Following a week in which TV and newspapers reported the US military’s illegal use of chemical weapons in Iraq, and the employment by the US-backed Iraqi government of torture chambers and paramilitary death squads(1), one might be forgiven for thinking that the media is carrying out the essential task of relaying the information necessary for us to be able to assess our government’s policies. In fact, it is the media’s near total failure to report on the bloodshed caused by our side in the ongoing conflict that keeps many current US-UK government officials in their jobs, if not out of the International Criminal Court on charges of committing war crimes. The reality is that gruesome atrocities continue to be committed by the occupying powers in Iraq, and that these pass with little or no mention in the mainstream media on either side of the Atlantic. As such the media are accessories to these crimes, standing as they do between the criminals and accountability.
Of course, the obstacles facing journalists attempting to report the situation in Iraq are real enough. Veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk (whose work, in the context of the mainstream media, is exceptional in every sense) describes some of the challenges: “When I travel outside Baghdad by road it takes me two weeks to plan it, because the roads are infested with insurgents, checkpoints, hooded men and throat-cutters. If I go to see someone in any particular location, I give myself 12 minutes, because that is how long I reckon it takes a man with a mobile phone to summon gunmen to the scene in a car. So, after 10 minutes I am out. Don't be greedy. That's what reporting is like in Iraq."(2)
In September 2004, Farnaz Fassihi of the Wall Street Journal told friends in an email that “Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days is like being under virtual house arrest…. I avoid going to people's homes and never walk in the streets. I can't go grocery shopping any more, … can't strike a conversation with strangers, can't look for stories, can't drive in any thing but a full armored car, can't go to scenes of breaking news stories, can't be stuck in traffic, can't speak English outside, …. can't say I'm an American, can't linger at checkpoints, can't be curious about what people are saying, doing, feeling. And can't and can't…… my most pressing concern every day is not to write a kick-ass story but to stay alive”. Despite its obvious relevance, the fact that reporting from Iraq is so compromised is not something that the media are always keen to broadcast. Fassihi’s email was leaked and, as right-wing bloggers accused her of bias and demanded her recall, the Wall Street Journal quickly announced that she would be going on vacation, and there she remained until after the US presidential election.(3)
Threats to the safety of journalists in Iraq are by no means posed by Iraqis alone. Last month, David Schlesinger, the Reuters global managing editor, wrote to Senator John Warner, head of the US Senate armed services committee, to tell him that the conduct of US forces towards journalists in Iraq is "spiralling out of control" and preventing full coverage of the war reaching the public(4). Schlesinger referred to "a long parade of disturbing incidents whereby professional journalists have been killed, wrongfully detained, and/or illegally abused by US forces in Iraq". He said that his and other reputable international news organizations were concerned by the "sizeable and rapidly increasing number of journalists detained by US forces". Such detentions were prompted by legitimate journalistic activity such as possessing photographs and video of insurgents.
Schlesinger told Warner that "By limiting the ability of the media to fully and independently cover the events in Iraq, the US forces are unduly preventing US citizens from receiving information”. One need hardly mention that this does the US-UK governments no harm, given the disastrous state of the occupation. (5)
Once what is left of the story from Iraq reaches the west, having dodged bullets, kidnappers, suicide bombers and the occupying military, it must then overcome perhaps its most formidable obstacle: the filter of the mainstream media. For in truth, what is in short supply is not information from Iraq so much as willingness on the part of the media to convey that information to us; and recent reports of the US military’s use of chemical weapons do not count as evidence to contradict this.
On 16 November 2005, BBC website World Affairs correspondent Paul Reynolds began his analysis of the debate over the use of white phosphorus in Fallujah by saying that “The Pentagon's admission - despite earlier denials - that US troops used white phosphorus as a weapon in Fallujah last year … has opened up a debate about the use of this weapon in modern warfare”.(6) It is true to say that the Pentagon’s admission has opened this debate in the mainstream media. Elsewhere, the debate was opened up somewhat earlier. Eyewitness accounts of the US military’s conduct in Fallujah, all but ignored by the BBC, began to emerge almost immediately after the US attacked the city last November.
