Thursday, December 20, 2007

Corporate Media Mirage of Iraq Improvement Cannot Mask the Failure of US Occupation

Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)
Media Advisory

War Is Over--Say the Pundits

But it's media, not voters, who seem to have lost interest in Iraq


To hear many in the mainstream media tell it, the Iraq War is of diminishing importance to American voters. But the evidence for such a shift in the electorate is thin at best--suggesting that journalists and pundits are really the ones who would rather not talk about Iraq as we head into an election year.

The New York Times offered a glimpse of this argument in a November 25 piece headlined "As Democrats See Security Gains in Iraq, Tone Shifts." The article suggested that "leading Democratic presidential candidates" were having trouble acknowledging "success" in Iraq while still opposing the war: "But the changing situation suggests for the first time that the politics of the war could shift in the general election next year, particularly if the gains continue."

This was carried further a few days later by the Washington Post (11/28/07), where it was reported that the "debate at home over the Iraq war has shifted significantly," a phenomenon that "has strategists in both parties reevaluating their assumptions about how the final year of the Bush presidency and the election to succeed him will play out."

The Post suggested that the "evolving public attitudes reflect, or perhaps explain, a turn in Washington as well." The suggestion that Washington might be reacting to subtle changes in public opinion is a curious one; if public sentiment were truly guiding policy, then U.S. troops would have long been on their way out.

The idea that the public was ceasing to care so much about Iraq was heard again in the Post on December 3, when pundit Peter Beinart advanced the argument in a column under the headline "Non-Story Remakes the Race." Beinart's lead example was that a recent Democratic candidates' debate featured little talk about the Iraq War.

As Beinart put it, "In the biggest surprise of the campaign so far, the election that almost everyone thought would be about Iraq is turning out not to be. And that explains a lot about which candidates are on the rise and which ones are starting to fall."

Beinart also noted that the rate of deaths in Iraq has seemed to decline, so too has the media's interest in covering the war, which is showing up in the polls. Between June and November, according to NBC and the Wall Street Journal, the percentage of Americans citing Iraq as their top priority fell eight points. A Post survey recently reported a six-point decline since September.

It's worth noting that even with such a decline, Iraq still remains the top concern for voters; in the NBC poll cited by Beinart, for example, Iraq was still 10 points ahead of the next issue (healthcare). Beinart's column was nonetheless the main inspiration for New York Times columnist David Brooks' December 11 "The Postwar Election."

USA Today turned in a similar story on December 5, leading with this claim: "Growing anxiety over the economy, healthcare and immigration rival Iraq as the central issues in the presidential campaign, shifting an election landscape once dominated by the war."

But the very next paragraph explained that the issues that might "rival" the Iraq War were still well behind, since the war "still tops the list of issues cited as most important. It's raised twice as often as the next-ranking issue, the economy." USA Today reporter Susan Page explained on PBS's NewsHour (12/10/07) that the diminishing importance of the Iraq War was obvious in the campaign:

I think it's one of the repercussions of the fact that the surge in Iraq has been working, that the level of violence there has gotten somewhat lower. That's made Iraq less of an issue on the campaign trail. It's still an important issue, but we've seen issues with the economy, the mortgage crisis, health care become more important.

NBC's Tim Russert was sounding the same tune on the December 9 broadcast of NBC Nightly News: "With the surge in Iraq and the level of American deaths declining, it is off the front pages. It looks like it could be a bread-and-butter election, where people are very concerned about their homes, the financing, the economy, those kinds of gut issues." Russert's conclusion was based on polls in three early primary states (Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina), but those surveys painted a mixed picture. New Hampshire Democrats, for example, still ranked Iraq as their most important priority.

It should go without saying that polls in a handful of states should not be mistaken for a notable shift in national priorities. Most national polls suggest that Iraq is hardly fading; according to a recent CBS/NY Times poll (12/5-9/07), when asked to name the most important issue facing the country, the public named the Iraq War by a large margin--twice as many as the next issue (healthcare).

