Have American reporters, ensconced comfortably in Iraq’s “Green Zone” and relying on stringers and runners to gather information on the chaos that continues in the wake of the Samarra Shrine bombing, been duped by al Qaeda operatives into reporting widespread violence that never happened? How accurate a job can reporters do when chaos reigns and they must rely on second and third hand reports to write their stories?
On Saturday, I wrote a post about how so many media analysts have been predicting an Iraq civil war almost since the statue of Saddam was toppled. I supplied about a dozen links to stories over the past three years that all said the same thing; civil war was imminent and nothing could be done to stop it.
I feel constrained to point out that this theme is a no brainer. Sectarian tensions were kept tightly under wraps by force when Saddam was in power so it stands to reason that once the tyrant was removed, these tensions would bubble to the surface and spill over into violence as age old hatreds and blood feuds were allowed free reign.
You may recall something very similar happened during the break up of the made-up country of Yugoslavia after the death of Marshall Tito. Yugoslavia was an afterthought, the solution to the intractable problem of what to do with the flotsam and jetsam of the old Hapsburg empire following its collapse after World War I. With Tito’s death, the region exploded as the dictator’s careful power sharing regime among the factions collapsed and old nationalist aspirations came to the fore. The problem of the Balkans is far from being solved and only the presence of UN peacekeepers and NATO troops keeps the lid on sectarian and nationalist violence.
The Iraq “civil war” theme almost immediately became media short hand for the failures of the Bush Administration. It has since become a yardstick to measure the incompetence of the authorities to deal with the daunting set of problems facing the country in the aftermath of the war and in trying to build a strong government based on democratic values. But has the expectation of civil war led to reporters in Iraq swallowing disinformation from al Qaeda cells about horrendous death and destruction across the country that simply doesn’t exist?
Following the destruction of the Askariya Shrine in Samarra, it appeared that predictions of civil war would finally come true. Apparently, sectarian violence exploded across the country as Shia militias – aided and abetted by the Shia dominated police and army – burned Sunni mosques, killed innocent Sunni civilians, and spread death and destruction throughout the country.
I say apparently because there are conflicting reports on just how many mosques have actually been damaged or destroyed, how many people have been killed, and most importantly, how close the country really is to actual civil war. Here’s today’s New York Times:
Sectarian violence appeared to be ebbing across Iraq on Sunday, with more people venturing outside for the first time in days. Nonetheless, Shiite militiamen retained control of some Sunni mosques they had raided, and scattered mayhem left at least 14 people dead, including three American soldiers. At least 227 people have been killed since the shrine bombing.
Please note that number of 227 dead carries with it no authoritative confirmation. The number is not coming from the Iraqi government or the American military. As far as we know, it is the best guess of the reporter. And the reports of “dozens” of Sunni mosques being attacked and damaged is still being reported by AP.
The Iraqi Interior Ministry (which has an interest in downplaying the violence) reported on Saturday a different story. From Iraq the Model:
Mosques attacked/shot at without damage: 21 not 51
Moderately damaged: 6 not 23
Mosques destroyed totally: 1 not 3
Mosques occupied by militias: 1 not 2 (evacuated later).
Civilians killed: 119 not 183
Why the discrepancy?
I think it’s a given that the Interior Ministry is downplaying the violence to some extent. But consider this from Iraqi Bloggers Central: on who carried out the attack on the Shrine and why:
They (al Qaeda) have made it clear since late 2003 or early 2004 that platform number one in their mission is to generate a sectarian civil war in Iraq between Sunni and Shi’a Arabs to drive out the U.S. A war between these parties is also useful to them in that if Shi’a are (or perceived to be) attacking Sunni Arabs, the Return Party (Sunni insurgents) can step in as the Sunnis’ protectors. The great thing about a plot like this is that the perpetrators need no higher goal than chaos for the sake of chaos. It fits with their M.O. (ala Tal Afar). Their propaganda cells can run around spreading false stories about attacks on Sunnis and Sunni mosques, or they can sit back and let Iraqis do it for them. They can put on black pajamas, Iraqi Army uniforms, or come as they are. It doesn’t matter. They can launch attacks indiscriminately on Sunni or Shi’a Iraqis (They don’t care. Either they’re turn-coat deviants or “traitorous apostates”), or they can let Iraqis do it to each other. There is no sense in which blowing up a holy site in Iraq redounds against them. They’ve been sending carbombs and murder-suicide bombers against plenty of mosques up until now. How could this hurt them more?
The point being how much information are we getting first hand? How much information from the Interior Ministry has been confirmed?? How many stories regarding these atrocities have been verified? And as the blogger points out, anyone can dress themselves in army uniforms or in the black, hooded costume of Muktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Militia. So when the New York Times says that some of these attacks have been carried out by Sadr’s militiamen or elements of the armed forces, can we really take that information at face value?
I don’t envy the job of reporters who have to try and sort all of this out and try to make sense of it. But it seems pretty clear to me that there has been at least some exaggeration of the violence and mayhem. Some of that is the natural result of reporting in a war zone. Some of it is probably disinformation being spread by al Qadea as well as rumor mongering by ordinary Iraqis. And some of it may include some wishful thinking on the part of reporters that the long awaited civil war has finally started.
I would recommend you read a lot of Iraqi blogs to get a sense of what is really happening. The two hours I spent going through about a dozen sites brought me to two conclusions:
1. The violence is serious and people are afraid.
2. No one thinks a civil war is imminent. In fact, almost all believe that the destruction of the Shrine in Samarra has accomplished exactly the opposite of what the perpetrators were hoping for. Instead of a civil war, it has brought the Sunnis and Shias closer together with a firm belief that no outside force like al Qaeda is going to derail what they are trying to build – a democratic, united Iraq.
I doubt very much you’ll see that theme mentioned much in the media over the next few days.