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Sadr City — a journalist responds

Posted by Richard on June 15, 2008

My brief post about Sadr City on Friday drew a long comment from Fox News reporter Anita McNaught, who has been reporting from there recently. Since it's an important report from on the ground in Iraq that might be missed as a comment, and since I have (as usual) some things to say in response, I'm posting it here, along with my reply. Here is her comment:

You know.. sometimes I get really exasperated with bloggers who feed off limited intakes of media reports and construct their own realities off the basis of how they interpret something like a photograph.

First of all, your assertion that 'mainstream media' has not been in Sadr City is flat wrong.

I am a reporter with Fox News. I have already filed 2 reports from Sadr City examining the situation there – one at the end of May and the other in early June. We were the first TV crew to embed with the Iraqi Army and go beyond the US-controlled area to see what was going on there.

I have just got back from another 4 days in Sadr City, and am about to put together 3 more stories on the issues there.

The person with the camera on the left of that photo is, I believe, a reporter from the Wall Street Journal who was arriving as we left in early June.

This picture was shot in the US-controlled area of Sadr City. This part of the densely packed conurbation of more than 2 million people represents only about a quarter of the total area, and less than a quarter of its population. It is the most affluent part of the city, and a place where the Mehdi army extorted local businesses for million of dollars in cash every month in a violent protection racket. It has a population of business people whose priority is to get their businesses up and running as soon as possible.

Any kind of new military force maintaining a semblance of order allows them to do that.

Let me tell you what the situation is like there. Parts of the area (as you could see) are a complete bombed-out mess.. The US military are doing what they can about this, with compensation payments and grants of cash. Although Mehdi Army fighters probably caused most of the damage you are looking at, the locals still blame the US for the bulk of it.. because after all, if the US had not gone after them, their shops would still be standing.

And the security cordon the US has put up is causing many local complaints because they say it's keeping customers out.

This is perverse, and probably from an outsider's point of view unfair.. but it's the reality.

Are people happy to see the US military? Yes – up to a point. Kids are ALWAYS happy to see soldiers these days. The soldiers love them. They play ball with them, and give them lollipops, and ruffle their hair.. Kids steal their pens and ask them for money and footballs. They both kid around with each other. That's been the case in Iraq from the outset. Do their parents feel the same way? Who knows? People in Iraq survive by being nice to the person with the most power at any given moment in time.

So what about the Jaish Al Mehdi?

We spent a lot of time on the street, over the course of 4 trips in, talking to locals about how they felt. And most of them are far too scared about the ongoing presence of J.A.M. fighters to even tell you. JAM spies are everywhere, even in the US-controlled districts.

We can't go anywhere as reporters without 20-plus soldiers armed to the teeth and extremely vigilant. Twice last week the military escort to the US State Department working in Sadr City with local politicians was fired on by snipers. We dare not take off our helmets or body armour.

There was a place I wanted to go to film – in the US-controlled area of Sadr City – yesterday but was not allowed to because it was deemed too great a risk to me and my crew.

And there's the rest of Sadr City where the US isn't 'allowed' to go because of the terms of the Iranian-negotiated truce.. and where the Iraqi Army have not ventured either, except for token forays to say: "We're here! – (sort of)".

Has JAM been dealt to? Has it received the 'fatal blow'? No way. It's accepted universally that they are going to try to stage some kind of a come-back.. that they are waiting for a lessening of vigilance or a reduction of troop presence on either the US or Iraqi side, or both, to raise their heads again and try to re-establish control.

The only thing that will keep them at bay is if the local population stop backing them. But for decades, the Sadr Movement has been the only consistent support the people of Sadr City have had. With good reason, they don't trust anyone else. And the militia men are the 'devil they know'.

The media here is not 'hiding' a 'victory' from the US public. Things have in places all over Iraq demonstrably improved from how they were a year ago. But in many of those places it's on a knife edge. That knife edge COULD be a 'turning point'. I hope history will show it's a turning point.

But for any responsible journalist who sees what it's like on the ground, there are simply too many variables – very nasty variables – at play here.