NBC Nightly News reporter Savannah Guthrie (12/15/07) nonetheless declared: "For many, many months, the smart thinking was this was going to be all about the war in Iraq, but that's kind of been pushed aside to some degree. Now issues about immigration and the economy [are] taking center stage."

Given the slight evidence, it's unclear why journalists would advance this argument--unless the declining interest in the Iraq War is actually more a media phenomenon than a public one. Beinart's Washington Post column and the paper's November 28 report noted a drop in discussion of the Iraq War in presidential debates. But candidates might talk less about Iraq if the questions posed by journalists are not about the Iraq War. The Post news article suggested this might be the more relevant factor when the paper noted that the "Washington debate has moved on"-- by which they meant:

Bush at his most recent news conference last month was not asked about the Iraq war until the 10th question. Not a single Iraq question came up at four of White House press secretary Dana Perino's seven full-fledged briefings this month.

The discussion permitted by the media inevitably affects voters' feelings about major issues: If Iraq is absent from the front pages of newspapers or rarely discussed on network newscasts, the war will become a lesser concern for U.S. citizens. The media, however, seem to want us to believe that their choices have no effect on public opinion, that viewers and readers arrive at conclusions about the state of the world independent of what is on their television screens or newspaper front pages.

On December 12, the deadliest car bombing in months killed dozens of Iraqis. The news elicited brief mentions on the network newscasts, and was buried deep inside the Washington Post and New York Times. Was it the public who decided to treat this as a non-story?

Mirage of Improvement in Iraq

Yet Another Facelift for the Failed Occupation

by Dahr Jamail / December 18th, 2007

The November 19 New York Times announces, “Baghdad’s Weary Start to Exhale as Security Improves.”

The Washington Post on November 23 reports, “Returnees Find a Capital Transformed.”

People in the US are willing to believe the establishment media telling them that refugees are returning to their homes in Baghdad in an environment of improved security and new hope.

It is true that there have been fewer American soldiers killed in Baghdad and the number of Iraqis fleeing to Syria has declined. However, this relatively quieter security situation needs to be placed in its proper context, something the Western media steadfastly refuses to do.

We are proudly informed that buying off Sunni militias and resistance fighters at $300 per month is among the latest U.S. military tactics, but we are conscientiously kept uninformed about the implications of such a move. Nor is there any mention of the growing antagonism it has generated in the US-backed Iraqi Government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. By its own admission, the U.S. military has paid over $17 million, so far, to recruit 77,000 Sunni fighters, many of whom were launching attacks against the Americans a few weeks ago (International Herald Tribune).

Post purchase, the US military has rechristened them “Concerned Local Citizens,” or “Awakening Forces.” The target is to procure another 10,000.

The current recruitment has indeed contributed to a de-escalation of violence in the capital city, and across much of al-Anbar province, which comprises one third of the geographic area of Iraq.

Reiterated Strategy

We are proudly informed that buying off Sunni militias and resistance fighters at $300 per month is among the latest U.S. military tactics, but kept uninformed about the implications of such a move.

After it failed to take control of Fallujah during the April 2004 assault, the US employed a similar tactic. It was a presidential election year in the US (as is 2008) and in order to save face, the U.S. military “handed” over security operations in Fallujah to the very people it had fought in April. Money and weapons flooded the city and strengthened the mujahedeen.

At the time a much larger battle was in the offing, the November 2004 U.S. siege of Fallujah, which left thousands dead, and destroyed approximately 70 percent of the city. It is worth noting that the attack was launched on November 8, 2004, just days after it was determined that George W. Bush would remain in office.

Under the “new and improved” conditions, consider the following:

* the fragility of the political balance in Iraq;

* the Middle Eastern regional instability;

*the ever intensifying U.S. threats of an attack against Iran;

* the likelihood of the “Concerned Local Citizens” staying loyal to their new masters;
and then let us consider what calamity awaits the occupied country.