On 26 November 2004, independent journalist Dahr Jamail relayed several eyewitness accounts of war crimes committed by US forces, predating Reynolds’ article by almost a year. Amongst them, Abu Sabah, a refugee from Fallujah, told Jamail that US forces had used “'weird bombs that put up smoke like a mushroom cloud,…Then small pieces fall from the air with long tails of smoke behind them.' He said pieces of these bombs exploded into large fires that burnt the skin even when water was thrown on the burns. Phosphorous weapons as well as napalm are known to cause such effects.” (7)
In March 2005, al-Jazeera reported that: "Dr. Khalid ash-Shaykhli, an official at Iraq's health ministry, said that the U.S. military used internationally banned weapons during its deadly offensive in the city of Fallujahh." The official reported evidence that US forces had "used... substances, including mustard gas, nerve gas, and other burning chemicals in their attacks in the war-torn city." Fallujah residents described how they had seen "melted" bodies in the city, indicative of usage of napalm, a lethal cocktail of polystyrene and jet fuel that incinerates the human body". (8)
Elsewhere, documentary film-maker Mark Manning conducted videotaped interviews with dozens of Iraqis who had witnessed the assualt on the city first-hand. Later, in an interview with the Santa Barbara Independent, Manning recounted how he, “had heard numerous reports that described American forces deploying - in violation of international treaties - napalm, chemical weapons, phosphorous bombs, and 'bunker-busting' shells laced with depleted uranium.” (9)
These were not the only war crimes committed in Fallujah, but again, it would take more than the world’s major news corporations to bring them to our attention. Instead, it was left to people like Dahr Jamail, who relayed eyewitness accounts via his website, for anyone who was able or interested enough to discover it. Jamail interviewed a doctor from Fallujah who had fled to Jordan and spoke only on condition of anonymity:
“During the second week of the siege [US troops] announced that all the families have to leave their homes and meet at an intersection in the street while carrying a white flag. They gave them 72 hours to leave and after that they would be considered an enemy,” he says.
"“We documented this story with video-a family of 12, including a relative and his oldest child who was 7 years old. They heard this instruction, so they left with all their food and money they could carry, and white flags. When they reached the intersection where the families were accumulating, they heard someone shouting ‘Now!’ in English, and shooting started everywhere.”
The family was all carrying white flags, as instructed, according to the young man who gave his testimony. Yet he watched his mother and father shot by snipers-his mother in the head and his father shot in the heart. His two aunts were shot, then his brother was shot in the neck. The man stated that when he raised himself from the ground to shout for help, he was shot in the side.
“After some hours he raised his arm for help and they shot his arm,” continues the doctor, “So after awhile he raised his hand and they shot his hand.”
A six year-old boy of the family was standing over the bodies of his parents, crying, and he too was then shot.
“Anyone who raised up was shot,” adds the doctor, then added again that he had photographs of the dead as well as photos of the gunshot wounds of the survivors.”(10)
The interviews conducted by Mark Manning contained similar horror stories. Eyewitnesses gave "grisly accounts of Iraqi mothers killed in front of their sons, brothers in front of sisters, all at the hands of American soldiers. He also heard allegations of wholesale rape of civilians, by both American and Iraqi troops.”
In March this year, independent watchdog Medialens, asked the BBC whether these specific allegations of US atrocities, in particular the use of banned weapons, were being investigated. The response was that "The conduct of coalition forces has been examined at length by BBC programmes, and if justified, that will continue to be the case." But when asked precisely which BBC programmes had addressed the conduct of coalition forces in Fallujah, including the above evidence of war crimes, Medialens was ignored.
Meidalens pressed the BBC news to explain why it had paid little attention to the repeated allegations of atrocities, or to the evidence of the use of banned weapons in Fallujah. This time the BBC responded at length, saying that it was aware of the claims and was continually investigating the events in Fallujah, hampered though it was by its movements being restricted for security reasons, and also mentioning a lack of independent verification (as though a plethora of eyewitnesses could be dismissed en masse as not being “independent”). In addition, it said that a BBC correspondent had been embedded with the US Marines and “over many weeks of total access to the military operation, at all levels, we did not see banned weapons being used, deployed, or even discussed”.
Medialens asked the BBC to justify the claim that it had "total access to the military operation, at all levels". The response was that “total access meant that [the correspondent] was never stopped from going into any meeting he asked to go into. He was embedded at battalion level but, for instance, he did show up several times (and film) at the colonel's morning meeting with senior staff, where orders were given out. Most importantly, [the correspondent] also attended the eve of battle briefing for the battalion, at which there were slides and folders with "Top Secret" stamped all over them”.
