Take nothing you read for granted By William Bowles

4 December 2003

I often comment here on how the press cover events and the ‘firefight’ that took place in Samarra this past weekend is a textbook example of how both ‘academic’ as well corporate news coverage can get it all wrong, even when they appear to get it right.

Press coverage, right across the board has consistently misrepresented and distorted the shootout between guerrillas and the US occupation forces in Samarra, not only down to the number of dead and injured, but who exactly they were, how the confrontation occurred and what happened afterward.

Take for example the Pacific News story “Samarra Massacre Will Haunt U.S. in Iraq” by William O. Beeman, Pacific News Service, Dec 02, 2003. Beeman tells us the following:

“Fedayeen, the elite guards loyal to Saddam Hussein, who appeared in uniform to bait the U.S. troops.

“The black uniforms of the Fedayeen have additional symbolic value. They are reminiscent of the Black Flags of the Abbassid Empire, the great Persian-Arab empire founded in 750 C.E. in Baghdad that ushered in the Golden Age of Islamic civilization. No one in Iraq can see the solid black color without having this association. Because the founders of the Abbassid Empire usurped the weaker Umayyids, conquerors from outside, the symbolic message is clear to the residents of the region.”

But in a Financial Times story the US soldier in charge of the force delivering the new currency to the bank tells us the following:

“He [Gen. Kimmitt] said several of the dead had been wearing uniforms “consistent with” those of Fedayeen Saddam commandos, which included a black face scarf and a shoulder patch.” [my emph.]

Note he says ‘consistent with’, not that they were wearing uniforms of the Fedeyeen. Whilst Beeman waxes eloquent over his fantasy of the recreation of some ancient empire, and inventing some “symbolic message” to the locals for which he produces no evidence, the General by contrast, is just hedging his bets. What links the two stories is that without the US propaganda, Beeman’s story, whilst more sympathetic to the Iraqis, is just as much nonsense as the General’s is.

Not content with images of ancient empires, Beeman assaults our intelligence with the following:

“The U.S. Army clearly sent another message. For the Shi’a population of Iraq an event such as this calls up images of martyrdom, such as that suffered by the central religious figure of Shiism, Hussein, grandson of the prophet Mohammad. Hussein was killed by illegitimate external forces in 680 C.E. Two of Hussein’s most important descendants — the 10th and 11th Shi’a Imams — were martyred and buried in Samarra. The mystical, messianic 12th Imam disappeared there in 878 C.E. He will reappear at the Day of Judgment according to Shia tradition. Thus the Fedayeen become representatives of perfect heroes and perfect martyrs in one fell swoop.”

But what is this ‘analysis’ based upon? Further reading of the article reveals nothing to substantiate this claim, indeed there are no interviews or accounts by Iraqis at all to support Beeman’s alleged historical parallels. It just goes to show that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and to prove my point, Beeman ends his article with the following:

“As long as the United States can be personalized as the outside enemy, a negative relationship will continue to exist between the local Iraqis and the U.S. troops.”

Well excuse me, but the Americans are the outside enemy and no amount of ‘intellectualising’ will alter this reality and what does Beeman mean when he talks of the United States being “personalised”? What else could the effect be on the Iraqi people when an occupying force kills the locals indiscriminately except personal? Beeman teaches anthropology and directs Middle East Studies at Brown University. He is author of the forthcoming book, “Iraq: State in Search of a Nation.” I can’t comment on the content but perhaps he should consider changing the title to “William Beeman, an expert in search of a reason for being called an expert”.

By contrast, the Financial Times article is at least explicit and actually quotes the locals as to what they think happened rather than relying on highly dubious historical anecdotes. And moreover the FT refers to the event that set the scene so-to-speak, when six months ago, US troops opened fire on a wedding celebration, killing and wounding a number of people and even here, it quotes a local inhabitant as saying:

“locals were upset, but willing to give coalition forces a chance at making things right.

