Steve Inskeep

Many people in Syria are accustomed to the sound of daily gunfire. It is normal in battle-scarred cities like Damascus or Qusair.

But along the beaches and in the cafes of Tartous, an area that is a center of support for the embattled President Bashar Assad, the sounds are a bit more peaceful.

Near the water's edge of the Mediterranean, tables, chairs and umbrellas sit upon huge stones. At one of these tables sits a brother and sister on vacation.

Traveling to Damascus gives you a view of Syria's war turned inside out.

The international community talks of arming Syria's rebels against President Bashar Assad, but in the capital many people still hope the rebels will lose.

That's the thinking we found around a Muslim shrine in Damascus, a tribute to the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. She lived centuries ago, but a Damascus doctor we met spoke of her in the present tense.

Many years ago, the president of Syria, Hafez al-Assad, approved the construction of a new presidential residence on a mountainside above Damascus.

Assad never occupied the building, saying his successor should take it. When his son Bashar Assad became that successor, he didn't move into the house, either. He preferred a residence down the slope.

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Again and again, President Obama's administration tries to pivot attention toward East Asia. Administration officials believe China and its neighbors are where the economic future lies.

GREENE: And yet it's the Middle East that keeps demanding the president's attention. It brings to mind that line from F. Scott Fitzgerald: So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

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Now that automatic spending cuts are causing wider pain, Congress has begun finding ways to adjust some of them.

MONTAGNE: Today the House is expected to take up a bill the Senate has already approved. It's called the Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013, and it comes after a week of flight delays and outrage from members of Congress, linked to the furloughs the FAA air traffic controllers.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep. Here's another reminder that a fast-moving news story can completely change. Prosecutors have dropped the charges against Paul Kevin Curtis. He's the Elvis impersonator first arrested in the case of ricin being sent to U.S. officials, as we reported last week.

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The special agent in charge of the FBI Boston office hopes someone somewhere heard something that will point to a suspect in the Boston Marathon attack.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATEMENT)

Earlier this week in Caracas, we were about to go to an interview when it had to be rescheduled. The man we were going to speak with was unavoidably detained — kidnapped, to be precise.

It took awhile after that for Laureano Marquez to free up his schedule and meet us in a coffee shop.

"I'm so sorry," he said when he finally arrived, as if it was his fault for being thrown into a car and driven off to the far reaches of town.

In the days before elevators, there was no such thing as a penthouse on the top floor. The highest floors of a building had cheaper rents because the stairs were hard to climb.

Caracas, Venezuela, is organized roughly the same way, with many poor neighborhoods climbing up the sides of a mountain valley. Some of the poorest homes are among the most remote, accessible not by any road but by alleyways and long flights of stairs.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep in Caracas, Venezuela. This country is about to hold a presidential election. Voters are replacing the late Hugo Chavez, who shouldered this oil-rich republic onto the world stage. He often denounced the United States as an oppressive empire - even as he sold Americans oil - and imported gasoline from U.S. refineries. The election of his successor this weekend gives us a chance to listen to a changing Latin America.

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We're learning this morning of a possible change in the American use of unmanned drones. The change, if it happens, would affect who gives the orders and possibly how much the public learns.

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(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

INSKEEP: That's the sound of bells in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, as Pope Francis celebrated his inaugural Mass today. The ceremony was infused with meaning, both in the substance of what the new pope said and the symbolism of how he was presented.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us on the line from Rome.

Hi, Sylvia.

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When President Obama recently called for stricter gun control laws, he started out by saying this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is the land of the free, and it always will be.

INSKEEP: The land of the free, he said. But he added this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: We don't live in isolation. We live in a society, a government of and by and for the people. We are responsible for each other.

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OK. The field is set for the NCAA Division One men's basketball tournament. Top seeds include Kansas, Louisville, Indiana and Gonzaga. The team previously known for its heroic upsets in the NCAA tournament is now one of the teams to beat. NPR's Mike Pesca is here to discuss the selections. Mike, good morning.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hello.

INSKEEP: How'd Gonzaga do it?

PESCA: I know, right? You read those other teams, and it's, like, perennial power, perennial power, perennial power, Jesuit school from Spokane.

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Thousands of Venezuelans have been filling the streets this week, listening to music and lining up to see the coffin of their leader, Hugo Chavez, who died on Tuesday. Leaders from around the world have also come to the capital city, Caracas, for a funeral which formally takes place today. And in keeping with his often larger-than-life persona, the Venezuelan government plans to embalm Chavez and keep his body on display under glass, in perpetuity. NPR's Juan Forero is in Caracas, following events there. Hi, Juan.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. In Italy the papacy is officially vacant. The Vatican is now under the control of the cardinals who will elect a new leader of the Catholic Church. Yesterday Pope Benedict XVI gave up his ring, his cape and red papal shoes to become Pope Emeritus. Cokie Roberts was there, joins us from Rome. Hi, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

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It's been a tense 24 hours in Southern California. The former Los Angeles police officer wanted in connection with three murders is still at large this morning, despite a manhunt that has spanned hundreds of miles.

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We have a clearer picture this morning of just what an immigration overhaul might look like.

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OK, the Pentagon says the U.S. commander in Afghanistan is cleared. Gen. John Allen was caught in a scandal last fall. You may recall, he'd been corresponding by email with a Florida socialite; and the question for the Pentagon was whether Gen. Allen's emails were inappropriate. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman followed the story back then. He's with us now. Tom, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

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On Monday, Morning Edition explored crime rates in Chicago and how the murder rate went up in 2012. That was against national trends and even against Chicago's long-range decline in crime. We discussed police focus on "hot spots," and the dissolution of gangs. But listeners asked: What about gun bans?

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Let's start with the upside. Congress has yet to rattle the financial markets so far in 2013.

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It is raining in Newtown, Connecticut, where people observed a moment of silence seven days to the minute after a gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School. NPR's Kirk Siegler is in Newtown; he's on the line. And Kirk, what do you see this morning?

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