Medialens questioned whether this was really quite the same thing as having “total access to the military operation, at all levels". It asked for evidence to support the assertion that the BBC had attended the only eve of battle briefing for the battalion. The BBC’s response was brief: “Thank you for your further email. However, I do not believe that further dialogue on this matter will serve a useful purpose”. (11)
No doubt any number of survivors from Fallujah could have explained to BBC executives the “useful purpose” of reporting their experiences to British voters and taxpayers.
Finally, almost a year later, the Pentagon was forced to admit that banned weapons had in fact been used in Fallujah, which gave the BBC the permission it needed to discuss the subject. The story had been dragged into the public eye, not for the most part by the mainstream media, but by the tenacity of independent writers and activists who unearthed, investigated and pursued the story until the occupiers were forced to admit their crimes. The BBC and the rest of the media largely assumed the role of spectators, as the use of banned weapons moved from being the justification for deposing Saddam to being the acknowledged modus operandi of the occupying forces. Meanwhile, in the absence of an admission from official sources, accounts of civilian massacres remain strictly off limits. (12)
With so many of the occupation’s crimes airbrushed from the record, the way was clear for the suppression of the ultimate human cost of invading Iraq: the civilian death toll. Last October, a report on the subject produced by a group of leading research organisations was published in The Lancet, one of the world’s most respected science journals. The report used tried, tested and accepted methodology for calculating “excess deaths” caused by conflict. Its conclusion was that the death toll at that time was likely to stand at around 100,000.
As the writer and activist George Monbiot noted in a recent article, “the study was either ignored or torn to bits [by the US-UK media, who], described it as “inflated”, “overstated”, “politicised” and “out of proportion””.(13) In the absence of any scientific basis for these claims, other justifications had to be found. An editorial in The Independent claimed that the Lancet findings had been reached “by extrapolating from a small sample… While never completely discredited, those figures were widely doubted”. When Medialens asked for the basis of this description, the paper’s senior leader writer on foreign affairs said, “personally, I think there was a problem with the extrapolation technique…..[the sample] seemed small from a lay perspective”. In fact, the sample was standard for this kind of research, but in the media, the “lay perspective” of journalists was allowed to carry the day, dismissing the findings of mere scientists. Thus, the Washington Times felt qualified to describe the report as “a cynical ‘study’ of deaths in the Iraq war”, used by the Lancet in an attempt “to influence the U.S. presidential election” campaign, which was ongoing at the time the report was released. God forbid that the voting public in the world’s greatest democracy should be in any way influenced by the death toll in a war started by their elected government.
During an extensive study into coverage of the Lancet report, Medialens received such insights into the merits of the study as “I find the methodology a bit doubtful…” from Observer editor, Roger Alton and “I have a feeling (and I could be wrong) that the report may be a dud” from pro-war columnist David Aaronovitch. Neither Alton nor Aaronovitch are epidemiologists. During correspondence, facilitated by Medialens, with various journalists, Les Roberts, a world renowned epidemiologist and lead author of the report, was able to swat away each amateur criticism of the study with embarrassing ease. In exasperation, Roberts noted “It is odd that the logic of epidemiology embraced by the press every day regarding new drugs or health risks somehow changes when the mechanism of death is their armed forces”. Indeed, an earlier study by Roberts into deaths caused by civil war in the Congo had been cited by Tony Blair, Colin Powell, and almost every major newspaper on both sides of the Atlantic, none of whom challenged either the methodology or the result. (14)
In any case, the damage was done. Unlike the widespread criticisms of the report, Medialens’ findings, and Robert’s refutations, did not appear in leaders or high profile articles across the mainstream media. When British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said that the Lancet study’s estimate was “not based on standard methodology for assessing casualties” (15) – an outright lie – he was able to do so in some comfort largely thanks to the favourable atmosphere created by the media, and its legions of amateur epidemiologists. The tens of thousands of corpses created by his government’s actions would present no impediment to Straw’s continuing career in politics.