Political Capital

Both the Maliki government and the Bush administration are using the return of refugees as political capital. This projection bears little relation to the ground reality.

To place an inconsequential fact on record, since the beginning of the US “surge” earlier this year, the number of people displaced from their homes in Iraq has quadrupled, and the number of detentions carried out by both Iraqi and U.S. security forces has escalated astronomically. On November 13, the International Committee for the Red Cross estimated there are around 60,000 people detained in U.S. and Iraqi prisons around Iraq.

Refugees returning to Baghdad have been projected in the West as evidence of the “surge” having brought security to Baghdad. Both the Maliki government and the Bush administration are using them as political capital. This projection bears little relation to the ground reality which indicates a steep decline in the number of returnees.

A recent UN survey, revealing the modest number of families returning to Baghdad, shows that “46 percent were leaving [Syria] because they could not afford to stay; 25 percent said they fell victim to a stricter Syrian visa policy; and only 14 percent said they were returning because they had heard about improved security” (The New York Times).

It crucial to consider, but evidently not by the western media, that as of October 1st the Syrian government has imposed new visa restrictions whereby Iraqis who can prove they need medical treatment or intend to conduct business alone are permitted entry into Syria.

Iraqis who are barred entrance have the option of staying in a refugee camp on the border in the middle of the desert, or returning home.

Not More is Not Less

“It is true that hundreds of fighters were killed or detained by the so-called Awakening Forces, but there are thousands who will never quit fighting until this occupation is ended.”

Let us not discount the fact that the “lower violence rate” being reported by the Western media establishments imply that violence in Iraq is now down to 2005 levels, which at the time was considered catastrophic. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that “nearly 90 percent of US journalists in Iraq say much of Baghdad is still too dangerous to visit.” Those surveyed have admitted that the “coverage has painted too rosy a picture of the conflict” (Reuters).

The not-so-rosy reality is that the resistance has merely shifted location. As Ali Khamees, a former major of the Iraqi army, recently told my Iraqi colleague in Ramadi, Ali al-Fadhily, “it is true that hundreds of fighters were killed or detained by the so-called Awakening Forces, but there are thousands who will never quit fighting until this occupation is ended. I believe it is a new strategy employed by the resistance to reduce the suffering of people in al-Anbar and move somewhere else to fight.”

Attacks against U.S. forces have increased notably in other Iraqi provinces like Diyala, Saladin and Mosul.

On November 28, a female suicide bomber wounded seven US soldiers in Baquba, the capital city of the volatile Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad. The previous day in the same city, another suicide bomber detonated his explosives filled vest in front of the police headquarters, killing six people and wounding seven, according to Iraqi police reports.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a 32 year old Ramadi resident cautioned my Iraqi colleague, al-Fadhily, “those Americans thought they would decrease the resistance attacks by separating the people of Iraq into sects and tribes. They are going deeper into the shifting sand. The collaborators are fooling the Americans right now, and will in the end use this strategy against them.”

Provinces like Saladin, Diyala and the Kurdish controlled north, now under regular bombardment from the Turkish military which is threatening invasion, have become more volatile than ever.

The Bush administration talks of withdrawing up to 5,000 troops from Diyala province, but on November 24 US military officials revealed that the overall number of American troops in Diyala will actually increase since the replacement brigade for the one being removed is larger and will mean more boots on the ground.

Crafting Political Chaos

“Those Americans . . . are going deeper into the shifting sand. The collaborators are fooling the Americans right now, and will in the end use this strategy against them”

The U.S. policy of propping up the Sunni militias whilst backing the Shia government has heightened the volatility of an already precarious political situation. Deep fissures are one fall out of this classic divide and rule tactic.

On November 29, legislators blocked Prime Minister Maliki’s attempts to get approval for nominees to fill the vacant portfolios of justice and communications in the cabinet. This was done by getting legislators from several parties to boycott the session and ensure that parliament did not have the requisite quorum to vote on the nominations.

