Spinning Iraq

by Sep 8, 2008Foreign Policy0 comments

A recent op-ed in the New York Times flips reality on its head to support the argument that the U.S. should take its sweet time in withdrawing forces from Iraq, which is indicative of the nature of how government officials parroted and echoed by the media have twisted the facts -- not only to wage the war in the first place, but to try to ensure an extended U.S. presence in the country.

A recent op-ed in the New York Times flips reality on its head to support the argument that the U.S. should take its sweet time in withdrawing forces from Iraq, which is indicative of the nature of how government officials parroted and echoed by the media have twisted the facts — not only to wage the war in the first place, but to try to ensure an extended U.S. presence in the country.

In an op-ed in the New York Times last week, John Nagl, Colin Kahl, and Shawn Brimley, fellows at the Center for a New American Security, offered their educated opinion about “How to Exit Iraq”.

“Basra,” they say, “is an example of what an exit strategy might look like — and of the dangers of getting it wrong.”

I would probably agree. But let’s look at their account of what happened, a repetition of what has become the official history of the event (at least in the U.S.):

After the 2003 invasion, control over southern Iraq was handed over to British forces. Without adequate troops to protect the population, security in Basra deteriorated, the British withdrew and Shiite militias took control. In late March of this year, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki launched an offensive in Basra to clear the city of militias, but the Iraqi Army quickly got bogged down. American special operations forces and combat advisers reinforced Iraqi units, providing crucial air and fire support and detailed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. As a result, Iraqi security forces turned the tide and now control the city.

The lesson of Basra is clear: a rapid withdrawal risks a resurgence of violence, but a responsible drawdown and a reorientation of the mission away from combat and toward advising Iraqi forces stand a good chance of advancing our interests in Iraq at acceptable cost.

In other words, if U.S. forces were to withdraw from Iraq too quickly, chaos would erupt and the security gains that have been made resulting in a reduction of violence in the country would disappear.

This is the same argument, of course, that the political and media establishment has long embraced. To those who have argued for a full, immediate withdraw of the U.S. presence in Iraq, it has been told that such a move would result in mass chaos and violence, civil war, and — as presidential hopeful John McCain has put it — possibly even “genocide”.

And just look at the evidence, the op-ed tells us. Just look at what happened in Basra when the British left!

There’s just one thing, though. One itty-bitty detail that might be worthy of a footnote.

I’ll let this headline in the London Times from September last year speak for itself: “British exit from Basra has led to drop in violence, says General David Patraeus”.

That’s right, the commander of coalition forces, US Army General David Petraeus himself testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last September that violence had gone down significantly in Basra as a direct result of the British withdrawal.

In fact, the commander of British forces said violence dropped by as much as 90 percent after the withdrawal. “We thought, ‘If 90 percent of the violence is directed at us, what would happen if we stepped back?'” Maj. Gen. Graham Binns explained to reporters last year. As a result of the British withdrawal, he noted, there was “a remarkable and dramatic drop in attacks”.

“The motivation for attacking us was gone, because we’re no longer patrolling the streets,” he added.

Undeniably simple logic.

Of course, this did not bode well for those who argued that the U.S. had to stay in Iraq because the withdrawal of forces would lead to a bloodbath across the country. Spin was the name of the game.

“As British Leave, Basra Deteriorates”, a Washington Post headline blared on page A01 in August last year, for instance, with a misleading (we’ll get to that) byline that read, “Violence Rises in Shiite City Once Called a Success Story”.

As the British were still in the process of withdrawing from Basra, the Post said that “Shiite militias there have escalated a violent battle against each other for political supremacy and control over oil resources…. Three major Shiite political groups are locked in a bloody conflict that has left the city in the hands of militias and criminal gangs…. The city is plagued by ‘the systematic misuse of official institutions, political assassinations, tribal vendettas, neighborhood vigilantism and enforcement of social mores, together with the rise of criminal mafias that increasingly intermingle with political actors,’ a recent report by the International Crisis Group said.”

Quite a grim portrait.

The Post article, of course, said nothing about the level of violence between Iraqis and British forces. It does, however, quote U.S. officials on what a horrible a thing it was for the British to withdraw.

“[I]t’s hard now to paint Basra as a success story,” they quoted one “senior U.S. official in Baghdad with long experience in the south” as saying (why couldn’t they name this person?).

“The British have basically been defeated in the south,” said “a senior U.S. intelligence official … in Baghdad” (anonymous because he/she is a spook?).

The Post also quoted “a recent official visitor from London” (no comment) as describing British forces as “surrounded like cowboys and Indians”.

On source the Post actually names is Juan Cole, an expert on the Middle East from the University of Michigan. “Basra’s ‘security nightmare’ has already had devastating effects on Iraq’s economy, said Juan Cole,” the Post stated.