Nor would Tony Blair be unduly troubled by the costs of his “humanitarian intervention”. The Prime Minister was able to tell Parliament last year that “Figures from the Iraqi Ministry of Health, which are a survey from the hospitals there, are in our view the most accurate survey” of casualties from the conflict.(16) After all, Blair could be reasonably assured that most of the people who heard this would not have read the leaked email of Wall Street Journal reporter Farnaz Fassihi, in which she said that “[the death toll is] so shocking that the ministry of health -- which was attempting an exercise of public transparency by releasing the numbers -- has now stopped disclosing them”. Nor would they, in all likelihood, have read Robert Fisk’s corroboration of Fassihi’s claim: "The Ministry of Health, which is partly run by Americans, will not give out any figures for civilian casualties; staff are just not allowed to give us these figures…When I went to the city morgue in Baghdad one day nearly four weeks ago, I arrived at 9am and there were nine violent death corpses there…By midday there were 26 corpses. When I managed to get access to the computer system of the mortuary, I discovered that in July 1,100 Iraqis had been killed in Baghdad alone…Multiply that across Iraq and you are talking about 3,000 a month or more, which means 36,000 a year…So these figures claiming 100,000 Iraqi civilian casualties are not necessarily conservative at all. But no-one wants to report on this.”(17)
Since the Iraqi Ministry of Health is, according to these two independent sources, not reporting civilian casualties, it is unsurprising that Tony Blair would like us to rely on them for the overall figures. The Prime Minister points out that the Ministry of Health takes its figures from “a survey from [Iraqi] hospitals”. In doing so he can be reasonably assured that most of us will not know that his US allies make a point of targeting hospitals as centres of “insurgent propaganda” when attacking recalcitrant Iraqi towns and cities such as Fallujah and al-Qa’im.(18)
In July this year, pictures of the bloodied victims of the London terrorist bombings filled the print and broadcast media. Those images reappear with some frequency to this day. Yet, in spite of the fact that our elected governments started an illegal war of aggression that has killed, according to the best estimates available, well over 100,000 people, pictures of our own bloodied victims, interviews with them and descriptions of their experiences, are all but absent from the western media. To this day, massacres continue to be committed in places like Fallujah, Haditha and al-Qa'im out of sight of the western voters; the only people capable of holding the perpetrators responsible.(19) Standing as they do between the criminals and accountability, the media can only reasonably be described as acting as an accessory to war crimes.
Given the abovementioned atrocities committed by the occupiers, the fact that there is widespread popular anger in Iraq toward the occupation, which in turn feeds the armed resistance, can come as no surprise. (20) By concealing these atrocities the media helps reinforce the notion that the presence of the occupying military is the solution to, rather than the principal cause of violence in that country. Thus, even at the liberal edge of the US-UK media, The Observer can advise us not to “cut and run [from Iraq] at the moment of [its] greatest need [which] would not only be cowardly but deeply immoral”; The Guardian can soberly opine that “No one is arguing for an immediate pull-out” from Iraq; and the UK government’s “human rights envoy” Ann Clwyd can say, presumably with a straight face, that “We have been trying to train the Iraqis in human rights. We’ve set up conferences for the Iraqis on human rights with all the NGOs. We’ve been trying our very best to get human rights into the Iraqi psyche”.(21) Thanks to the media, our enlightened governments can continue to attend to the deficient “Iraqi psyche” with judicious use of torture chambers, chemical weapons, massacres of civilians and assaults on hospitals. All this continues safely out of sight of the western public, who may go on believing in the good intentions of their governments without ever becoming confused by the facts.
(1) On the illegality of the use of white phosphorus see George Monbiot’s letter to the Times, plus commentary, on the Medialens message board 17 November 2005
Also on white phosphorus see “White phosphorus: weapon on the edge”, Paul Reynolds, BBC News website, 16 November 2005
(http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/4442988.stm). On the Iraqi government interior ministry’s torture chambers, see “Abuse reports fuel Iraqi tensions”, Jim Muir, BBC News website, 16 November 2005
(http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/4443126.stm). On the use of death squads see “Frontline police of new Iraq are waging secret war of vengeance”, Peter Beaumont, The Observer, 20 November 2005
1646743,00.html). As the Washington Post reported, these militia are often “trained and equipped by the United States and Britain”. See “Militias on the Rise Across Iraq”, Anthony Shadid and Steve Fainaru, Washington Post, 21 August 2005
The use of paramilitary death squads by the new Iraqi government follows in the best traditions of US-backed client regimes in the third world, particularly in Latin America. For background, see the website of the pressure group “School of Americas Watch”
(http://www.soaw.org/new/type.php?type=8) and, for the results of the School’s education, see chapter 2 of Noam Chomsky’s “What Uncle Sam Really Wants”, 1993
(2) “Mouse Journalism is the only way we can report on Iraq – Fisk”, Matthew Lewin, Press Gazette, 13 October 2005,
(3) “From Baghdad: a Wall Street Journal reporter’s email to friends”, Farnaz Fassihi, Common Dreams, 30 September 2004 (http://www.commondreams.org/views04/0930-15.htm). “The End of News”, Michael Massing, The New York Review of Books, 1 December 2005.
