22October2014

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NEWSNIGHT DIPLOMATIC EDITOR MARK URBAN RESPONDS

On May 22, we published a Media Alert, ‘The Surge - Here To Help,’ analysing a May 14 BBC report from Iraq by Newsnight’s diplomatic editor Mark Urban.


We had previously written to Urban on May 15:

Hi Mark

Hope you're well and that you survived your trip to Iraq unscathed. In your May 14 report, you commented that the "surge" was an attempt to "turn the tide of violence" in Baghdad. You clarified what you meant by referring to "Baghdad's sectarian nightmare" and to "America's struggle to stop its [Baghdad's] descent into mayhem". You also argued that a "key question" was whether the Americans could "communicate the message [to Iraqis]: they're here to help". I noticed that you did not report this as the American's perspective - ie, 'The +Americans+ argue that a key question is...' - but as your own.

It seems to me that you gave the strong impression that the Americans are essentially a peacekeeping force in Iraq. Of course one might argue that the "surge" is indeed designed to reduce sectarian violence. But isn't it also unarguable that the "surge" is part of a US effort to defeat Iraqi armed opposition to its occupation? In other words, isn't it unarguable that the Americans are +not+ merely "here to help", to keep the peace - they are in Iraq to wage war on an insurgency?

Sincerely

David Edwards

Urban replied on May 23:

David,
Since the summer of 2006, the US led coalition in Iraq has defined Baghdad as the 'centre of gravity' of its operations. The primary emphasis on trying to prevent sectarian murder has been evident since the October 2006 Baghdad Security Plan was unveiled and has been reiterated in many official statements since then, including those early in 2007 announcing the surge. I tell you this because it should be clear that this shift in the pattern of Coalition operations is an explicit feature of policy, rather than a matter of your opinion versus mine.

Now when it comes to my personal reporting on 14th May, I am clear, on the basis of spending time on operations with the soldiers in Dura, that they sincerely believed their mission to be one of trying to help local people defeat sectarian murder squads as well as turning them against 'al-Qaeda in Iraq' elements in the sunni community. Of course US forces in Iraq have other tasks too, including hunting the al-Qaeda leadership or countering Iranian influence. We report on these other missions as well. On this latest trip, it was my duty to investigate the working on the ground of that surge and security plan - since US and Iraqi auithorities all agree that this is their main security priority of the moment.

I know from some of the other comment I have received that embedded coverage with the US Army rankles with many Media Lens users. I think David that you in particular are experienced enough in this story to know that the 14th May film was part of a spectrum of Newsnight coverage that includes Salaam Pax's stories, the 'inside Sadr city' report of 15th May, and Amina al-Thahabi's excellent report on Iraq women broadcast on 3rd April. Allegations of US crimes or atrocities such as Haditha have also had extensive coverage on the programme. The idea that we should report on the current state of Iraq without getting the perspective of American soldiers strikes me as absurd.
All the best
Mark

We responded on May 30:

Dear Mark

Many thanks for your reply, and apologies for my delay in responding.

Your first paragraph is really remarkable and very revealing. You say that the coalition has "defined Baghdad as the 'centre of gravity' of its operations", that the "primary emphasis on trying to prevent sectarian murder" has been "reiterated in many official statements" and is "an explicit feature of policy". Do you really think it's reasonable to present the official version of events as so obviously credible and truthful? Isn't the one blindingly obvious lesson we've learned over the past four years been that official statements, emphases, plans and definitions are often complete distortions designed to lead us away from the truth?

You say the "primary emphasis" has been "evident" since October 2006, but in fact very little of what is happening has been evident to anyone outside Iraq since 2003. For example, who would guess from "official statements" and embedded journalistic reporting that US forces are in the habit of treating Iraqis as "untermenschen", as British officers have observed? There was no sense of that reality in your report. But why not? Why should an independent journalist in a free society not communicate the murderous and in fact criminal truth of this appalling occupation?

You write:

"Now when it comes to my personal reporting on 14th May, I am clear, on the basis of spending time on operations with the soldiers in Dura, that they sincerely believed their mission to be one of trying to help local people defeat sectarian murder squads as well as turning them against 'al-Qaeda in Iraq' elements in the sunni community."

I can well believe this is the case. The soldiers you interviewed seemed likable, decent people, and no doubt sincerely believe they are there to help the Iraqis. But as we pointed out in our alert, that is not the whole story. The US superpower is +not+ just in Iraq to keep the peace, regardless of what the troops on the ground believe. It is in Iraq to establish a client state amenable to the requirements of US realpolitik in a key, oil-rich region. To doubt this is to be ignorant of the motives that have guided US foreign policy in the post-war period and a mountain of evidence since 2003.

Other goals flow from this basic aim - the US is intent on achieving the necessary level of control, or influence, at minimum cost to itself, not least because bodybags cost votes. This means the use of high-tech firepower, particularly airpower - with obviously devastating implications for the Iraqi civilian population (the air war is one aspect of the disaster that goes almost completely unreported). In a report obtained by the Washington Post last month, Maj. Gen. Eldon A. Bargewell commented on the US approach:

"Statements made by the chain of command during interviews for this investigation, taken as a whole, suggest that Iraqi civilian lives are not as important as US lives, their deaths are just the cost of doing business, and that the Marines need to get 'the job done' no matter what it takes." (Josh White, 'Report On Haditha Condemns Marines; Signs of Misconduct Were Ignored, U.S. General Says,' Washington Post, April 21, 2007)

Bargewell added:

"All levels of command tended to view civilian casualties, even in significant numbers, as routine and as the natural and intended result of insurgent tactics."

It follows from the determination to achieve victory at extreme cost to the Iraqis, that the 'coalition' needs to keep these realities from domestic audiences that will not support the mass killing of civilians for power and profit. A benevolent, humanitarian motive has to be presented as the guiding concern.

You also write:

"Of course US forces in Iraq have other tasks too, including hunting the al-Qaeda leadership or countering Iranian influence."

I guess that was your response to my question: "... isn't it unarguable that the Americans are +not+ merely 'here to help', to keep the peace - they are in Iraq to wage war on an insurgency?"

You seem unwilling even to recognise that the US is waging a major war against an Iraqi nationalist armed opposition - why instead emphasise al Qaeda when it's role was played down in the Iraq Study Group Report?:

"Most attacks on Americans still come from the Sunni Arab insurgency. The insurgency comprises former elements of the Saddam Hussein regime, disaffected Sunni Arab Iraqis, and common criminals. It has significant support within the Sunni Arab community... Al Qaeda is responsible for a small portion of the violence in Iraq, but that includes some of the more spectacular acts: suicide attacks, large truck bombs, and attacks on significant religious or political targets." (The Iraq Study Group Report, December 6, 2006; http://www.usip.org/isg/iraq_study_group_report/ report/1206/iraq_study_group_report.pdf)

You argue, again, that "it was my duty to investigate the working on the ground of that surge and security plan - since US and Iraqi authorities all agree that this is their main security priority of the moment".

Again, you seem to have no awareness that the reality might diverge from official pronouncements - this appears to be your blind spot.

Best wishes

David


SUGGESTED ACTION

The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you decide to write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Mark Urban
Email: mark.urban@bbc.co.uk

Write to Peter Barron, editor of Newsnight
Email: peter.barron@bbc.co.uk

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