News of the Dirty War

Stories the Censors Could Not Sink

Before the war started, the Pentagon told its embedded reporters not to dig for dirt or conduct their own investigations—just sit back and let the "truth" set them free. Even so, during the week ending April 6, some correspondents stayed honest by covering not only American victories and losses, but also the dark side of war, excesses that are unlikely to win the loyalty of Iraqis. Never mind what the Arab media are saying. Some of the most unflinching stories have been written by reporters from the U.S. and U.K.

Shooting Suspects. Confronted with recent incidents of "collateral damage," Pentagon briefers tend to stonewall or pin the blame on Saddam Hussein. But the fact is that at military checkpoints, U.S. troops are shooting at civilian vehicles which they think contain enemy fighters, in one instance killing an entire family at once. Such stories appeared last week thanks to The Washington Post (which reported that a checkpoint shooting occurred without sufficient warning), Knight Ridder, and ABC News, among others. The stories lay the groundwork for a debate about whether shooting suspects is justifiable.

Killing Babies. This is what happened in the Iraqi town of Hilla last week, when the U.S. launched air strikes on Republican Guard positions, killing an estimated 33 people, including 11 civilians. The proof is a photo of a baby wrapped like a doll for burial, and interviews with doctors and survivors in Hilla who confirmed that the injuries were caused by bomb shrapnel. The baby photo was part of a 21-minute videotape shot by Reuters and the AP, whose journalists arrived first in Hilla and counted nine dead children there. Wire service editors in Baghdad only released a few minutes of the tape, deeming most of the images unpublishable. Nevertheless, reports in the Guardian, The Independent, and the BBC sparked a debate over the dead children in the U.K.

A sanitized version of the Hilla bombings surfaced in the U.S. press. On April 3, The Washington Post stuck two paragraphs in a story on page A27, without mentioning that any children were hurt. The same day, The New York Times' Tyler Hicks and John F. Burns provided a firsthand account, along with photos of a boy whose arm was to be amputated. Why are most photos of mangled children withheld? They're in "bad taste," but they also turn people against the war.

Using Cluster Bombs. Another controversy little heard in the U.S. These clusters of colorful "bomblets" scatter on impact and then explode, sometimes years later. The Boston Globe reported on April 2 that Human Rights Watch has asked for a ban on cluster bombs near Iraqi civilian areas, citing the many injuries they caused in the Gulf War. In early April, Agence France Presse took photos of cluster bombs on the ground in Hilla, The New York Times quietly reported their use as a fact, and The Independent's Robert Fisk called the damage they cause unacceptable. By the end of the week, British defense secretary Geoff Hoon admitted that the allies have been using cluster bombs in Iraq—and called them justifiable. Few in the U.S. media have pressed the issue, except for Peter Arnett. Enough said.

Shirking Shu'ale. Robert Fisk also found a clue to the March 28 explosion at the Baghdad market Shu'ale, which killed at least 62. After the coalition blamed Iraqis, a Shu'ale resident gave Fisk a foot-long shard of shrapnel that was said to have been collected at the site. Fisk consulted with defense experts and concluded that a code on the shard identified it as part of a cruise missile made by the U.S. manufacturer Raytheon. Neither Raytheon nor the Pentagon would comment, but Fisk's reporting prompted Hoon of the U.K. first to claim there is not "a shred of corroborating evidence" linking the allies to Shu'ale, and then accuse the Iraqis of planting evidence. On April 5, the International Herald Tribune published a story on the flap by New York Times writer Warren Hoge. Hoge's story did not run in the Times.

Numbing Pilots. Could some of the bombs dropped accidentally on civilians and allies be the work of sleep-deprived pilots? On April 3, The Washington Post raised that issue, noting that U.S. pilots are allowed to take up to 60 milligrams of Dexedrine a day, which tends to postpone sleep. In the same edition, another story quoted a pilot who said, "We don't talk about [the fact that we're killing people]. We're more selfish than that. I worry about my car payments; the other guys worry about their girlfriends and wives."

Seizing Cash. The headline on Morocco's Al Alam newspaper said it all: "The attacking forces of the Americans plunder and steal the money of Iraqi civilians." (Translation courtesy of The New York Times.) And evidence of this practice appeared three times in the U.S. media last week: On March 30, The Washington Post described how Marines raided a farmer's house in Nasiriyah, turning up an AK-47 assault rifle, a machine gun, a mortar launcher, a pistol, grenade, flare gun, and a "duffel bag full of cash." On April 2, the Post reported how U.S. soldiers shot a man in a Republican Guard uniform and later searched his belongings. When they found the man's cash, they debated whether or not to seize it. (No word on their decision.) On April 5, The New York Times reported on the capture of 250 prisoners in Nasiriyah, adding that a lieutenant said one group of men was detained for having so much money. "Who has a wad of cash in their pocket and no shoes on?" he asked.

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