(4) “US forces ‘out of control’ says Reuters chief”, Julia Day, The Guardian, 28 September 2005 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,2763,1580244,00.html).
(5) Although Mark LeVine, professor of modern Middle Eastern history at the University of California, recently pointed out that, whilst the anarchy in Iraq is widely assumed to be an unmitigated disaster for the occupiers, one should not be blind to the benefits they may accrue from, or their willingness and ability to take advantage of, the lawless situation as it stands. See “Where Chaos is King”, Mark LeVine, TomDispatch, 25 October 2005
(6) Reynolds, “White phosphorus: weapon on the edge”.
(7) “’Unusual weapons’ used in Fallujah”, Dahr Jamail, Dahr Jamail’s Iraq Dispatches, 26 November 2004
(8) “US used banned weapons in Fallujah – Health Ministry”, al-Jazeera, 3 March 2005 (http://www.aljazeera.com/cgi-bin/news_service/middle_east_full_story.asp?service_id=7216).
(9) “Diving into Falluja”, Nick Welsh, Santa Barbara Independent, 17 March 2005
(10) “Stories from Fallujah”, Dahr Jamail, Dahr Jamail’s Iraq Dispatches, 8 February 2005 (http://dahrjamailiraq.com/weblog/archives/dispatches/
(11) “The Generals love Napalm”, David Cromwell, ZNet, 30 March 2005 (http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=15&ItemID=7555).
(12) “Chemical Weapons Used in Iraq”, George Monbiot, UK Watch, 15 November 2005 (http://www.ukwatch.net/article/1194).
(13) “Bringing out the Dead”, George Monbiot, Monbiot.com, 8 November 2005 (http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2005/11/08/bringing-out-the-dead/).
(14) “Burying the Lancet – Part One”, Medialens, 6 September 2005 (http://www.ukwatch.net/article/983). “Burying the Lancet – Part Two”, Medialens, 6 September 2005 (http://www.ukwatch.net/article/985),“Burying the Lancet – Update”, Medialens, 12 September 2005 (http://www.ukwatch.net/article/1009).
(15) Cited in “Burying the Lancet – Part One”, Medialens.
(16) Cited in “Bringing out the Dead”, Monbiot.
(17) Fassihi, “From Baghdad: a Wall Street Journal reporter’s email to friends”. Lewin “Mouse Journalism is the only way we can report on Iraq – Fisk”.
(18) “Falluja’s Health Damage”, Miles Schuman, The Nation, 24 November 2004 (http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20041213&s=schuman).
(19) For example, on Fallujah, see “Remembering the First Siege of Fallujah”, Omar Kahn and Dahr Jamail, ZNet, 14 February 2005. On Haditha and al-Qa'im, see “Censoring the Carnage”, Antiwar.com, 24 June 2005, (http://www.antiwar.com/jamail/?articleid=6425).
(20) “Secret MoD Poll: Iraqis support attacks on British troops”, Sean Rayment, 23 October 2005, The Daily Telegraph
On the occupation being the principal cause of most of the violence in Iraq see my “How to Withdraw from Iraq”, 17 October 2005, UK Watch (http://www.ukwatch.net/article/1091).
(21) “Don’t Betray Iraq”, Leader, The Observer, 20 November 2005
“Signposting the Exit”, Leader, The Guardian, 21 September 2005
(http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,2763,1574802,00.html), Ann Clwyd was speaking on BBC Newsnight, BBC 2, 17 November 2005. Transcript via Medialens website at http://www.medialens.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=1197).