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Media war
From the New York Times to Al-Jazeera, the press tries to make sense of the battle for Fallujah

IF THERE IS one overarching symbol of where it’s all gone wrong in Iraq, it is surely the city of Fallujah. Fallujah first entered our consciousness last spring, when a howling, bloodthirsty mob set upon four American contractors, killing them, mutilating and burning their bodies, and flinging their remains over a bridge (see "Don’t Quote Me," News and Features, April 9). Fallujah is where American forces pulled back, allowing local militias to take over in what was touted as a new model for governing an ungovernable country. And Fallujah is where the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi reportedly set up shop, planning suicide bombings and carrying out ghastly, videotaped beheadings.

So it was with a sense of almost desperate resignation that we watched as American forces invaded Fallujah earlier this month. Most of the city’s 350,000 residents had already fled. So, too, had most of the terrorists. But never mind, said Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. This wasn’t about defeating the terrorists; it was about denying them sanctuary. With American and Iraqi troops bursting into the city hospital and minarets falling and God-knows-how-many innocents becoming caught in the crossfire, an old, ugly, Orwellian phrase from the Vietnam era came to mind: We had to destroy the village in order to save it. It’s not clear that anyone actually said those words back then, but they perfectly encapsulated the insanity of an insane time. So it is with Fallujah in November 2004.

The offensive came to an end, more or less, on Sunday. The next day’s papers, from New York to Los Angeles, from London to Doha, proclaimed the American victory. But though US forces had won — and, of course, there was never really any doubt of that — it was considerably less clear exactly what they had won. The press, even among backers of George W. Bush’s pre-emptive war, was notably devoid of triumphalism. Indeed, the near-universal assessment was that the battle of Fallujah had created at least as many problems as it was supposed to solve: a humanitarian crisis in the city itself; a rebellion that’s spreading to the northern city of Mosul and elsewhere; and deepening hostility on the part of Iraq’s Sunni majority.

What little diversity the national and international press expressed was in what various news organizations chose to emphasize. For the American press, Iraq may be seen from many points of view — but the most important, always, is that of the United States. Consider, for example, the US-centric front page of Monday’s New York Times. Beneath the headline REBELS ROUTED IN FALLUJA; FIGHTING SPREADS ELSEWHERE, reporters Dexter Filkins and James Glanz wrote, "American forces overran the last center of rebel resistance in Falluja on Sunday after a weeklong invasion that smashed what they called the principal base for the Iraqi insurgency." The story was accompanied by a photo of American Marines driving down a ruined street, and a news analysis by Eric Schmitt on the challenges now facing US forces and Iraq’s interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi.

In contrast, for people of the Arab world, the war in Iraq is far more likely to be seen as something that outsiders are doing to them. Consider the English-language Web site of Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based Arab news service, which led on Monday with the headline AID CONVOY BARRED FROM ‘STARVING’ FALLUJA. According to the report, Red Crescent trucks carrying food, water, and medicine had been turned away by the American military, despite claims by relief agencies that "hundreds of families ... are trapped inside Falluja." Al-Jazeera also reported that the American and Iraqi forces who raided Fallujah Hospital had abused those inside. The hospital had been identified in the Western media as a terrorist redoubt. But Asma Khamis al-Muhannadi, an "assistant doctor," was quoted as saying, "The hospital was targeted by bombs and rockets. I was with a woman in labour. The umbilical cord had not yet been cut. At that time, a US solider shouted at one of the national guards to arrest me and tie my hands while I was helping the mother to deliver. I will never forget this incident." (Al-Jazeera skeptics, take note: Alissa Rubin reported in the Los Angeles Times on Monday that, according to a doctor she interviewed, "Iraqi national guardsmen and U.S. Marines ... had entered the hospital, handcuffed the doctors and were forcing the patients out to the parking lot." The Marines, she wrote, later untied the doctors.)

Al-Jazeera even had a daily poll: "Have US-led forces lost control of central Iraq?" As of Monday evening, with more than 28,000 readers responding, the results were running 59 percent "yes," 30 percent "no," and 11 percent "unsure."

No war is easy to report, and the war in Iraq may be more difficult than most. On November 12, journalists’ jobs became even tougher, when the Iraqi government’s Media High Committee, citing Allawi’s recently declared 60-day state of emergency, ordered the news media to distinguish between "innocent citizens of Fallujah" and the insurgents; to refrain from attaching "patriotic descriptions to groups of killers and criminals"; and to "set aside space in your news coverage to make the position of the Iraqi government, which expresses the aspirations of most Iraqis, clear." In a statement posted on the Web site of the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists, the executive director, Ann Cooper, said in response: "We are very troubled by this directive, which is an attempt to control news coverage through government coercion." Cooper might have added that the edict makes a mockery of George W. Bush’s oft-repeated pledge to bring democracy to Iraq.

Despite this blatant attempt to control and manage the news media, by late Monday the big story from Fallujah involved an American Marine who had reportedly executed an unarmed Iraqi insurgent being held prisoner. According to the Associated Press, the Marine Corps has begun a war-crimes investigation into the incident, which was captured by an NBC News team embedded with the Marines. "He’s fucking faking he’s dead. He’s faking he’s fucking dead," one of the Marines is reportedly heard saying just before someone finishes the prisoner off with a shot to the head.

Naturally, none of the US broadcast or cable networks would show the video in its raw, unedited form. Americans, after all, are far more comfortable with abstract concepts such as "fighting terrorism" and "spreading freedom" than they are with watching a man’s brains being splattered on a wall behind him. And who wouldn’t be? It’s certainly not something I want to see. But at a certain point, shouldn’t we be forced to look at what’s being done in our name?

AMONG THE US press, the New York Times, not surprisingly, has provided the most comprehensive, authoritative coverage. In Monday’s Times I counted six stories on such topics as the fighting in Mosul, the not-so-trustworthy Iraqi police and security forces, and the harried staff of the American military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, to which injured soldiers were being airlifted. There was also an editorial warning that if Iraq’s Sunni minority is not made to feel more included in the country’s future, the disorder could grow even worse.

But if no one can throw as much sheer reportorial firepower at a story as the Times, that doesn’t mean other newspapers haven’t provided some valuable coverage. Particularly impressive has been the Boston Globe’s two-person Baghdad bureau, Anne Barnard and Thanassis Cambanis, who have done a good job of showing us the humanity of the people of Iraq in general and of Fallujah in particular.

On Monday, for instance, Barnard wrote about refugees of the city who had been caught in the crossfire. She told the story of Salehma Mahmoud, the 43-year-old mother of four daughters, who’d fled the city after her husband was killed fighting against the Americans. Given Mahmoud’s anti-American background, her description of what happened when an Iraqi soldier set upon her oldest daughter, Fatima, was somewhat startling. Wrote Barnard: "To Mahmoud’s surprise — because she had been told that US troops would beat and rape her — a US patrol rescued them. An American soldier pulled the Iraqi soldier away and yelled at him." On Sunday, Cambanis and a Globe correspondent, Sa’ad al-Izzi, wrote about Uthman Mohammed al-Qaisi, a freelance Iraqi journalist who feared he would be killed when he got caught between the two sides.

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Issue Date: November 19 - 25, 2004
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