Cole is an interesting choice to quote in an article decrying the withdrawal of British forces from Basra, as he has long been an opponent of the war and subsequent occupation. He has indeed called Iraq — not Basra — a “security nightmare”, such as when he wrote in 2004 that the war in Iraq had made the U.S. less safe. “Iraq is a security nightmare that could well blow back on the American homeland,” he said. Every other use of the phrase “security nightmare” on his website is in a similar context.

A New York Times headline anticipating the withdrawal read “British Pullback in Iraq Presages Hurdles for U.S.” The article’s tone was epitomized by such statements as “Skepticism is widespread in Basra, as in Baghdad, about whether Iraqi forces are ready to take over” and “The British and the Americans will have to assuage the fears of Iraqis that they are being abandoned to gunmen and religious extremists.”

Times reporter Stephen Farrell even found Iraqis who supported the British presence, and reported their view. “The British pullback … is viewed with dismay by many Iraqis in the city.” (He explains two paragraphs down who he means: “The educated and secular middle classes” — i.e., people that matter — “fear that the Iraqi security forces — particularly the police — are hopelessly infiltrated by the extremist Shiite militias and Iranian-backed Islamist parties competing, often murderously, for control of Basra’s huge oil wealth.”) He quotes a teacher saying, “If they withdraw, we will live in a jungle, like the early days.”

It’s a curious thing, isn’t it, how Farrell couldn’t (or just wouldn’t) find a resident of Basra to quote or to provide the alternative view of who opposed the British presence and therefore supported the withdrawal? And notice how he implies that anyone who might hold such a view — which, of course, he doesn’t even hint might be possible — must be uneducated.

No, one certainly didn’t find any headlines like “Basra celebrates British withdrawal” in the New York Times.

“Basra’s residents expressed pride and satisfaction today at the news that the British troops had slipped out of the city overnight after more than four years of occupation,” the London Times reported last September, adding that “Iraqi troops and police flooded the streets and erected checkpoints in a determined effort to show that they could maintain order.”

The sentiment of the most Iraqis does manage to leak through the U.S. mainstream media from time to time. A Washington Post headline last December noted that “All Iraqi Groups Blame U.S. Invasion for Discord, Study Shows”. The lead paragraph in the article by Karen DeYoung said, “Iraqis of all sectarian and ethnic groups believe that the U.S. military invasion is the primary root of the violent differences among them, and see the departure of ‘occupying forces’ as the key to national reconciliation, according to focus groups conducted for the U.S. military last month.”

The article explained further, “Outside of the military, some of the most widespread polling in Iraq has been done by D3 Systems, a Virginia-based company that maintains offices in each of Iraq’s 18 provinces. Its most recent publicly released surveys, conducted in September for several news media organizations, showed the same widespread Iraqi belief voiced by the military’s focus groups: that a U.S. departure will make things better. A State Department poll in September 2006 reported a similar finding.”

Of course the fact that the sentiment of supporters of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq who argue that this would help to mitigate the violence happens to be shared by the vast majority of Iraqis themselves matters little to those who support the occupation. After all, those who want to “cut and run” are fools — and what do the Iraqi people know about their own country?

But back to the British withdrawal from Basra. In an article from last November entitled “In Basra, violence is a tenth of what it was before British pullback, general says”, the Associated Press noted that violence remained, but that “With an overwhelmingly Shiite population, Basra has not seen the level of sectarian violence that has torn Iraq apart since the Feb. 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine north of Baghdad. But it has seen major fighting between insurgents and coalition troops, as well as between Shiite militias vying for control of the city and its security forces.”

And get this: “British officials expected a spike in such ‘intra-militia violence’ after they pulled back from the city’s center, and were surprised to find none, [Maj. Gen. Graham] Binns said” (emphasis added).

Oh, it gets even better. Why was it that the violence didn’t spike, according to the British commander himself? “That’s because the Sadrist militia is all powerful here”.

That’s right, according to the commander of British forces in Iraq, it was because Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers controlled the city that the level of sectarian and inter-militia violence remained low after the British left.

The AP also noted that, “British officials have been talking with members of al-Sadr’s militia since before this past summer, Binns said, in hopes of bringing them into the political process in Basra.”

And what about that Iraqi offensive into Basra earlier this year “to clear the city of militias” that “got bogged down” and required assistance from U.S. forces that “turned the tide” for Iraqi security forces allowing them to “now control the city”?

The offensive, it might be worthy of noting, came at a time when Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki was under intense pressure from Washington. He was blamed for U.S. failures to achieve progress in Iraq and there was even talk that he should be ousted and replaced with a more effective leader. Maliki was pressured to step up operations against militias opposed to the continuing U.S. presence.

