As the fables about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and clandestine ties with al-Qaida began to unravel following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the flagship of U.S. news reporting, The New York Times, took itself to task for its failure to challenge its news sources. “Information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged,” the Times wrote in May 2004. “Articles based on dire claims about Iraq trended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all.”
And yet a little more than two-and-a-half years later, the same newspaper highlighted a story about a Jan. 28 “battle” near the holy city of Najaf that is filled with the same sloppy reporting, inadequate research, and just plain disinformation that characterized the Times’s pre-war coverage of Iraq. According to Times reporter Marc Santora, “Iraqi forces were surprised and nearly overwhelmed by the ferocity of an obscure renegade militiawhich calls itself the Soldiers of Heaven.” The story went on to quote “Iraqi government officials” who claimed the group was preparing to storm Najaf and assassinate Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leader of Iraqi’s Shiites.
However, journalists from the Inter Press Service (IPS) and the British Independent, as well as numerous media outlets in the Arab world, say the “battle” was against two local tribes, not the “Soldiers of Heaven,” and was nothing less than a systematic massacre by U.S. air and ground forces of Shi’ite opponents to the ruling clique in Baghdad.
The avalanche of Iraqi government information — some of it contradictory — on the so-called “renegade militia” should have alerted the U.S. media that things were not quite what they seemed. Officials said the group was a Shi’ite zealot “death cult”; a group of “foreign fighters” dressed in Afghan and Pakistani tribal robes and carrying British passports; Sunni Arab nationalists; Saddam Hussein dead-enders; and/or al-Qaida. Baghdad officials also said the scene of the battle was a “fortress,” filled with “heavy weapons.”
None of the charges could be corroborated because the Iraqi Army barred all press from talking to survivors or examining what the Times called a “network” of trenches and bunkers lacing the “militia camp.” Some of the government statements should have immediately failed the smell test: “Shi’ite zealots” do not rub shoulders with Sunni al-Qaida. The “Soldiers of Heaven” is not an armed group. And what were Pakistanis and Afghans doing in southern Iraq?
Reporting near Zarqa, a town a few miles north of Najaf and some 60 miles south of Baghdad, Dahr Jamail and Ali al-Fadhily of the IPS discovered a very different version of the battle than the one making the rounds in the Times and other U.S. news outlets.
The target of the attack was not the “Soldiers of Heaven,” but the al-Hatami and al-Khazali tribes, both of which oppose the current government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. According to the IPS reporters, the Iraqi Army fired on Hatami pilgrims on their way to Najaf for the Ashura holiday, which commemorates the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of Muhammad and Shi’ism’s most revered saint. “We were going to conduct the usual ceremonies that we conduct every year when we were attacked by Iraqi soldiers,” Jabber al-Hatami, leader of the tribe told IPS. Khazaali tribal members went to their aid. “Our two tribes have a strong belief that Iranians are provoking sectarian war in Iraq which is against the belief of all Muslims,” one witness told the reporters, “and so we announced an alliance with Sunni brothers against any sectarian violence in the country. That did not make our Iranian-dominated government happy.”
The tribes, according to Patrick Cockburn of the Independent, are opposed to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIR) and the Dawa Party, both of which are close to Iran and which dominate the Maliki government. Some Iraqi tribes object to Sistani because of his Iranian background, and they feel that religious leadership should be kept in the hands of Arabs.
The governor of Najaf, Asad Abu Ghalal, is a prominent member of SCIR, and was one of the major sources on the incident in stories that appeared in The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
Tension between Arab and Iranian Shi’ites has been building in Iraq’s south since death squads linked to the Maliki government began assassinating local tribal leaders. A death squad with ties to Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior murdered Sheikh Faissal al-Khayoon, head of the large Beni Assad Shi’ite tribe, according to another IPS report . Beni Assad tribal members attacked the Iranian consulate in Basra in retaliation. On Jan. 1, the Mahdi Army of Moktada al Sadr assassinated Sheikh Hamid al-Suhail of the Shiia/Sunni Beni Tamim tribe. Sadr is a key ally of the Maliki government. According to Jamail and al-Fadhily, the Beni Assad and Beni Tamim tribes have worked for Shi’iteSunni unity.
The Independent claims that the “battle” began when the leader of the Hatami tribe, along with his wife and driver, were gunned down at an Iraqi Army checkpoint. The Iraqi Army is riddled with death squads, in particular the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the SCIR. When Hatami tribe members assaulted the checkpoint in revenge, the Iraqi Army called in U.S. helicopters and F-16s, and British Tornados. Tanks and humvees from the U.S. 25th Division were also summoned.
The tribe members fled into a plantation where they were pounded with 500-pound bombs that killed 263 and wounded 210. The Iraqi Army lost 25 soldiers, a casualty imbalance that Cockburn suggests points to not a battle but an “unprecedented massacre.”
Despite the IPS, Independent, and Arab media reports, The New York Times continues to report that the battle was with a “renegade militia.” More than a week after the incident, a Times editorial chastised the Iraqi Army for allowing “hundreds of armed zealots” to set up “a fortified encampment, complete with tunnels, trenches, blockades, 40 heavy machine guns and at least two antiaircraft weapons.” The editorial went on to suggest that “a successful attack on top clerics and pilgrims in Najaf would have been disastrous.”
The details on the camp, the weapons, and the charge that Najaf was the target are straight from Iraqi government sources.
The way the U.S. media has reported the “battle” of Zarqa is a virtual replay of the kind of reporting that characterized the run-up to the Iraq War. The media seems to be taking a chillingly similar tack in its reporting about “Iranian interference” in Iraq. For instance, a recent story in The New York Times reports that Iran may have been involved in the recent kidnapping and murder of five Americans. But the story presents nothing but a series of unnamed sources and speculations.
The Bush administration allegations that Iran has set up insurgent training camps and built anti-personnel bombs that have killed and maimed U.S. soldiers have been routinely reported on all the major networks and daily newspapers with virtually no dissenting voices or questions raised concerning the motives of sources.
Such reporting paves the road to war. Will its next victim be Iran?
CONN HALLINAN is a foreign policy analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus and a lecturer in journalism at the University of California, Santa Cruz.