May 1, 2008
By Jack Kelly
If James Glanz wins a prize for his reporting from Iraq, it will be for fiction. Mr. Glanz is the bureau chief of the New York Times in Baghdad. When Iraqi troops began an offensive March 25 to take Basra from the Mahdi Army, an Iranian-backed militia nominally headed by Sheik Moqtada al Sadr, he and his colleagues described the fighting (which spread to other cities in southern Iraq and to the Sadr City section of Baghdad) as a military defeat and a political catastrophe for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
“Shi’ite militiamen in Basra openly controlled wide swaths of the city Saturday and staged increasingly bold raids on Iraqi government forces,” Mr. Glanz wrote (with Michael Kamber) March 30.
“More than 1,000 Iraqi soldiers and policemen either refused to fight or simply abandoned their posts during the inconclusive assault against Shi’ite militias in Basra last week,” he wrote (with Stephen Farrell) April 4. “A crackdown on the Mahdi Army militia is creating potentially destabilizing political and military tensions in Iraq,” Mr. Glanz wrote (again with Mr. Farrell) April 8.
After three weeks of reporting nothing but alleged Iraqi government setbacks, it must have come as a shock to subscribers of the New York Times to read, in a dispatch April 20 from Mr. Glanz and Alissa Rubin, that “Iraqi soldiers took control of the last bastions of the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia in Basra on Saturday.”
“Young women are daring to wear jeans, soldiers listen to pop music on their mobile phones and bands are performing at weddings again,” wrote Deborah Haynes of the London Times Friday. “All across Iraq’s second city life is improving, a month after Iraqi troops began a surprise crackdown on the black-clad gangs that were allowed to flourish under the British military.”
Ms. Haynes is the first Western reporter actually to go to Basra. Mr. Glanz did his reporting from Baghdad.
“One month on and Iraq’s leader can justifiably claim to have scored a stunning victory, probably the first of its kind by the post-Saddam Iraqi army,” wrote Richard Beeston, the London Times’ foreign editor. “The most notorious areas of Basra are now under government control, the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr has been roundly defeated and the longsuffering people of Basra are celebrating freedoms they did not enjoy during the four years of British military rule in the city.”
“The army and police are everywhere, and people are providing information on where Mahdi Army personnel are hiding out, and the locations of their weapons caches,” StrategyPage said Monday.
I shouldn’t pick on Mr. Glanz. He has had lots of company.
“The Iraqi government has burnished Sadr’s image,” wrote Charles Crain of Time magazine. The offensive “unveiled the weakness of Maliki’s U.S.backed government,” and strengthened Sheik al-Sadr, wrote Sudarsan Raghavan of The Washington Post.
But Mr. Maliki’s government is stronger than ever. The Sunni political bloc announced Friday it is prepared to rejoin the government. The primary reason for this reconciliation move is that Mr. Maliki’s willingness to take on a Shia militia indicated his government will rise above sectarianism.
And Sheik al-Sadr (who is still hiding out in Iran) is more isolated politically than ever. The Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s leading Shia cleric, has called upon the Mahdi army to disarm. The other Shia parties have rallied around Mr. al-Maliki, as have the Sunnis. The only friends the Sadrists have left these days are their Iranian paymasters, and Western journalists.
This may explain why Sheik al-Sadr has been acting like the Black Knight in the Monty Python sketch, spewing ever more dire threats as he is dismembered. He calls for a massive public demonstration against the government, and then (when it is apparent few will show up) calls it off. He threatens all-out war, and then sues for peace. He is floundering about as the walls close in.
Western journalists don’t seem to have noticed. They’ve gotten the story as completely wrong as if they’d reported Vicksburg as a Confederate victory, or D-Day as a triumph for Adolf Hitler.
Journalists tend not to know much about matters military, and have displayed little inclination to learn. But ignorance and stupidity alone cannot explain how they botched this story so badly. Jack Kelly, a syndicated columnist, is a former Marine and Green Beret and a former deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. He is national security writer for the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Post-Gazette.