THE INVISIBLE WAR – The Media And The Insurgency

Manic Nirvana – Business Gets A Clear Run

On the eve of the January 2005 elections in Iraq, Scott Peterson and Dan Murphy reported in the Christian Science Monitor: “the one thing every Iraqi agrees upon is that occupation should end soon”.

But this, it was noted, was an outcome that would conflict directly with the US objective of constructing “a US-friendly democracy that would allow America to replace its military presence in Saudi Arabia… with one in Iraq that would allow America to keep shaping the regional balance of power”. (Peterson and Murphy, Christian Science Monitor, January 28, 2005)

Later that same month, the Financial Times reported the British prime minister’s view:

“Tony Blair says there is no way that the US and UK will set out a timetable for the withdrawal of their troops from Iraq.” (James Blitz, Andrew Gowers and Philip Stephens, ‘Blair hails a “perfectly progressive” US goal of expanding freedom,’ Financial Times, January 26, 2006)

The problem with genuine withdrawal – as with genuine democracy and independence – is that a sovereign Iraq would likely join in the efforts to integrate Iran into the region which had begun long before the US and UK invasion. Noam Chomsky explains in his latest book Failed States:

“… the Shiite religious and political leadership in Iraq has very close links with Iran. Shiite success in Iraq is already invigorating the pressures for freedom and democracy among the bitterly oppressed Shiite population of Saudi Arabia just across the border, tendencies that would only increase if Iraq were to be granted a measure of sovereignty… That is also the region where most Saudi oil happens to be.” (Quoted Noam Chomsky, Failed States, Hamish Hamilton, 2006, p.144)

The final consequence of authentic Iraqi independence could be a Shiite-dominated alliance compromising Iraq, Iran, and the oil regions of Saudi Arabia. This, Chomsky notes, would be independent of Washington and controlling the bulk of the world’s energy resources: “Washington’s ultimate nightmare – almost”.

In 2004, the Financial Times described “the air of euphoria” in board rooms and corporate lobbies following George Bush’s election victory, because “US business expects a clear run” now that the “political landscape [is tilted] in favour of corporate America more dramatically than at any period in modern American history”. (Dan Roberts and Edward Alden, ‘Corporate America hopes the clearer Republican mandate will ease the passage of favourable legislation,’ Financial Times, November 4, 2004)

Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity, which monitors corporate lobbying in Washington, said:

“This is about as good as it might ever get for any of these industries. This is really Nirvana for these folks.” (Ibid)

In a detailed analysis of the sources of US foreign policy, Lawrence Jacob and Benjamin Page found that the major influence was “internationally oriented business corporations”. By contrast, public opinion had “little or no significant effect on government officials”. (Jacob and Page, American Political Science Review, February 2005)

Two conclusions can be drawn: 1) Given that big business, not public opinion, dominates American domestic and foreign policy, it is simple-minded to believe that the same corporate interests are intent on Iraqi public opinion dominating Iraqi domestic and foreign policy. 2) Leaving Iraq without victory, or at least control, is therefore not an option for the US. This is the reality of the alleged US goal of “forcing a democracy into the heart of the Middle East”. (Mark Urban, Newsnight, BBC2, April 12, 2005)

Erasing Resistance

But how to justify the vast cost in human life of subordinating Iraqi interests to the goals of US elites?

A key task, clearly, is that resistance to occupation must be demonised and, if possible, removed from public awareness. The New York Times reported George Bush’s latest offering:

“If we give up the fight in the streets of Baghdad, we will face the terrorists in the streets of our own cities.” (Anne E. Kornblut and Sheryl Gay Stolberg, ‘In Latest Push, Bush Cites Risk in Quitting Iraq,’ New York Times, September 1, 2006)

If the enemy are mere terrorists to be destroyed, then the question of some kind of negotiated political solution does not even arise.

A contribution to the task of erasing awareness of the insurgency from the public mind was made in a New York Times article on the same day. Edward Wong reported:

“Since Sunday, more than 300 Iraqis have been killed in bombings, murders and a deadly pipeline explosion… The violence is generally believed to be the work of insurgents, militias and criminal gangs embroiled in Sunni-Shiite sectarian strife.” (Wong, ‘Car Bomb and Rockets Kill 43 in Baghdad’s Shiite Strongholds,’ New York Times, September 1, 2006)

Notice that “insurgents” responsible for “bombings” are lumped in with “militias and criminal gangs”, and are embroiled in “Sunni-Shiite sectarian strife”, rather than an insurgency. Wong added:

“The recent surge in bombings calls into question the long-term effectiveness of a joint American-Iraqi security offensive in Baghdad. The security measures are expected to contribute to a relatively low civilian death toll in August.”

