The Guardian 30 April, 2008

Basra battles: only half the story

Ramzy Baroud

When it comes to Iraq, reporters appear intent on omitting or fabricating news.

The latest battles in Basra, Iraqís second largest city and a vital oil seaport, furnished an ample instance of misleading and manipulative practices in corporate journalism today.

One commonly used tactic is to describe events using self-styled or "official" terminology, which deliberately confuses the reader by giving no real indication or analysis of what is actually happening.

Regardless of the outcome of the fighting that commenced with the Iraqi armyís march to Basra on March 24 and which proved disastrous for Prime Minister Al-Maliki, we have been repeatedly "informed" by highly questionable assumptions.

Most prominent among them is that the "firebrand" and "radical" Moqtada Al-Sadr ó leader of the millions-strong Shia Sadr Movement ó led a group of "renegades", "thugs" and "criminals" to terrorise the strategically important city. Naturally, Al-Maliki is portrayed as the exact opposite of Al-Sadr. When the former descended on Basra with his 40,000-strong US-trained and equipped legions, we were told that it was a "defining moment" and a cause for celebration.

The media also said we had no reason to doubt Al-Malikiís intentions when he promised to restore "law and order" and "cleanse" the city, or to question his determination when he described the Basra crusade as "a fight to the end". If anyone was still unsure of Al-Malikiís noble objectives they could be reassured by the Bush administrationís repeated verbal backing.

Reporters parroted such assumptions with little scrutiny. Even thorough journalists seemed oblivious to the known facts: that the Iraqi army largely consists of Shia militias affiliated with a major US ally in Iraq, Abdul-Aziz Al-Hakim and his Supreme Islamic Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

We were told that Al-Badr militias have rained terror on the Iraqi people for years; that the Sadr movement and SCIRI are in fierce contest for control of Iraqís southern provinces, and that the US allies are losing ground quickly to the Sadr Movement, which might cost them the upcoming provincial elections scheduled for October 1, 2008. It became clear that the US wanted to see the defeat and demise of Sadr supporters before that crucial date because a victory for Sadr is tantamount to the collapse of the entire American project predicated on the need to privatise Iraqi oil and bring about a "soft" partitioning of the country.

Al-Hakim is pushing for what is being termed a super Shia province with its centre in Basra; Sadr is demanding a unified Iraq with a strong central government. Al-Hakim wishes to see a permanent American presence in the country; Sadr insists on a short timetable for withdrawal.

The major quandary for the US is that Sadr reflects the views of most Iraqis. His possible victory in the south in fair elections could position him as the new nationalist leader and a unifying force for Iraqis.

In order for the coalition to survive another term, Sadr needed to suffer a major and humiliating defeat. It was, indeed, a "defining moment", but the "criminal gangs" of Basra have proven much stronger than the seemingly legitimate Iraqi Security Forces. Even the atrocious US bombardment of Basra proved of little value, despite many civilian deaths. More, the additional thousands of recruits shoved into the battlefield ó tribal gunmen lured by promises of money and power by Al-Maliki ó also made little difference. News analysts concluded that the strength of the "criminal gangs" was underestimated, thus someone had to be blamed.

First, Al-Maliki was blamed for acting alone without consulting with the US government. Really? Would the US allow Al-Maliki to execute a "long-term effort" ó which is costly financially, politically and militarily ó without its full consent, if not orders?

Second, blame was shifted onto Iran. The media parroted these accusations again with palpable omissions. It is true that Sadr is backed by Iran. It is partly true that he is serving an Iranian agenda. But what is conveniently forgotten is that Iranís strongest ally in Iraq is Al-Hakimís Supreme Islamic Council and that the central government in Baghdad considers Tehran a friend and ally.

Indeed, it was pressure from Iran that weakened Al-Malikiís resolve in a matter of days. On March 24, Al-Maliki announced his "fight to the end" and on April 4 he ordered a halt to the fighting and compensation for the families of the "martyrs".

What took place during this short window of time is an Iran-brokered agreement. Naturally, skewed reporting leads to slanted conclusions. No, the lesson learnt is not that the Iraqi army requires more training and funds, which would necessitate the US and other forces to prolong their stay in the country.

It is rather that the tide has turned so fast in Iraq, whereby the new enemy is now largely Shia, and one which envisions a unified and free Iraq which controls its own resources; that Iranís influence in Iraq has morphed to the point of guaranteeing a win-win situation, while the US is playing with a lot fewer cards; that US firepower has proven less effective than ever, and that the upcoming elections could create a nightmare scenario whose consequences could remove the sectarian label from Iraqi violence and replace it with a nationalist one.

No matter how incompetent reporters parrot the official line, the battle of Basra is likely to change the nature of the fight of the US in Iraq for years to come.

Ramzy Baroud is a Palestinian-American author and editor of
His latest book is The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a Peopleís Struggle
(Pluto Press, London).


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