Fanning the flames

Our contributor Sharon Tosi Moore is an officer in the United States Army Reserves, currently serving in Iraq. Today, she writes about the disputed report of Sunnis burned alive by Shiites.

"Sunnis Burned Alive in Revenge Attacks"
This headline was blared with authority and gleeful revulsion across every newspaper in the U.S. Even Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper overseas, declared this in 2-inch letters on its front page.

And why not? It is compelling story and a sure sign that sectarian tensions in Iraq have reached a new high (or low). THIS is surely the signal that Iraq has descended into new depths of barbarity and depravity. MSNBC's
story is typical:
BAGHDAD, Iraq - Revenge-seeking militiamen seized six Sunnis as they left Friday prayers and burned them alive with kerosene in a savage new twist to the brutality shaking the Iraqi capital a day after suspected Sunni insurgents killed 215 people in Baghdad's main Shiite district.
Iraqi soldiers at a nearby army post failed to intervene in Friday's assault by suspected members of the Shiite Mahdi Army militia or subsequent attacks that killed at least 19 other Sunnis, including women and children, in the same neighborhood, the volatile Hurriyah district in northwest Baghdad, said police Capt. Jamil Hussein.
Sunni "eyewitnesses" confidently denounced the Shiite-dominated government for their inaction. There were bold claims that the Iraqi Army stood by and did nothing as this horrifying crime happened. People around the world braced themselves for the spectacular reprisals that would surely come from the Sunni. The press practically salivated at the bloodshed (and glorious headlines) that would be forthcoming.

A winning situation all around.

Except, well, except for the tiny little detail that the incident most likely never happened. A week has gone by and no charred bodies were produced. No dramatic funeral parades, with all the attendant wailing and gnashing of teeth, occurred. Not one photo.  No grand reprisals. Not even any speeches (and it is hard to imagine Iraqi religious leaders miss an opportunity to make speeches). Just a few remarks from the Iraqi government, largely ignored by the U.S. press, that all reports showed that that particular district had been quiet, and pleading the Iraqi people for calm.

No one thought to question this unusual divergence from normal protocol.

The gullible press swallowed the initial claims whole. Of the major news sources, only TIME Magazine used the word "reportedly" in their headline. Besides, there are always new and dramatic stories of gore and bloodshed in Iraq and no one has the time to check their sources carefully or to go back and correct erroneous reports.

A review of the databases that painstakingly record every single incident in Iraq shows no evidence or report of the event. It is hard to believe that something as momentous as this would have escaped the notice of both the U.S. military and the entire Iraqi government. And yet not one major news organization has recanted their article. The story has been allowed to stand, and as such has become a truth. It is now just one more legend that will be confidently repeated as truth in future histories of the conflict.

To be sure, there are manifold horrors unfolding in Iraq, and the media does have a responsibility to report each and every one. However, perhaps it would be wise for the press to once in a while ask questions first and report later.
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