The BBC, Insurgent Attacks And The New York Times

Since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the BBC, like the media more generally, has consistently attempted to delegitimise armed opposition to Britain and America’s illegal occupation of Iraq.

Initial reporting presented the insurgency as a fanatical and irresponsible assault on ordinary Iraqi people. On October 1, 2004, for example, the BBC’s correspondent in Baghdad, Nicholas Witchell, reported that a series of insurgent car bombs in the capital were “intended to undermine the future”. (Witchell, BBC1, 18:00 News, October 1, 2004)

The alleged mindlessness of the insurgency has been repeatedly emphasised. In September 2004, Witchell reported:

“As is so often the case in this conflict it’s the Iraqi civilian population which suffers the greatest loss of life – either as a result of mistakes by the Americans, or, far more frequently, of course, as a result of the bombs and the bullets of the insurgents.” (Witchell, BBC1, 18:00 News, September 30, 2004)

In fact media reports at the time suggested that operations by US and multinational forces and Iraqi police were killing twice as many Iraqis – most of them civilians – as attacks by insurgents, according to statistics compiled by the Iraqi Health Ministry.

In July 2004, BBC’s Newsnight programme described how insurgents were “blighting US attempts to bring peace and stability to Iraq”. (Newsnight, July 5, 2004)

Similar bias occurs across the media. In June 2004, ITN’s senior correspondent, James Mates, reviled the “determined and brutal terrorists”, insurgents, who were threatening Iraq, which was “now sovereign”. (ITN, 18:30 News, June 28, 2004)

More recently, the BBC has used a focus on sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni groups to bury the insurgency out of sight. In an August 15, BBC online article titled, ‘Iraq’s spiralling sectarian strife,’ the BBC’s Mike Wooldridge explained:

“The Americans, working with Iraqi forces in a new drive to reclaim parts of the Iraqi capital from gunmen and bombers, call it Operation Together Forward.

“It is key to establishing the authority of Iraq’s still relatively new government, to the coalition’s handover of full responsibility for security to the Iraqis and – more importantly – to averting what even US officers now acknowledge is the risk of outright civil war.” (Wooldridge, August 15, 2006; http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/

This presented US forces as an essentially peace-keeping force. Wooldridge asked what US-led forces were “actually up against”:

“The most visible trend in recent months in Baghdad and certain other cities and towns has been the increasing sectarianism – deadly, tit-for-tat violence perpetrated by certain Shia Muslim groups against Sunnis and certain Sunni groups against Shias.

“This has happened since an important Shia shrine in the northern town of Samarra was attacked in February.”

Wooldridge added:

“Thousands have been killed. Tens of thousands have fled from religiously-mixed districts to places where they believe they will be safer – where their sect is dominant. Some of this sectarian violence is carried out by militias with links to politicians.

“But analysts also say there is a blurring between violence that appears to be sectarian or ethnic in its motivation, criminality and also a crude settling of scores.

“The sectarian violence has come to overshadow all other kinds.”

What of the insurgency?

“Meanwhile the Sunni-led insurgency that erupted after the ousting of Saddam Hussein continues despite a reconciliation initiative launched by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.”

That was all Wooldridge had to say on the matter before returning to the theme of sectarian violence. The Americans and Iraqis “have declared themselves to be hunting ‘death squads’ that have left many residents of the city living in fear of a knock on the door or of being gunned down in the street”.

Wooldridge slipped in some subtle endorsement of American propaganda:

“But even if Operation Together Forward were to succeed in its aim of bringing a measurable improvement in people’s lives by next month and reversing the flight from mixed areas – a big ‘if’ – the sheer number of groups on the streets who claim to be representing someone’s security interests is the underlying problem.”

The American aim, then, really is to improve the lives of ordinary Iraqi people, not to crush an insurgency resisting their invasion and occupation. The “underlying problem” is not the illegal foreign military presence, nor even resistance to it – barely mentioned – but the sectarian strife that appears now to preoccupy Iraqis.

One might almost imagine that Iraqis had grown weary of fighting the “coalition”, or that perhaps their hatred of each other has taken precedence as they have become reconciled to the occupation.

Insurgent Attacks – Historically High Levels

By way of a shocking contrast, two days after the BBC report appeared, an article was published in the New York Times titled, ’Insurgent bombs directed at G.I.’s increase in Iraq’. (Michael R. Gordon, Mark Mazzetti and Thom Shanker, New York Times, August 17, 2006)

The authors reported that the number of roadside bombs planted in Iraq rose in July to the highest monthly total of the war, “offering more evidence that the anti-American insurgency has continued to strengthen despite the killing of the terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi“.

The authors continued:

“Along with a sharp increase in sectarian attacks, the number of daily strikes against American and Iraqi security forces has doubled since January. The deadliest means of attack, roadside bombs, made up much of that increase.”

The figures are staggering: in July, of 2,625 explosive devices planted in Iraq, 1,666 exploded and 959 were discovered before they exploded. In January, 1,454 bombs exploded or were found.

Imagine 1,666 bombs exploding across Britain in a single month.

A senior US Defense Department official, speaking anonymously, was quoted as saying:

“The insurgency has gotten worse by almost all measures, with insurgent attacks at historically high levels. The insurgency has more public support and is demonstrably more capable in numbers of people active and in its ability to direct violence than at any point in time.”

This is far removed from the BBC’s version of events.

While the number of Americans killed in action per month has declined slightly — to 38 killed in July, from 42 in January, in part reflecting improvements in armour and other defences — the number of Americans wounded has soared, to 518 in July from 287 in January. Explosive devices accounted for slightly more than half the deaths.

According to a spokesman for the military command in Baghdad, an analysis of the 1,666 bombs that exploded in July shows that 70 per cent were directed against the American-led military force. Twenty per cent targeted Iraqi security forces, up from 9 per cent in 2005. And 10 per cent of the blasts struck civilians, twice the rate from last year.

Again, this starkly contradicts the assessment provided by the BBC’s Mike Wooldridge, specifically his comment:

“The sectarian violence has come to overshadow all other kinds.”

It is not just bomb attacks against American forces that have increased – attacks with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and small-calibre weapons against American and Iraqi military forces have also increased, according to American military officials.

As so often before, the BBC version of ‘balanced reporting’ acts to justify and normalise US-UK mass violence, no matter how illegal, no matter how extreme it might be. Opposition to that violence and criminality is consistently presented as illegitimate, mindless, or as simply non-existent.


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Write to Mike Wooldridge
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Write to BBC online editor Steve Herrmann
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Write to director of BBC News, Helen Boaden