Friday, December 15, 2006

Iraq news -- through a glass darkly


Apparently the official Bush message of yesterday was, once again, everything is coming along fine in Iraq, but the news media refuse to give you the good news.

Laura Bush blamed the media, when asked why only 21% of Americans, in a recent NBC poll, said they approved of her husband's Iraq policy.

"I do know that there are a lot of good things that are happening [in Iraq] that aren't covered," she said.

Paul Schemm is a former editor of the Cairo Times now based in Baghdad and writing for the Boston Globe. The Arabist has posted his illuminating account of how "the news" of Iraq is assembled from contradictory reports and contentious sources and shaped into the mix that forms our knowledge of events in Iraq. Yes, do think of sausages -- the details can be pretty ugly. Here is a snippet of a much longer piece.

The word of the air strike came around mid-morning. I was actually the one to take the call from our stringer in Samarra. He said 32 people had been killed in an American air strike somewhere to the south according to local government official Amr something-or-other and he was heading towards the site, then the line went dead. ...

Then the press release came. "20 Al-Qaeda terrorists killed" in a midnight airstrike about 80 kilometers north of Baghdad. The wording in these things are key. As US ground forces approached a target site, they were suddenly fired upon, forcing them to return fire – killing two "terrorists". "Coalition Forces continued to be threatened by enemy fire, causing forces to call in close air support." ...

Eighteen more armed terrorists were killed, and a subsequent search revealed that two of them were women. "Al-Qaeda in Iraq has both men and women supporting and facilitating their operations, unfortunately," said the statement.

So it was back to the telephones, talked to the official US military spokesman, "um, how did you know the women were terrorists?" Apparently in the post-air strike "battlefield assessment" done at 1 am in the rubble of the building revealed this fact.

"If there is a weapon with or near to the person or they are holding it, they are a terrorist," he replied. Of course in a normal place, in a normal situation, we would have jumped into a car right after the first phone call and been there an hour or two later and made our own determination about what occurred.

But that wasn't going to happen, and we weren't going to send our Baghdad-based mostly Shiite reporters north into the angry Sunni heartland to a bunch of furious tribesmen who'd just been air-struck.

So we rely on our stringers in the area, who probably can only function in that region because they are sympathetic to the insurgents. It's no fun being a stringer, either the insurgents are going to kill you or the US military will arrest you.

You have to take these allegiances in mind when evaluating their reports. Our stringer finally called, he'd arrived at the site and according to the mayor of the small town (Amr Alwan, as it turned out), who wasn't there at the time, US forces showed up, dragged dozens of peace loving citizens out of their houses, executed them, then put them back into the house and blew it up to cover up their crime so it looked like an air strike.

That version didn't quite pass the plausibility test, either, so we went, roughly, with the US version, putting a lot of things in quotes to convey the skepticism.

I've quoted a lot here, probably more than I should of someone else's work, but this is just the beginning of Schemm's story. They kept trying to find out what really happened. ...The rest of it is just as illuminating and also quite moving. Go read it all.

1 comment:

sfmike said...

Thanks for the link. It's a great site.

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