Media's Basra Narrative Falls Apart. What's the Effect on the Election?
Here's the New York Times on March 27th, 2008 - Iraqi Army's Assault on Militias in Basra Stalls:
An assault by thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police officers to regain control of the southern port city of Basra stalled Wednesday as Shiite militiamen in the Mahdi Army fought daylong hit-and-run battles and refused to withdraw from the neighborhoods that form their base of power there.
Shiite militiamen in Basra openly controlled wide swaths of the city on Saturday and staged increasingly bold raids on Iraqi government forces sent five days ago to wrest control from the gunmen, witnesses said, as Iraqi political leaders grew increasingly critical of the stalled assault.
Witnesses in Basra said members of the most powerful militia in the city, the Mahdi Army, were setting up checkpoints and controlling traffic in many places ringing the central district controlled by some of the 30,000 Iraqi Army and police forces involved in the assault. Fighters were regularly attacking the government forces, then quickly retreating.
The next morning, Iraqi Interior Ministry forces in a part of the city they supposedly controlled were ambushed with heavy weapons at a hotel 50 yards from mine. On Sunday morning, after I had hired someone to drive me out of the city, an Iraqi soldier fired at our tires but missed. We did not stop.
Iraqi forces started their assault on the Shiite militias in Basra on Tuesday. Whatever the initial goal of the operation, by the time I arrived in Basra it was a patchwork of neighborhoods that were either deserted or overrun by Mahdi fighters. There were scattered Iraqi Army and police checkpoints, but no place seemed to be truly under government control.
When reporters write in the first person, the result is rarely good. There are exceptions (such as Peter Kann's Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the war in Bangladesh in 1971 for the Wall Street Journal), but the exceptions tend to prove the rule. Take today's New York Times dispatch from Basra.
Today's coverage of the Iraqi government's fight for Basra is a clear example of the rule. First of all, who is Qais Mizher, who owns the byline on the piece? Well, he tells us this in passing: "Calling on my experience as a captain in the Iraqi Army before the 2003 invasion and essentially a war correspondent since then..." Got that? The New York Times reporter was an officer in Saddam's army. Nice. By the way, officers were not drafted (that's how the enlisted ranks were filled). Officers had to be selected and regularly vetted for loyalty and effectiveness. So Saddam decided that he could trust our intrepid correspondent and so did the New York Times.
Makes you wonder: Would the Times have hired former Nazi officers to cover the three-year insurgency against the American presence in Germany in the late 1940s? Even if they spoke the language, knew the countryside well and said they "never really believed" in that evil ideology?
And is it smart to send an Iraqi Army captain from the Saddam era to cover the actions of the new Iraqi army? Are they likely to welcome him? Is likely to view them fairly?
The result in Basra clearly did not reflect well on the Iraqi Security Forces. But American officials and other prominent advocates of the idea that victory is within reach -- or at least possible -- in Iraq are saying in the wake of the Basra fighting that the Iraqi Security Forces' poor performance was more a consequence of the poor planning of ISF commanders and Iraqi governemnt officials -- all the way up to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki -- than of ground-level combat unreadiness.
More than 1,000 Iraqi soldiers and policemen either refused to fight or simply abandoned their posts during the inconclusive assault against Shiite militias in Basra last week, a senior Iraqi government official said Thursday. Iraqi military officials said the group included dozens of officers, including at least two senior field commanders in the battle.
The desertions in the heat of a major battle cast fresh doubt on the effectiveness of the American-trained Iraqi security forces. The White House has conditioned further withdrawals of American troops on the readiness of the Iraqi military and police.
Three hundred miles south of Baghdad, the oil-saturated city of Basra has been transformed by its own surge, now seven weeks old.
In a rare success, forces loyal to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki have largely quieted the city, to the initial surprise and growing delight of many inhabitants who only a month ago shuddered under deadly clashes between Iraqi troops and Shiite militias.