New York Times Rewrites Fallujah History

[ Here’s a copy of the email I sent to New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent:

Mr. Okrent, I urge you to call for the investigation of why your paper treats credible reports of hundreds of civilian casualties in Fallujah as “unconfirmed.”

After the Judith Miller incidents, you ought to be on your guard against being a mouthpiece in the Bush Administration propaganda war.

–Brendan Lalor

–BL ]

November 16, 2004 | Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting

In three recent reports about the military invasion of the Iraqi city of Fallujah, the New York Times has misreported the facts about the April 2004 invasion of the city and the toll it took on Iraqi civilians.

On November 8, the Times reported: “In April, American troops were closing in on the city center when popular uprisings broke out in cities across Iraq. The outrage, fed by mostly unconfirmed reports of large civilian casualties, forced the Americans to withdraw. American commanders regarded the reports as inflated, but it was impossible to determine independently how many civilians had been killed.”

The next day, the Times made the same point, reporting that the U.S. “had to withdraw during a previous fight for the city in April after unconfirmed reports of heavy civilian casualties sparked outrage among both Sunni and Shiite Iraqis.” And on November 15, the Times noted that the current operation “redressed a disastrous assault on Fallujah last April that was called off when unconfirmed reports of large civilian casualties drove the political cost too high.”

It’s unclear why the Times considers those civilian deaths “unconfirmed.” While there is some debate over precise figures, this wording leaves the impression that nothing can be reasonably known about deaths in Fallujah.

The head of Fallujah’s hospital, Dr. Rafie al-Issawi, has consistently maintained that more than 600 people were killed in the initial U.S. siege of Fallujah in April 2004, a figure that rose to more than 800 as the siege was lifted and people pinned down by the fighting were able to register their families’ deaths (Knight-Ridder, 5/9/04). More than 300 of the dead, according to al-Issawi, were women and children. The Iraqi Health Ministry in Baghdad, part of the U.S.-installed government, gave a lower figure of about 271 killed, with 52 of the dead being women and children. On October 26, the independent British-based group Iraq Body Count reported that the civilian death toll in Fallujah in April was about 600, based on their extensive evaluation of the numbers reported by local hospital officials and the Health Ministry, as well as mainstream media accounts.

Other journalistic investigations depict the reality of widespread civilian death in Fallujah: An Associated Press tally of the dead in Iraq (4/30/04) discovered that in Fallujah “two football fields were turned into cemeteries, with hundreds of freshly dug graves, marked with wooden planks scrawled with names — some with names of women, some marked specifically as children. At one of the fields, an AP reporter was told by volunteer gravediggers on April 11 that more than 300 people had been buried there.” A Reuters report (4/13/04) quoted researchers from Human Rights Watch calling for an investigation based on reports they received from residents fleeing the violence in Fallujah.

Even the lower estimates provided by the Health Ministry debunk the Times’ repeated assertion that reports of “large civilian casualties” are “unconfirmed”– unless the paper wants to maintain that 52 women and children killed in an attempt to “liberate” their city are inconsequential. But the Times should know from its own reporting that the higher casualty figures are much more realistic.

On October 19, the Times reported: “There are no agreed figures for civilian deaths in Iraq over all since the war began in early 2003, but the best estimates, by private groups and independent news organizations, place the figure in the 10,000 to 15,000 range.” It would seem obvious, then, that the bombing of a large civilian population in Iraq in what the Times called “the most intense aerial bombardment in Iraq since major combat ended” (4/30/04) would produce significant civilian casualties.

Since substantial numbers of civilians did in fact die in Fallujah in April, even if the exact number cannot be pinned down, readers might wonder if the Times’ policy is that things that cannot be confirmed with numerical precision are essentially “unconfirmed.” But this would be a double standard on the part of the Times; in its November 8 report, the paper noted: “The number of insurgents in the city is estimated at 3,000, although some guerrillas, terrorist fighters and their leaders escaped the city before the attack. American military officials estimated that of a usual population of 300,000, 70 percent to 90 percent of civilians had fled.”

Surely there is no way to determine exactly how many insurgents are in Fallujah, or how many civilians have fled. To be consistent, shouldn’t the Times be reporting that accounts of civilians leaving the city are “unconfirmed”?

In its November 8 report, the Times matter-of-factly noted that U.S forces targeted a Fallujah hospital early in the campaign “because the American military believed that it was the source of rumors about heavy casualties.” The Times added: “This time around, the American military intends to fight its own information war, countering or squelching what has been one of the insurgents’ most potent weapons.”

If part of that “information war” means convincing Americans that civilians are not victims of the Fallujah invasion, the Times has signed up on the side of the Pentagon.

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