And we might recall that one of the fears in the U.S. about the British withdrawal from Basra was that it would leave the city and its Shiite militias under even greater influence from Iran. “Iran would be a geostrategic beneficiary of any British pullout from the Shiite-dominated South, where it already wields great political influence,” as one analyst put it at the time.

And that, of course, was something the U.S. just couldn’t tolerate.

Of course, the facts had to be dealt with, too. Thus, Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan acknowledged in the Weekly Standard that “The ability of the Sadrists and Iranian-controlled Special Groups to plunge Iraq into chaos has been exaggerated. To the extent that they have just tried to do that, they failed completely.”

The facts had to be contended with, so the authors settle for the spin: Iran hasn’t really been the cause of chaos that it’s been so commonly accused of — but it hasn’t been for lack of trying. (See, it’s just that the Iranians are apparently incompetent.)

This despite acknowledging that Iran was in fact influential in bringing about an end to the escalating violence in Basra. Watch how they slip this one in there: “Iranian military intervention in Iraq should now be manifest to everyone,” the authors suggest. “Sadr was in Iran during the entire operation,” they note, adding that “The commander of the Quds Forces was himself involved in the cessation of fighting, and did not ‘broker’ the deal as a neutral mediator since his forces were among the belligerents” (emphasis added).

What was that? What was that bit, in this paragraph condemning Iranian involvement in the events in Basra last spring, about Iran helping to end the violence? We’ll return to Iran’s involvement in the “cessation of fighting” in Basra — something the Weekly Standard would obviously have believe was a bad thing — momentarily.

So, despite the facts on the ground, the withdrawal from Basra was portrayed by officials in Washington as a failure and a mistake in a view parroted by the major media; the city became synonymous with lawlessness, a hotbed of Iranian-controlled militias that terrorized the city. Maliki was ineffective, he had to do something, had to take action. Basra was put in the crosshairs.

The offensive began on March 24. A New York Times headline on March 28 declared that “Assault by Iraq on Shiite Forces Stalls in Basra” after the operation had “set off clashes” not only in Basra, but “in cities throughout Iraq.”

Of course, this was because so many Iraqis so strongly opposed the government’s actions in Basra, but the Times, naturally, doesn’t say that — at least not in so many words.

As the violence and death toll escalated as a result of the Iraqi government offensive, on March 30 Sadr issued a statement that the bloodshed between Iraqis should end and thus called on his forces and followers to stand down.

“We want the Iraqi people to stop this bloodshed and maintain Iraq’s independence and stability,” the statement said. “For that we have decided to withdraw from the streets of Basra and all other provinces.”

“Because of the religious responsibility, and to stop Iraqi blood being shed,” his statement also said, “and to maintain the unity of Iraq and to put an end to this sedition that the occupiers and their followers want to spread among the Iraqi people, we call for an end to armed appearances in Basra and all other provinces.  Anyone carrying a weapon and targeting government institutions will not be one of us.”

He told his followers to “work with Iraqi government offices to achieve security and to file charges against those who have committed crimes”.

The Iraqi government said it welcomed the statement. A spokesman for Maliki said, “We believe this will support the government of Iraq’s efforts to impose security,” adding, “The government will be forced to implement the law against those who do not obey the instructions of the government and of Sadr.”

And Iran’s role in the Basra operation? “Iran was integral in persuading Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to halt attacks by his militia on Iraqi security forces,” CNN reported, citing an Haidar al-Abadi, an Iraqi lawmaker and member of Maliki’s Dawa Party.

In fact, Iraqi lawmakers had “traveled to Iran to broker the cease-fire” and “the Iranians pressured al-Sadr to craft an agreement.”

The move by Sadr echoed an earlier decision to stand down his Mehdi Army last August, a factor which greatly contributed, along with the British withdrawal from the south and the increasing trend — one that, much to his credit, General Petraeus noticed and encouraged — of Sunni militias taken it upon themselves to combat other lawless militias (including other Sunni groups) and terrorism, to the decrease in violence across Iraq last year. Of course, pundits and politicians in Washington have been more than happy to claim that this important progress has been the result of the “surge” of U.S. troops into Iraq last year.

But as the recent New York Times op-ed goes to show, there’s no limit to the amount of ways you can spin the facts — even if it requires outright fabrication and historical revisionism — to suit political ideologies and agendas.

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About Jeremy R. Hammond

About Jeremy R. Hammond

I am an independent journalist, political analyst, publisher and editor of Foreign Policy Journal, book author, and writing coach.

My writings empower readers with the knowledge they need to see through state propaganda intended to manufacture their consent for criminal government policies.

By recognizing when we are being lied to and why, we can fight effectively for liberty, peace, and justice, in order to create a better world for ourselves, our children, and future generations of humanity.

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