There are plenty of conspiracy theories out there about what's 'really' happening in Iraq. But there is not some kind of 'liberal plot' to deny US citizens the facts.

It's a lovely photo. Like any photo, it doesn't tell the whole story.

First off,  Anita, thank you very, very much for sharing your on-the-spot perspective with me and my modest readership. I really appreciate it.

I admit I often paint with a broad brush. "Spouting off" — especially late at night after adult beverages — frequently leads to that. And of course, all generalizations are wrong. 🙂 I should have said there haven't been many reports instead of any. Your name sounded familiar, so I did a quick search and found a transcript of your June 10 story on Brit Hume's show. I'm sorry I missed that. Gen. Qureshi and Maj. Rider sound like interesting people, and it's a good story.

Frankly, I don't watch Fox News as much as I probably should. Maybe my timing is just bad, but most of the time when I tune in, it's either the latest missing coed, another murdered spouse, this week's Trial of the Century, or Democratic and Republican spinmeisters talking over the top of each other and quickly getting on my nerves.

I read the local papers and watch the local late news, and their Iraq coverage is mostly wire service reports. Online, I look at the NYTimes, WaPo, FoxNews, MSNBC, etc. But again, except for the first two, most of the stories are from AP, AFP, and Reuters (and most of those rely in part or in whole on local stringers whose objectivity and objectives are very much in question). In general, I don't see nuanced, balanced assessments. But I do see far, far, far fewer reports than in the past when the situation in Iraq was worse.

Case in point: In late March and early April, I saw a constant flood of stories about Operation Knight's Charge, and they were unrelentingly negative — "Basra Assault Exposed U.S., Iraqi Limits," "Assault on Basra Backfires," "Defeated Maliki Accepts Cease-Fire," "Sadr digs in as Basra attack falters," "Maliki Blinks," and my favorite, Time magazine's analysis of "How Moqtada al-Sadr Won in Basra." I don't remember even one of those stories (which generally built up al-Sadr and how he "stood up to" Maliki and the U.S.) mentioning that Mookie was in hiding in Iran the whole time.

To get a different perspective (and analyses that are much more knowledgable about military matters), I read Strategy Page, The Long War Journal, IraqStatusReport, etc. Dafydd and Sachi at Big Lizards (shield your eyes; the banner is blinding) performed yeoman service with a series of in-depth analyses (on March 27, March 28 , March 29, March 30, March 31, April 2, April 9, and a wrap-up on April 30) of the Basra and Sadr City operations, the negative MSM reports, and the very different assessments from alternative sources like Bill Roggio. Looking back now, it's clear that Dafydd and the sources on which he relied had the story far more correct from the beginning than, in particular, the AP and NYTimes.

As it became increasingly clear that the Maliki government and U.S. were achieving important political as well as military goals, that al-Sadr was being seriously weakened and marginalized, and that Operation Knight's Charge was not the defeat and embarrassment that media reports had prematurely declared, I saw fewer and fewer stories about how it was going. And the AP, as Dafydd pointed out in his April 30 post, decided that the best way to characterize the successes of April was to emphasize an increase in U.S. casualties.

Now, some of the lack of interest in success may be the natural tendency of the media to focus on disasters, tragedies, etc. And please understand that my criticism is not directed at you and your fellow journalists in Iraq. I realize that you're almost certainly correct to point out that this hasn't been an unqualified or final "victory." And I realize that reporters there are continuing to risk their lives and file stories all the time, but that the decisions about what to print or broadcast are in the hands of their editors and producers. I only see what passes through the filters, and only a fraction of that.

Nevertheless, the pattern of trumpeting bad news and downplaying or ignoring good news seems very clear to me (and very consistent over time). So I'll continue following the work of independent journalists like Michael Yon, Bill Ardolino, and Bill Roggio. They've been there too, they have military experience that informs their reporting, and they've been fair and balanced, as best I can tell — quite critical of our efforts when that's how they saw it. When their version of events contradicts that of some Iraqi AP stringers with unknown backgrounds and agendas (some of whom have clearly filed bogus stories and photos in the past), I know who I'm more inclined to trust.

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