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Tactics against journalists in Ferguson threaten rights of all

In Ferguson, Missouri, heavily armed police in heavily armored vehicles were responding to protests over the police shooting of an unarmed black teen by firing off tear gas and dragging reporters out of McDonald’s. Meanwhile, on Mount Sinjar near Irbil, Iraq, U.S. commandos reported that there were fewer Yazidis than expected still trapped on the mountain by Sunni insurgents, in large measure because of U.S. airstrikes and humanitarian aid drops. That reduced the likelihood of an evacuation mission, said Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby.

The two events made me think about the future at home and in Iraq.

It would be irresponsible for me to comment on why the Ferguson Police Department shot Michael Brown, 18. Other than look at an inconclusive Ferguson police incident report, I have done no original reporting and am thus relying on other accounts. I have my opinions, but they are merely that. There are swarms of great reporters on scene doing the heavy digging and I encourage you to read their accounts.

But I do feel comfortable commenting about the aftermath of the shooting, the one I saw unfold via the Internet, thanks to the wonders of streaming video from the local Fox affiliate (again, the first site available) and pictures and statements posted on Twitter, including those from first-hand witnesses.

Police in military-style gear, in a phalanx of vehicles, reacted to protestors by firing tear gas canisters. This after police arrested two reporters, Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post. After being yanked out of McDonald’s, the reporters were taken to a holding cell and released without being charged, according to Lowery, who was among many tweeting from the scene.

About 10 p.m. Wednesday, Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron issued a statement about Lowery.

“He was illegally instructed to stop taking videos of officers,” Baron wrote. “Then he followed officers’ instructions to leave a McDonald’s — and after contradictory instructions on how to exit, he was slammed against a soda machine and then handcuffed. That behavior was wholly unwarranted and an assault on the freedom of the press to cover the news. The physical risk to Wesley himself is obvious and outrageous.”

Baron is correct.

For the police to treat journalists like this is outrageous.

Not because we are special. We are not. Journalists enjoy no greater protection under the First Amendment than anyone else.

We are merely canaries with pens and cameras in the proverbial coal mine.

I say this as someone with a deep respect for the vast majority of police I have encountered and who believes there is no justification for tossing rocks or Molotov cocktails at law enforcement, as was reportedly done by some in Ferguson.

The overwhelming number of police I have met, many I consider friends, skillfully perform a difficult and dangerous job.

So far this year, 64 police officers across the country have died in the line of duty, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.

Worldwide, however, journalism is also a dangerous job. This year, 29 have been killed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

None have been killed in the U.S., according to CPJ.

But the treatment of Lowery and Reilly by Ferguson police is a small step toward a slippery slope from which there is no return.

If journalists are denied their First Amendment rights, what expectation should anyone else have that theirs will be respected?

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Now that former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has agreed to step down, what does that mean for Iraq? And for the U.S., which has about 1,000 troops there three years after the end of the Iraq war?

Even as I write this late Friday afternoon, U.S. Central Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, announced that U.S. drones took out a couple of vehicles being operated by the Sunni insurgent group Islamic State, which was attacking civilians in the village of Kawju, located south of the village of Sinjar.

As I often do in these cases, I turned to experts I have known for a while for some insight into what it means now that Haider al-Abadi is replacing al-Maliki.

“A fresh face with a Dawa leader who is well-versed in Western ways and is fluent in English will be a help,” says Derek Harvey, a retired Army colonel who now runs the University of South Florida’s Global Initiative on Civil Society and Conflict. “However, the difficult issues that divide Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Shia Arabs remain.”

Divvying up oil resources, internal boundary issues, share of revenues and autonomy for Sunni Arab provinces on a par with the Kurdish region are just a few of those difficult issues, Harvey says.

“More importantly, the Shia sectarian officials in the ministries ... intelligence and elsewhere remain,” he says. “Changing the culture and moving towards reform that will permit real power-sharing, some influence and authority for Sunni Arabs is a long way off. Any progress will require steady pressure from the U.S. and international community and serious engagement from the U.S. leadership. This will be a long road and many obstacles remain.”

Harvey knows a thing or two about Iraq.

Harvey, who spent 26 years in uniform, served as the senior analyst for Iraq, Joint Staff Directorate for Intelligence, from November 2004 to December 2005. Before that, he was chief of the Commander’s Assessments and Initiatives Group/senior intelligence analyst for MNF-Iraq, and “Red Cell” team chief for CJTF-7 in Iraq. He also participated in the Joint Strategic Assessment Team established by Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Lt. Gen. David Petraeus to assess the situation in Iraq and to develop their combined campaign plan.

When I met Harvey, he was running the Afghanistan-Pakistan Center of Excellence at Centcom.

So what does al-Maliki’s decision to not seek a third term mean for the U.S. and will that open up the American spigot for additional arms and support for the new government?

“There may be some influx of assistance if an inclusive and meaningful government can be established,” says Harvey. “Abadi will be a better face for the Iraqi government but he may not be much different in the end due to the political culture, general attitudes of many Shia, influence of Tehran, and the enhanced role of the Shia militias since (IS) took Mosul. The challenges for reforming and training the Iraqi Security Forces are immense. It will take a long time to make progress and it is complicated for a number of reasons.”

So can an Iraqi government that is truly inclusive of Sunni and Kurds as well as Shia make a difference in the fight against IS?

“It depends,” says Harvey. “The key is who the Sunnis are that get included. (IS) is a strong and capable irregular military force, excellent military campaign planning, superb leadership in the military commission, benefits from interior lines of communication, continues to have the initiative, is gaining recruits and resources and alliances with local Sunni groups are holding.”

Mohsin Milani warns about second- and third-order effects and unintended consequences.

“This is much more complicated than looking at (IS) as thugs, even though they are,” says Miliani, the executive director of the USF World Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies. “Even before the prime minister was forced to resign, the Kurds were on record that they would like to have a referendum on moving toward political autonomy and independent sovereignty. Americans and Europeans and a lot of other countries are sending troops and talking about allowing the Kurds to control Kirkuk.”

Which just so happens to have oil.

“While we are arming them, hoping they defeat (IS), we are also sowing the seeds of a plan for an independent Kurdistan,” cautions Milani. “If that happens, it can create all sorts of instability, and all kinds of problems for the region.”

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The Pentagon announced the death of a soldier in Afghanistan last week.

Sgt. 1st Class Samuel C. Hairston, 35, of Houston, Texas, died Aug. 12, in Ghazni, Afghanistan, of injuries sustained when his unit was engaged by enemy small-arms fire. Hairston was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C.

There have now been 2,330 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation’s longest war.

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