“We asked them, ‘Don’t shoot the children, we have no problem with you,'” Mohammed Mahmoud Ali, a 38-year-old local, said on Monday.”

The FT article goes on:

“Gen Kimmitt said US troops had killed 54 “enemy personnel”, wounded 22, and captured one in Samarra. Five US soldiers were lightly injured in the battle.

“However, US and Iraqi reports differed sharply. Mr Mohammed, the police chief, said that only six Iraqis had been killed in the clashes, along with one Iranian pilgrim [named in another report]. He accused US troops of “firing randomly” on Iraqi civilians after they had been ambushed “by one or two people”. He said 54 Iraqis had been injured.

“Gen Kimmitt suggested the differing casualty figures were due to insurgents carrying away their dead following the shoot-out.

“The previous engagements were the reason Sunday’s mission was carried out with eight tanks, four Bradley armoured fighting vehicles, six Humvees and 93 troops.”

But Beeman, ever in search of a reason other than the obvious one, goes on to tell us:

“Such actions make the hearts of Middle East specialists sink, because they create such long-lasting resentment — the kind that breeds terrorists. Eventually such events lead to perpetual cycles of revenge. Already the residents of Samarra are vowing retribution.”

And here we find Beeman reiterating the same fantasies about the actions of the US “breeding terrorists” (more insectoral metaphors) and leading to “perpetual cycles of revenge”. Beeman doesn’t consider the alternative namely that one way to end the “perpetual cycle” would be for the US to leave. Would Beeman have described the actions of the Vietnamese in resisting US occupation in the same way I wonder? No doubt the way the US attempts to put down resistance to its occupation stiffens the resistance of the Iraqis but Beeman refuses to identify the root cause — the presence of foreign troops.

Beeman then goes on to use the same rationale as the US state propagandists when he says:

“Of all the places to incur a military attack in the area that has quixotically become known as
the “Sunni triangle,” Samarra was the worst. It is not only a Sunni Arab stronghold, it is also a shrine city sacred to the Shi’a population of Iraq. In its action, the U.S. military has thus offended almost everyone in Iraq at one fell swoop.”

Quixotically named? By whom? People like Beeman that’s who. The ‘Sunni Triangle’ with a Shi’a “shrine city” in the middle of it? Aren’t we mixing our geographically religious metaphors somewhat? It would appear that the ‘ Sunni Triangle’ has a Shi’a hole in the middle of it.

Beeman can be reached at William_beeman@brown.edu should you feel impelled to comment to him directly.

Today’s (04/12/03) Independent carries a story on page 2 entitled:

“US under pressure to back claims over Iraq fire-fight”

The story carries a report by a US combat leader involved in the ‘battle’ that denounced the military’s account of the ‘battle’, although he is not named nor is he quoted. At the same time, and in line with previous accounts by the Independent, it refers to “conflicting” and “inconsistent” accounts of the ‘battle’ by local residents, though the basic facts based upon eyewitnesses as well as those of the local (US-appointed) police chief and the hospital all point to a maximum number of 8 dead and 54 injured, at least one of whom was an Iranian pilgrim to the shrine in the city. How many of these were actual combatants is not clear although the police chief said only “one or two” people were involved in the attack.

The story ends however, by reiterating the usual assertions of the US military that it takes the word of its soldiers as being accurate. Brigadier-General Mark Kimmitt is quoted:

“We have no reason to believe that those were inaccurate figures. We stand by those numbers, they were provided by soldiers that were involved in the engagement and we see no reason to suggest those numbers are inaccurate.”

The story goes on somewhat incredulously, to tell us that:

“…the question is whether the US and the occupation authorities have misled the media.”

Given that the Independent made the story its page one headline on Sunday (30/11/03) and reported the US story without challenge, surely this is a question it should be asking itself, never mind the US government.

It seems the US has learned absolutely nothing since its invasion of Vietnam, where the phrase ‘body count’ became synonymous with lies. How long before we hear the same excuses being rolled out that it’s impossible to distinguish between ‘enemy combatant’ and civilian?

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