The cabinet and parliament in Baghdad remain paralyzed thereby effectively derailing US efforts to push legislation for privatization of Iraq’s oil. Over a dozen ministers have quit Maliki’s government this year. These include members of the Accordance Front, the largest Sunni block in the parliament, which withdrew its support in August. The cabinet is presently composed primarily of Shia and Kurds which only underscores the sectarian and ethnic battle lines that the U.S. policies have drawn in Iraq.

Before swallowing the Bush administration rhetoric of things getting better in Iraq today, we would do well to cast a glance at the real picture of the calamitous occupation.

The Just Foreign Policy group in the US places over 1.1 million Iraqis dead as a direct result of the US led invasion and occupation. A conservative estimate of the wounded would be 3 million.

The UNHCR enlists an approximate 2.2 million Iraqis that have fled the country altogether, and another 2.4 million that have been internally displaced. An Oxfam International report released in July found another 4 million Iraqis who were in need of emergency assistance.

Iraq’s population at the time of the US invasion in March 2003 was roughly 27 million, and today it is approximately 23 million. Elementary arithmetic indicates that currently over half the population of Iraq are either refugees, in need of emergency aid, wounded, or dead.

While the US establishment media proffers us the assurance of “Baghdad’s Weary Start to Exhale as Security Improves,” for most Iraqis safe and secure survival remains a distant dream. For Americans it is perhaps time to act on the words of Carl Schurz and “cling to the watchword of true patriotism: ‘Our country — when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.’”

Dahr Jamail is IPS’ specialist writer who has spent eight months reporting from inside Iraq and has been covering the Middle East for several years. Read other articles by Dahr, or visit Dahr's website.

Recalling rape in Iraq, she says she's not alone
December 20, 2007


WASHINGTON -- A woman who says she was raped by a fellow employee while working for a U.S. contractor in Iraq told House lawmakers Wednesday that her case is far from unique.

A Texas congressman agreed, saying several other women have come forward with reports of sexual harassment and assault while employed in Iraq for Halliburton's former subsidiary, KBR.

The women have given lawyers and Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, accounts similar to the allegations of Jamie Leigh Jones of Conroe, Texas, who says she was raped in July 2005 by a coworker who drugged her.

She said she awoke groggy and confused the next morning, bleeding and bruised. She said a KBR representative kept her in a shipping container so she wouldn't report the assault.

A female Army doctor collected DNA evidence and placed it in a box for evidence and gave it to a KBR security officer, according to Jones. A State Department security agent recovered the kit in May 2007, but the doctor's notes and photographs were missing, undermining chances of bringing the case through criminal courts.

"This problem goes way beyond just me," Jones told the House judiciary subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security.

Poe said three women -- including Tracy Barker, who submitted written testimony of her account and was at the hearing -- had contacted him.

Ten others reported their stories through a foundation Jones began to help women with similar experiences.

In her written statement, Barker said she was assaulted by a coworker while working in the Green Zone in Basra, Iraq, in 2005. That followed retaliation for reporting sexual harassment in 2004, she said.

Poe said another, unidentified, woman was molested several times and raped by a KBR coworker. After the rape, her attacker was allowed to work alongside her. Military officers escorted him off the base when she complained; she was fired.

"Iraq is reminiscent of the Old Western days, and no one seems to be in charge," Poe told the House panel.

Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., noted that Jones unwittingly signed an agreement when she started working for Halliburton/KBR to take civil disputes to an arbitrator, where they're heard in secrecy.

Jones submitted a copy of an affidavit from KBR human resources supervisor Letty Surman to the committee, in which she said she was aware of the work environment.

"During my time as an HR supervisor, I was aware that a lot of sexual harassment went on. ... I am aware that Halliburton has a policy of sweeping problems under the rug," Surman said in the affidavit.

KBR said it wasn't invited to testify at the hearing. Asked for comment, the Houston-based company reiterated a statement it has made since Jones' allegations became public last week. "The safety and security of all employees remains KBR's top priority."

KBR split from Halliburton in April.

Cox News Service contributed to this report.