I was rather alarmed Friday to read the following paragraph in a Reuters news story:
A Reuters witness said Mehdi Army gunmen had seized control of the southern city of Nassiriya. A hospital source said 15 people had been killed and 50 wounded in clashes in the town.
My fiance is living on a small base a few kilometers from Nassiriya and I hadn't heard from him in a few days. After getting in touch with him and reminding him that he would look silly with Swiss cheese holes in his person, I began to feel aggravated at the news coverage of the latest events in Iraq and at President Bush (again) for telling me that this was a "defining moment" for the country.
My local newspaper has its own perspective on the news from Iraq. I think it could be characterized as "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil." Their latest offering on the war is a return to the "happy Iraqi"-type story that was so popular at the beginning of the war:
Maj. Ike Sallee led a patrol of Multi-National Division - Baghdad soldiers through the streets of Old Adhamiyah to congratulate Iraqis on this festive occasion and to demonstrate his unit's resolve to keep it a safe and festive occasion for all Iraqis.
"We wanted to make a presence, let everyone know we're still here," said the Kissimmee, Fla., native, who serves as the operations officer for 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division...
Sallee said events like this one empower the Iraqi people, instilling hope and optimism, which is contagious.
"We can't fix all (Iraq's) problems, but if the people believe (security) is getting better then it builds momentum," he said.
Sallee and his soldiers mingled with Iraqis on a crowded sidewalk lined with goods pouring out of open store fronts on one side and street vendors on the other.
Sallee stopped to buy some fresh pastries from a young Iraqi man, while from above, Iraqis of all ages leaned out over second and third story balconies to watch the festivities below.
"What's most important about today isn't just that it is Muhammad's birthday, but that these people of Adhamiyah have not been able to do this (celebration) for the past five years," Sallee said.
It's a nice story written by a native of this area, so it gives a local perspective. That's great. And, it was written before Mr. Maliki launched his offensive on Shi'ites in Basra, threatening the ceasefire which has been in effect since August, so the writer can be forgiven for not knowing what was about to happen. However, doesn't it give a false impression to run this story at this time? Baghdad is under curfew and Moqtada al-Sadr's forces are firing rockets and mortars into the Green Zone. The United States has responded with artillery, air power, and direct fire, according to the Washington Post and the New York Times. Basra is mostly in the hands of al-Sadr and other Shi'ite militias. And a number of cities and towns in southern Iraq have seen widespread fighting between Shi'ites and Iraqi government forces. According to several accounts, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched an offensive in Basra without consulting with his U.S. and British allies and seems to have underestimated militia resistance, threatening the stability of the last few months.
I think a story like this one gives the wrong impression of the situation in Iraq right now.
I apologize for picking on a local newspaper. I think we should really be asking why the cable and network news programs aren't paying more attention to the events in Iraq. On the Fox Web site there is no independent story about the government's push against al-Sadr or Shi'ite forces. They were only carrying AP stories when I checked several times. CNN does have an analysis piece but it's very sketchy at best. MSNBC.com has, by far, the best coverage of the current crisis among the cable networks on their Web site.
When there is no objective reporting from news outlets then the loudest voice is the one heard by the American people. That voice is, of course, President Bush's whine. In Bush's version of events the current fighting in Iraq is a "defining moment." The Iraqi government is seeking out criminal elements. Things are going to be tough but everything's under control.
And, in a supreme leap of logic, Bush said that his Iraq policy was working because U.S. troops were coming out of the country. How he can say this in the face of facts is puzzling. Last year we "surged." This year we were supposed to bring the "surge" troops home, along with some of the others. Yet now we hear that General Petraeus wants to have a "Pause" http://www.csmonitor.com/2008/0327/p01s03-usmi.html while the situation is evaluated. In point of fact, it seems to take at least 140,000 troops and a similar number of contractors to keep Iraq functioning right now.
Yet, according to Stephen Biddle, a military expert at the Council on Foreign Relations and an advisor to Army Gen. David Petraeus, troops have been withdrawn. He is quoted in the Washington Post discussing al-Maliki's Basra offensive against the Shi'ite militias:
Biddle said that "if this thing collapses, there will be a lot of pressure [from the military] to halt further withdrawals of U.S. troops." About 9,000 troops have been withdrawn since last year, with an additional three brigades scheduled to come home by the end of July. An aide to Petraeus said yesterday there are "no plans on slowing anything at this point."
Nine thousand isn't a lot, but it's a start. The current fighting in Iraq threatens to derail the hope of bringing more troops home. The longer this fighting continues, the worse it is for the prospect of bringing our troops home any time soon.
While our troops are providing air support and, in some cases armored support, for Iraqi troops, in other areas they have become primary targets of the Shi'ite militias. This development seriously threatens the ceasefire which has been in effect since August 2007 with the al-Sadr's forces. U.S. troops could once again be fighting against a resistance as an army of occupation.
The following was reported in an AP story written by Ryan Lenz on Saturday, 3/29/08:
The crackdown in Basra has provoked a violent reaction -- especially from al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. His followers accuse rival Shiite parties in the government of trying to crush their movement before provincial elections this fall.
Their anger has led to a sharp increase in attacks against American troops in Shiite areas following months of relative calm after al-Sadr declared a unilateral cease-fire last August and recently extended it for six months.
In extracts of an interview broadcast by the Al-Jazeera television network, al-Sadr called Saturday for Arab leaders to voice their support for Iraq's "resistance" to what he calls foreign occupation.
If U.S. troops are once again drawn into fighting a bloody insurgency led by Moqtada al-Sadr's militia it will make it much harder to argue for bringing troops home, even with a Democratic president in office. With the current timing of these events this story could even bolster John McCain's assertions that the United States needs to stay in Iraq far longer than most people currently say they would like. Or, with mounting troop deaths, the mood of the country could turn even more decisively away from staying in Iraq. Whatever might be the case, this story isn't being adequately reported in the mainstream news media. It's not simply about the Iraqi Army tackling some "criminal elements" in Basra.
This isn't the time for happy Iraqi stories. There's too much at stake. If you read through AP and Reuters stories and dig into some newspapers, you can find the current news from Iraq, but it's not reader-friendly for most people. It's time for the news media to pay attention to what's happening in Iraq and ask some intelligent questions so they can help inform the public about what's going on and how it will affect all of us. These stories should be front and center and presented so people understand what's happening. Otherwise we will continue to have White House TV and that's not good enough.