right," he says. "If anybody's privacy is going to be compromised, it ought to be the government officials who are wielding the power in all of these encounters."

He says that's another argument for more video recording by civilians to fill in the gaps of what "really happened" — now that that's increasingly decided by what's captured on camera.

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Uber is hiring David Plouffe, the mastermind of Obama's 2008 campaign, to power its own political strategy. What can a tech-savvy political animal offer a ride-sharing service? (AP)

Uber Greases The Wheel With Obama's Old Campaign Manager

by Aarti Shahani
Aug 23, 2014 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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President Obama's former campaign manager has gone to work for Uber. The ride-sharing start-up based in San Francisco has hired David Plouffe in hope that the political strategist who helped elect a president can steer the company through a thicket of local regulatory disputes.

This new power couple raises some questions:

Why does Uber need one of the best political strategists in the country?

First off, they can afford him. The company is valued at $18 billion. NPR tried to find out what Plouffe is getting paid, but Uber won't say.

They need the muscle, though. CEO Travis Kalanick is spinning this as one epic campaign of Silicon Valley innovation against the "big taxi cartel." Cabbies say that Uber is just a smartphone-enabled taxi and should be subject to all the same rules as they are. That level of regulation would really hurt Uber's business.

Take the question of how to insure part-time drivers, for instance. Uber's taken out a million-dollar insurance policy, but it's very limited. Some insurance companies have said they won't cover a car that's being used for commercial ride sharing. The rules are all over the map.

Plouffe could help Uber come up with a federal strategy to address regulatory attempts, so the company could lobby more efficiently than the current city-by-city campaigns. Kalanick talked about that at an Atlantic Live forum last November.

"I'm trying to find some angle where I can just say all this corrupt stuff just comes down to the federal thing," he said. Perhaps Plouffe can help get the Federal Trade Commission to intervene.

How might Plouffe campaign for Uber?

Uber won't get into the details, but presumably Plouffe is going to lead a big marketing push. That's what both of them hinted at when they appeared together on Bloomberg TV this week to talk about the partnership. Kalanick says he wants "to tell a story in the cities that we're going to."

Obama's 2008 campaign was a social media home run well before the app ecosystem on smartphones took off — remember all the homegrown sites and personal testimony.

We might see a MyUber app and stories about dads and moms able to pay the bills. Kalanick likes to tell a story about a dad who built an entire fleet — not just one cab on the Uber app — and he's paying for his daughter to go to Stanford.

Is this part of that revolving door between Silicon Valley and Washington D.C.?

Yes. It's a high profile example of a pretty consistent trend. The former mayor of D.C., Adrian Fenty, came to Silicon Valley to be a special advisor to a leading venture capital firm. Facebook has hired former Hill staffers. The cybersecurity start-ups in Silicon Valley are full of former Pentagon and NSA employees.

One unique thing about this partnership is that both parties are exceptionally good at spin. That's not always the case; Facebook is really struggling with how to frame its work as not creepy or manipulative, for example.

Uber sticks to a talking point that it's fighting for big principles like 'economic freedom.' Some people in Silicon Valley mock that a bit, saying the company is also just trying to get around driver safety regulations.

As Obama's campaign manager, Plouffe was the guy who told Politico about how rival John Edwards spent $400 on a haircut. That story came to define Edwards' unsuccessful campaign, and showcased Plouffe's savvy for opposition research. The taxi versus Uber narrative probably has lots of room for vivid, unflattering stories, too.

What's Uber's master plan?

Uber plainly wants to be more than a car service. Just this week they started delivery service in D.C., experimenting with the transportation of goods as well as people. The so-called "Uber Corner Store" is a move into on-demand delivery services.

Also remember that Uber's money comes from Google Ventures. Google is in search of "moonshots," so maybe we'll see Uber fully integrate with Google Maps to connect people going in the same direction in a new, paid car-pooling service. That wouldn't just disrupt the taxi industry; it could affect buses and trains, too.

