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Media Create Civil War in Iraq - April B

By Tara Servatius*
April 19, 2006

In the media's version of the story, after the February 22 bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra, Iraq was swept up in a wave of retaliatory religious violence.

In the weeks after the bombing, national news outlets fed Americans a steady diet of sectarian violence. Some 90 to 200 Sunni mosques across Iraq— the number varied depending on which newspaper was telling the tale—were attacked, burned or bombed.

Almost immediately, polls began to show that a majority of Americans believed that Iraq would descend into civil war.

But in the days after the Samarra bombing, a counter-offensive the American public still doesn't know about was quietly launched by the American military. Military leaders who had been on the ground in the wake of the bombings had seen violence and bloodshed, but nothing on the scale of that which the media had reported. So they directed a systematic "check" on the media's reporting, cataloging damage to mosque and violence incident reports.

Media Misinformation

On February 25, at a press conference aimed at correcting "media exaggerations," the military released the preliminary results of ground and aerial surveillance that found that just 22 mosques had been attacked, that only six sustained significant damage and that only two were destroyed completely, figures much lower than those the media repeatedly reported in the days after the attacks.

At the press conference, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch warned members of the media that these erroneous reports were benefiting the terrorists and leading the Iraqi people to believe that "the violence is more widespread than it really is." "Keep in mind, these reports are for a country that has thousands of mosques," Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, Commander, Multinational Corps Iraq, later told the media. "Yet as I watched the news, I thought that every mosque in Iraq was being at-tacked." Rather than correcting their own reporting or challenging the military's evidence, virtually every major American mainstream media outlet in Iraq simply blacked out the military's claims.

On Feb. 23 and 24, Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Alexandra Zavis reported that 168 Sunni mosques had been attacked, a figure they attributed to the Sunni clerical Association of Muslim Scholars. After the military press conference on the 25th, the AP quietly dropped that figure from its stories, referring instead to "a wave of reprisal attacks on Sunni mosques" without any numbers attached. The news service did not report the military findings released at the Feb. 25 press conference.

Anonymous Sources

Other media organizations simply continued to report the same anonymously-sourced mosque bombing and violence totals they'd used before—most of them attributed to unnamed Sunni leaders while ignoring the much lower figures released by the military.

In a Feb. 27 article, Knight Ridder reporter Nancy Youssef wrote that "more than 100 Sunni mosques in Baghdad were vandalized or destroyed," a claim she attributed to unnamed "Sunni leaders." No military sources were referenced. On Feb. 28, the Washington Post reported that "more than 100 Sunni mosques were burned, fired upon or bombed," in an article by Ellen Knickmeyer and Bassam Sebti. The military wasn't sourced once in the article, and if military officials were given a chance to respond, that response wasn't included.

The military again attempted to correct what it called exaggerated and erroneous reporting at another press conference on March 4 held by Gen. George Casey, who released the final findings of the military's investigation into the media's reporting on the mosque bombings.

The Facts

A transcript of the press conference, which was attended by all the major print media outlets, showed that reporters were told by Casey that:

  • A total of 30 mosques across the country were attacked, with less than 10 of those mosques moderately damaged and only two or three of those mosques severely damaged.

  • In one example, the military visited eight mosques the media claimed had been damaged. It found just one broken window, but no other damage.

  • Contrary to media reports of widespread violence across Iraq, only two of Iraq's 18 provinces saw violence, Casey said. In eight others, there were demonstrations that were contained by the Iraqi police and army. In the remaining eight provinces, there was no reaction to the bombing.

According to a review of articles published on Lexis-Nexis, only the Washington Times fully reported the information from the second press conference. Most other media outlets stopped giving totals in reports that referred to the mosque bombings after the second press conference. So far, they have continued to black out the military's accusations about their initial reporting.

Media Lies

At a March 7 press conference, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld could barely contain his disgust with the media's reporting and their failure to correct inaccurate reports, as he spat a list of their inaccuracies and exaggerations back at them. "From what I've seen thus far, much of the reporting in the U.S. and abroad has exaggerated the situation, according to General Casey," said Rumsfeld. "The number of attacks on mosques, as he pointed out, had been exaggerated. The number of Iraqi deaths had been exaggerated.  The behavior of the Iraqi security forces had been mischaracterized in some instances.

"Interestingly, all of the exaggerations seem to be on one side," said Rumsfeld. "It isn't as though there simply have been a series of random errors on both sides of issues. On the contrary, the steady stream of errors all seem to be of a nature to inflame the situation and to give heart to the terrorists and to discourage those who hope for success in Iraq. And then I notice today that there's been a public opinion poll reporting that the readers of these exaggerations believe Iraq is in a civil war—a majority do, which I suppose is little wonder that the reports we've seen have had that effect on the American people." 

Ten days later, at a March 17 press conference, the war between the military and the media raged on. This time it was Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli who took on the media over its growing tendency to characterize all violence in Iraq as sectarian and violence levels in general as increasing.

"I can tell you that in the first few days following the bombing, we did indeed see an increase in sectarian violence," said Chiarelli. "That has since tapered off, and what we are seeing now are the same types of attacks we were seeing before the mosque bombing, and actually at a slightly lower number, except now all events seem to be characterized as sectarian in nature. Now, some of those events are sectarian, but far fewer than are being reported. Most of the events are a combination of the work of al Qaeda in Iraq, insurgent attacks designed to prevent progress in building the government and pure, unadulterated crime."

As usual, a Lexis-Nexis search showed that Chiarelli's comments, like Rumsfeld's the week before, never made it into print.

*Tara Servatius, an investigative journalist based in North Carolina, has won over two dozen journalism awards.

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