After five days of reporting on this major news story—important enough to be on the front-page two days in a row—the New York Times has yet to send a reporter down to Basra. Instead, they are relying on unidentified Iraqi stringers to keep them abreast of what’s going on there. I understand the need to keep the identities of Iraqi stringers secret given the many dangers reporters operate under, but without knowing who these stringers are, we won’t be able to determine where their allegiances lie. That’s why it is imperative that the NYTimes sends one of its own to cover the story directly from Basra. In not doing so, one can question whether the NYTimes is even interested in accurately reporting the recent events in Basra.
For example, the NYTimes confidently reports that “Shiite militias in Basra openly controlled wide swaths of the city on Saturday and staged increasingly bold raids on Iraqi government forces sent in five days ago to wrest control from the gunmen”. The story appeared under the byline of James Glanz and Michael Kamber, from Baghdad.
There is so much unadulterated bias in this story. Beginning from quoting a Fadhila Party leader badmouthing Maliki without noting that his party controls the governorship of Basra and that Maliki has been critical of this governor and has accused Fadhila—a group that splintered early on from the Sadrist movement—of harboring militias of its own.
A quote from Iraq’s Defense Minister is taken out of context and a propaganda stunt staged by the Mahdi Army, where a dozen masked men in Iraqi military fatigues are seen surrendering in Sadr City, is given as indication that Maliki is losing public opinion.
Nothing could be further from reality, but hey, the NYTimes is not in the business of reporting on reality.
The Defense Minister is simply mimicking Maliki's political facetiousness to the effect, “How could we have known that going after the criminal cartels would incur the wrath of Sadrists?” Hint, hint, wink, wink. “We didn’t expect the Sadrists to get so agitated. How could we have known that they are somehow connected to all the criminality in Basra? We were so naïve about the ways of this big, bad world, but we’re still going to smash them anyway.”
Let’s round-up today’s events: far fewer rockets were lobbed into the Green Zone today because U.S. airstrikes have really frightened those launching them from Sadr City and elsewhere. Shu’la, near Kadhimiyah, was quiet all day today, so was Sha’ab City. Washash is an important enclave for the Sadrists in western Baghdad and it experienced 5 days of continued skirmishes with the Iraqi Army and police yet the Mahdi Army’s 18 member leadership committee abandoned Washash in the early afternoon Baghdad time and opted to hide in other parts of the city. The 400-500 active militants in Washash are either back in their homes or have left along with the leadership.
All the places that erupted five days ago across southern Iraq were much calmer. There’s a report that Shatra is under Sadrist control and it seems to be totally bogus, according to a source who spoke with acquaintances there today. Qurna, Ghammas, and Nassiriya have all witnessed the collapse of whatever resistance the Mahdi Army could muster in facing government troops.
The NYTimes reports that most of Basra—and by “most” they mean 50 to 70 percent of the city as claimed in today’s NYTimes print edition—is allegedly under Mahdi Army control. This is a complete fabrication. As of last night, the Iraqi Army began a systematic cleansing of downtown Basra and its southern suburbs, meeting minimal resistance. The criminal cartels struck at police stations in the northern portion of the city that the Army has decided not to contest for the time being as they roll up the gangsters in the more economically sensitive areas of the city. Maliki has given slots to the major tribal chiefs to recruit soldiers and policemen, for example, the sheikhs of the Bani Tamim tribe were given 950 jobs in the Interior Ministry. These are 950 families that will begin to draw a salary from the Iraqi state—no wonder the cartels are turning to dust when faced with the resources that Maliki has at his discretion. The NYTimes is reporting that the Mahdi Army is preventing volunteers from going to the recruitment centers, but that’s not how the recruitment is being processed; the tribal chiefs are still drawing names and they have yet to hand over these lists to the Maliki cabinet.
Politically, the Sadrists seem frightened and panicked. Muqtada al-Sadr allegedly appeared from Tehran on Aljazeera calling on his supporters to resist disarming the Mahdi Army while there’s a foreign presence on Iraq’s soil (…I was told about the interview by one source but didn’t see it myself). But it can’t be comforting, or politically savvy, to make such demands for sacrifice when the leader is safely hiding in Iran, of all places. Yesterday, a Sadrist parliamentarian, Falah Shanshal, lobbed a water bottle against Da’awa MP and Maliki ally Ali al-Adib, missing him and hitting another parliamentarian instead. Today, U.S. forces detained the bodyguards of another Sadrist MP, Bilqis Koly, on charges of phoning in Green Zone coordinates to those firing rockets into the U.S. Embassy.
Across Iraq, the bravado of the Sadrists is being exposed as hollow, yet western journalists eagerly lap it up still because they are itching to claim that Iraq is aflame when they don’t know any better. Taken this sentence in a straight news story in the NYTimes today, “As the blood pooled on village streets and ran into city gutters, news arrived of older, though no less wrenching deaths.” Why resort to lyricism? Why link events in Iraq in this same news story to the U.S. presidential elections when there’s nothing specific in terms of what the candidates have said about Basra’s event for the NYTimes to report?
The other storyline, and the one coming of Washington and the U.S. military in Baghdad, is that Maliki is in over his head and that “we”—that is the Americans—must step in to save him. Never mind that official Washington and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is clueless about what’s going on down there; such admitted ignorance does not alter the sentiment that Maliki is this little kid who somehow got himself into a lot of trouble and it’s up to Petraeus to bail him out. This storyline has been consistently fed into The Washington Post over the last few days, with an emphasis that in no way is Operation Cavalry Charge an independent Iraqi operation. What does the WaPo cite as evidence? A couple of airstrikes and a team of U.S. military observers who are performing absolutely no combat duties in Basra, that’s all but it is enough to make the assertion that had it not been for Americans then Maliki would have sunk even deeper. The Brits are quick to assert too that they are in the game too by holding the hands of the Iraqis. This is called infantilism and it would make sense had the Iraqis thought that American and the British help is more of a burden than a relief.
Petraeus is also preparing a push of military and logistical aid onto Maliki that the latter has not asked for. Expect more tensions to arise, and more DC officials resorting to trash-talking Maliki’s intransigence, which a couple of weeks ago meant he wasn’t quick enough on the ball but today it means that he is doing too much on his own.
To sum up, the trend has been diminishing resistance when faced with Iraqi military units who have performed exceedingly well. More and more areas that witnessed flare-ups are calming down as Mahdi Army loyalists run out of supplies and escape into hiding. Maliki is growing more defiant and confident and this sentiment in running down the chain of command. All political attempts to broker a ceasefire by involving Ayotallah Sistani’s office have been rebuffed by Maliki and by Sistani himself from the looks of it. In two weeks, the dust will settle and this episode will be remembered as a major victory for Maliki and the Iraqi state. But no journalists will be fired, no self-described ‘experts’ will be publicly ridiculed; no one will be held accountable for all these distortions. But the distorters will know, deep down inside, that they are frauds and this realization will slowly eat away at them. And that’s the silver lining.