Uber has also partnered with AT&T to embed the Uber app into smartphones and just opened its API to developers who want to find interesting new ways to embed Uber's services in other platforms.

As for Plouffe, he's a political operative who loves technology. Right now, there are a bunch of tech start-ups making get-out-the-vote apps. Maybe Plouffe will do his stint at Uber, milk all the amazing Silicon Valley contacts and bounce to his own start-up.

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Members of Kurdish security forces take part during an intensive security deployment after clashes with militants of the Islamic State, in Jalawla, Diyala province, on Friday. (Reuters/Landov)

U.N. Warns Of 'Possible Massacre' In Northeastern Iraq

Aug 23, 2014

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The United Nations is calling for action to prevent what it's describing as a possible massacre in Iraq's northeastern city of Amerli, which has been under siege for two months by Islamic State militants.

The city's population is largely Turkmen Shia, seen as apostates by the hardline Sunni Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

The situation in Amerli, where people are reportedly without electricity or drinking water and said to be running low on food, bears a striking similarity to what occurred at Mount Sinjar earlier this month: Yazidis there were surrounded and many killed by militants largely because of their minority religious beliefs. The U.S. conducted airdrops of humanitarian aid to the trapped Yazidis at Sinjar and airstrikes against the Islamic State fighters besieging the mountain.

In a statement issued in Baghdad today, Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N. special representative in Iraq, described "unspeakable suffering" in Amerli.

Immediate action is needed "to prevent the possible massacre of [Amerli's] citizens," he said.

"The town is besieged by ISIL and reports confirm that people are surviving in desperate conditions. I urge the Iraqi Government to do all it can to relieve the siege and to ensure that the residents receive lifesaving humanitarian assistance or are evacuated in a dignified manner. Iraq's allies and the international community should work with the authorities to prevent a human rights tragedy," Mladenov said.

Amerli, with an estimated population of about 18,000 has been besieged by Islamic State insurgents for weeks.

Iraq's most influential cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani also expressed concern Friday over the plight of Amerli, according to Reuters.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

"The plight of the Shiite villages, about 100 miles north of Baghdad, is among several crises the U.S. is evaluating to gauge whether American airstrikes could help. But so far, no plans have been presented to the Pentagon for an imminent operation, according to Defense Department officials.

"An intervention to save the population could raise pressure on the U.S. to address a number of other looming humanitarian disasters that Iraq's military has been helpless to prevent."

As we reported Friday, U.S. officials have declined to rule out expanding airstrikes against the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State and have become increasingly alarmed over the group's "growing capacity" in recent months, as it has made significant territorial gains in Iraq.

Also on Friday, gunmen killed dozens in a Sunni mosque in the northeastern Diyala province.

Earlier this week, Islamic State murdered U.S. journalist James Foley, posting a video of the beheading on social media. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said the group is "beyond anything we've seen."

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This handout photo provided by the Office of the Defense Secretary (OSD), taken Aug. 19, 2014, shows a Chinese fighter jet that the White House said Friday conducted a "dangerous intercept" of a U.S. Navy surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft. (AP)

Photo Released Of Chinese Fighter That Buzzed U.S. Navy Plane

Aug 23, 2014

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The Pentagon has released a photo of the Chinese fighter jet it says made a "dangerous intercept" of a U.S. Navy maritime patrol aircraft, flying close passes, performing barrel rolls and flying wingtip-to-wingtip with the American plane in what officials described as an "aggressive and unprofessional" manner.

As we reported Friday, the Chinese interceptor, now identified as an Su-27, came within 20 to 30 feet of a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon in international waters about 135 miles east of Hainan island in the South China Sea.

U.S. officials said they had made their concerns about the unsafe actions clear to Beijing through diplomatic channels.

The incident has remarkable similarities to a 2001 incident in which a propeller-driven U.S. Navy P-3 Orion was clipped mid-air by a Chinese fighter jet and forced down on Hainan. The crew of 24 Navy personnel on the aircraft were detained and questioned for more than a week before being released by China.

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