Bogus Massacre Reports in Iraq
Over the past few weeks, two serious accusations of mass murder by Coalition units have surfaced, both involving current operations — one against the Jihadis, the other against illegal militia. Both were given a wide airing in the international media.
At Ishaqi, a village near Samarra, at some time between 1:30 and 2:30 (reported times are inconsistent, as are other details of the story) on the night of March 16, a firefight took place between U.S. troops involved in Operation Swarmer and at least one member of Al—Queda in Iraq hiding out in an isolated house.
According to the locals, the troops fought their way into the house, owned by a
schoolteacher, Faiz Mratt, and tied up, beat, and then shot Mratt, his wife, their three children, his sister, her three children, his father, and a woman who was visiting. Afterward they blew up the house, set fire to three cars, and, to top things off, killed all the livestock as well.
'We want the Americans to give an explanation for this horrible crime,' said local official Rasheed Thair, 'which took the smile and the dream of a spring night from 11 people, and destroyed even the simple toys of children.'
The soldiers' version differs somewhat in detail. After coming under fire, the troops called in a gunship, which struck the house with rockets. Searching the wreckage, the troops found the Al—Queda shooter still alive, along with four bodies — another man, two women, and a child. A tragedy of war, rather than an atrocity.
By the next morning, the number of bodies in the wreckage had multiplied, appearing to verify the villager's version. Local police investigated, and it was their report that brought the incident to the attention of the media nearly a week later. Curiously, Coalition headquarters had no idea that anything was out of the ordinary before being quizzed by reporters.
The story had scarcely enough time to make the international rounds before it was joined by another, this one involving a March 26 raid in Baghdad. A combined team of Iraqi and U.S. troops attacked an office complex held by one of the local militias (which one is still a mystery — barely). The Iraqis killed sixteen militia and captured another eighteen, confiscating their guns along with several RPGs. As a bonus, they also rescued a kidnap victim being held in lieu of ransom. The team had been completely unaware that he was present.
Both units returned to base with the satisfaction of a job well done only to discover the next morning that the office complex had suddenly become a mosque, the number of bodies had doubled, prayer rugs had appeared among them, with some bodies actually transferred to a neighborhood mosque for photographic purposes. Like the Ishaqi story, the Baghdad massacre hit the media worldwide.
The Unraveling Begins
But at the same time, the Ishaqi scandal had begun to unravel. Quite a few internal contradictions had popped up — the old lady's age was 75 in one story, 90 in another. The child four months old, or, then again, six months old. One version had the victims tied up, another handcuffed — with neither cuffs nor rope apparent in any of the photos presented as evidence.
The climax came when the still—mystified Coalition staff were hit with an accusation that they had skipped a meeting with local officials to discuss the incident.
'There was no meeting scheduled with any Coalition investigators today,' said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson. 'There appears to be a distinct pattern of misinformation surrounding this entire incident.'
The Baghdad story broke down even more quickly. First, there was that kidnaping victim, who stated flatly that the place was no mosque. The Iraqi commander (a Muslim, and unlikely to assault a mosque) said the same thing. Skepticism was further confirmed by the fact that the individuals peddling the mosque story were associated with Moqtada al—Sadr, whose every last effort eventually collapses into comedy, often of an extremely black variety. If Arabs were still in the habit of bestowing sobriquets on their notables, Sadr would be known as 'Moqtada the Inept.'
The purpose of these fabrications (along with yet another case from the Ishaqi area — an accusation that U.S. troops had killed a family of three at Duluiya — [the incident actually involved seven Al—Queda who attacked a patrol with grenades]) isn't difficult to work out. The Jihadis are at the end of their rope. Their hole card, a civil war triggered by the destruction of Samarra's Golden Temple, fizzled in the face of Iraqi resolution. They have little left in the way of resources; as Lt. Col. Joseph Myers reported here recently, they have
failed at creating anything resembling a Tet offensive. So instead, they're attempting something else — sticking with the Vietnam paradigm, they're trying to create a My Lai.
The My Lai Model
My Lai was the Vietnam War incident that finally destroyed public support for the conflict. A village complex in Quang Ngai Province, My Lai was widely known to be sympathetic to the Vietcong. On March 16, 1968 a patrol of the Americal Division led by Lt. William Calley entered the subvillage of My Lai 4, and for reasons never made entirely clear, began massacring the villagers. A large number — estimates range from 347 to 504 —— were killed under the most atrocious circumstances imaginable.
Calley, an unstable individual who should never have achieved officer status, characterized the incident as an attempted VC ambush and might have gotten clean away with it if not for the efforts of Ron Ridenour, a soldier who continued pushing for an investigation through letters to congressmen, reporters, his military superiors, and even President Richard Nixon.
The story exploded in late 1969, igniting an uproar that continued for months. The controversy effectively split the country, giving new ammunition to the antiwar movement, and crippling support for the war. Calley was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life, which through political maneuvering on Nixon's part, was reduced to the wrist—slap of three years of house arrest. No one else was punished.
Ugly incidents occur in all wars, as Abu Ghraib demonstrates. But it's unlikely that Iraq will see a repetition of My Lai. The U.S. Army in Vietnam was more traumatized than any other force in the American experience. It was a conscript army, with many of the troops drafted against their will. Morale was dismal. The Johnson Administration's failure to mobilize the Army Reserve denied the troops experienced leadership. Calley was a ninety—day wonder rammed through a desultory training course and immediately put in charge of a combat unit. Largely due to 'one year and out' policies the troops had no familiarity or interest in the country or its people.
None of these is the case in Iraq. Today the U.S. possesses a professional, highly—trained army consisting of superior human material. (The Abu Ghraib military police unit was an unfortunate exception, a reserve unit from a backwoods area under very poor supervision.) The American forces in Iraq are more highly educated and far more experienced than the typical Vietnam—era grunt. Morale is high, and the troops believe in the mission.
Most important of all is their sympathy for the Iraqi people. The troops know what the Iraqis endured and what they're facing now. Despite the Muslim/Christian divide, which will always generate tension, Iraqis have not been dehumanized.
But the Iraqi Jihadis are nothing if not resourceful. If U.S. troops will not cooperate, then they'll arrange for their own atrocities, with the help of a corrupt police force and a media avid for scandal. (To give the media as much credit as it deserves, it doesn't appear to have fallen very hard for either of these stories — simply reported them without much in the way of hysteria or arm—waving, and duly followed up with the disclaimers. Reporters must have been suspicious from the start.)
A lot of unanswered questions exist about these incidents. Where did all those other bodies come from? (Did the Jihadis — and the militia — actually murder people to bolster these hoaxes? Anything is possible, with these types.) How deeply were the local police involved? Are they in league with the insurgents? How long can Sadr keep getting away with it?
But one thing we can be sure of: this time it didn't work. In the same way that all the other Jihadi tricks have failed to work: mowing down children, attacking hospitals and mosques, targeting police and army recruits, assassinating respected sheiks, destroying ancient shrines.... Like many of these crimes, the latest Jihadi gimmick has all the earmarks of a desperation move. And that's a very good sign for the future of Iraq.
Among many other things, J.R. Dunn was the editor of the International Military Encyclopedia for twelve years.