Politics & Policy

The News Stew in Iraq

Trying to get the full picture.

Iraq may well be one of the strangest places on earth — certainly the strangest place I’ve ever been. It’s strange, not because it is a foreign country with a history and culture so seemingly alien to ours; and not because it is a nation at war. It’s strange because — aside from being embroiled in one of the worst conflicts of the 21st century (and firefights, bombings, and attempted roadside bombings are taking place there every day and night) — there is a strange sense of normalcy throughout much of the country. At times that normalcy can be seen in what are considered to be the most dangerous regions.

#ad#I experienced this strange combination of conflict and normalcy in Baghdad and points south, just a few weeks ago. And I was reminded of it while listening to Gen. David Petraeus’s press conference on Thursday.

According to Petraeus, commander of the multinational force there, he was recently having a conversation with a correspondent for the Washington Post about the “incremental progress” being made in Iraq that indeed exists but is difficult to demonstrate. At one point, the general suggested he and the reporter take a “dusk” helicopter flight over the city. According to Petraeus:

… We flew around. … it was unbelievable.

This is a day in which I think there was a car bomb in Iraq … but you could not have told that from what we saw over the city. There were three big amusement parks operational. … rollercoaster kinds of [things] … not just a couple little merry-go-rounds in small neighborhood parks. Restaurants in some parts of the city were booming. Lots of markets were open. The people were on the street. … there had to be a thousand soccer games ongoing. They’re watering the grass in various professional soccer fields — the soccer leagues.

GOOD, BAD, AND SKEWED NEWS

I can’t speak for Petraeus, but from my own experience, none of this begins to suggest that there is not a very bloody guerrilla war taking place in Iraq: There is, to be sure. And as I mentioned in “The Tank,” there are good and bad things happening “that don’t make the nightly cut.” Let me add, there are also skewed things that are making the cut.

First the bad: In some sectors, the fighting is heavier and bombings more frequent than what we might imagine in the states.

While I was there in late March and early April, I would read — in an American newspaper online — about a bombing in a Baghdad market on a particular day that killed scores of people. In reality, there were more bombings on that same day. But if no one was killed, the bombings weren’t necessarily reported. That wouldn’t include mortar attacks and firefights, which also are often missed by the papers.

For instance, one predawn morning while we were saddling up for a big highway mission, the team I was with received word that one sector of Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) had been mortared overnight. Fortunately, no one was killed or wounded. One of the mortar rounds had failed to detonate and an explosive ordnance disposal team was going out to disarm and remove it. It all seemed newsworthy to me, but I was going on a mission in the Wasit province and didn’t have time to focus on the BIAP attack. I assumed I would read about the attack the next day, but nothing about it ever appeared in any of the English-language papers. That was just one example.

HOLES IN NEWS STORIES

So much is not reported because most of the journalists — particularly in Baghdad — are hunkered down behind the relatively secure walls of the Green Zone: Or they’re sending their Iraqi stringers out to cover whatever is deemed newsworthy. Or the reporters themselves are strolling around with one of the military public-affairs officers out at Camp Victory.

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As far as the BIAP mortar attack, those in the Green Zone — some seven or eight miles away — would have been asleep when it happened, and by the time they were up and working, there might have been something far more significant to report somewhere else in the province.

#ad#No media company can accurately or completely report a war this way. But it is the way the Iraq war is being reported by most of the major newspapers, wire services, and television network; the threat of being captured by terrorists has quashed nearly all freedom of movement for Westerners.

The good news is: There is indeed infrastructural progress being made. It’s strange but true, which is a testament to both the resiliency of the Iraq people and the performance of American troops. Much of the country is relatively secure. And no one knows this better than the soldiers on the ground in Iraq, which is why the vast majority of them are willing to see the war through to its completion (though many are understandably less than pleased with the rate of progress).

It’s also why soldiers are so “disgusted” by the politically charged, agenda-driven rantings of those on Capitol Hill, as Lt. Col. Robert “Buzz” Patterson explained to me last week.

HOW IRAQIS REALLY FEEL

Skewed news, on the other hand, is not quite as obvious as the bad or the good news. But it’s there.

An example of skewed news might be found in a wire story published last week addressing the divided opinions of Sunnis and Shiias over Congress’s push to set a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal in Iraq.

The report suggests Sunnis support the withdrawal, and Shiias are fearful of a withdrawal. Yet the report completely skirts the fact that Moqtada Al Sadr’s followers are Shiia, and in recent weeks, many Al Sadr loyalists have publicly protested the U.S. troop presence in Iraq. And many Sunnis are working closely with U.S. forces in an attempt to stop the insurgency and eradicate the likes of al Qaeda in Iraq. Also, few Iraqis would be willing to publicly express (with published attribution — name, job title, etc.) support for American forces. To do so might be a death sentence. Yet there were quotes with attribution in the report.

Nearly every Iraqi I spoke with while I was there is deathly afraid that Congress is going to force the president’s hand in Iraq, or that a new president might begin pulling American forces out of Iraq before that country is secure. And the Iraqis — primarily Sunni — who did speak with me, did so only if I agreed not to reveal their identities for fear the terrorists would come after them and their families.

Granted, Iraqis look forward to the day — just as we Americans do — when U.S. forces are able to leave. But only a very small percentage of Iraqis truly want America to withdraw before the terrorists and guerrillas are put down. And for the most part, that small percentage seems to be the ones who are either instigating or cooperating with the bad guys.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, and in Iraq. He is the author of six books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications.

W. Thomas Smith Jr. — A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues. He has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq, and in Lebanon. ...

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