The American army that in fact created the chaos is presented as a benevolent bystander intervening to break up a fight through “security measures“. There is no resistance, no occupation, no American violence, no American illegality, no American mass killing of civilians. These are written out of the story.

This is a remarkable feat of propaganda when set alongside the August US Defense Intelligence Agency assessment that of 1,666 bombs exploded in Iraq in July alone, 90 per cent were aimed at US-led forces. Who would guess from media reporting that 518 US troops were injured in July, up from 287 in January? Who would guess that opposition to the American occupation is fiercer than ever?

The devil of the deceptive media framework is in the detail. Consider this paragraph from Julian Borger in the Guardian:

“US officials pointed optimistically to statistics suggesting that the military focus on the capital had helped to curb sectarian killings between Sunni and Shia groups, though in the past few days the body count has again soared. Yesterday at least 24 people were killed and 55 wounded in a bomb attack on a crowded central Baghdad market, while 12 volunteers were killed in the bombing of an Iraqi army recruitment centre in the Shia town of Hilla.” (Borger, ‘The US view of Iraq: we can pull out in a year,’ The Guardian, August 31, 2006)

Notice the intellectual sleight of hand: Borger described US hopes of curbing “sectarian killings between Sunni and Shia groups”, and then came the key word “though” 12 volunteers were killed in the bombing of an Iraqi army recruitment centre. At a stroke, Borger transformed an insurgent attack into “sectarian violence” – the illegal occupation, and the war resisting it, was rendered invisible.

One day earlier, the Independent reported the same attack on the army recruitment centre, adding:

“Insurgents have often targeted Iraqi army and police volunteers as they line up outside recruiting stations, as a way to discourage people from joining the security services and keep the military and police weak.” (’12 killed in Iraq army centre bomb blast,’ August 30, 2006)

Emphatically not to be labelled as a purely sectarian attack, then.

We challenged Borger who responded on September 4:

“I agree I should have said something about the increase in insurgent bombings, but it is the spike in sectarian killings that is most striking, partly because they are killing far more people, but also because they have the potential to escalate into full-blown civil war. Last week’s official report on stability and security in Iraq quotes the Baghdad coroner as saying over 1800 bodies were brought in in July, and 90% had been shot execution style. You are right to say that targeting police or army recruitment centres is a favourite insurgent tactic, but this particular attack, in a Shia neighbourhood fulfilled both purposes – insurgency and sectarian.” (Borger, email to Media Lens)

And yet an August 29 Pentagon report to the US Congress revealed that more than 60 per cent of attacks of all kinds on US and foreign troops, Iraqi security forces, civilians or infrastructure were directed against US and Iraqi government targets. Civilians were the targets of just 15 per cent of attacks, although they did constitute the majority of the victims of the violence. Surely the prime focus of the attacks, and the fact that these attacks have increased massively in recent months, is also ”striking”. The point being that Borger’s emphasis is repeated right across the media.

In an August 9 article in the Independent, deputy foreign editor Daniel Howden noted that American attempts “to control spiralling sectarian violence in Baghdad” had “run into immediate problems“. With the insurgency unmentioned throughout the article, Howden nevertheless managed to report how a US military court was deciding whether four soldiers should be court-martialled for the rape and murder of an Iraqi girl and her family in March. The court heard how troops had been “driven nuts” by combat stress:

“Pte Justin Cross described how conditions ‘pretty much crushed the platoon,’ which lived in constant fear of being killed.”

He said: ‘It drives you nuts. You feel like every step you might get blown up. You just hit a point where you’re like, ‘If I die today, I die.’ You’re just walking a death walk.” (Howden, ‘At least 100 people killed in Iraq,’ The Independent, August 29, 2006)

Every step you might get blown up! But the only newsworthy conflict, according to Howden‘s own article, was the “spiralling sectarian violence”.

In early August, Sarah Baxter depicted events within the same contradictory framework in the Times:

“It is rare that Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, is lost for words… The defence secretary could not bring himself to say the phrase, civil war, but his top commanders did it for him. Their assessment was almost as blunt as that of William Patey, Britain’s envoy to Iraq, who warned in a parting letter to London that the country was in a ‘low intensity civil war’ with diminishing prospects of achieving a stable democracy.

“General John Abizaid, the head of US forces in the Middle East, told the Senate committee that the sectarian violence was ‘probably as bad as I have seen it, in Baghdad in particular, and if not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move towards civil war‘.”

Baxter continued with the same theme:

“The statistics in Iraq tell their own grim story. Over the course of the year, the number of violent killings of civilians has risen from 1,178 in January to 3,149 in June, the latest period for which figures are available.” (Sarah Baxter, ‘Rebels “smell blood” in lawless Baghdad,’ Sunday Times, August 6, 2006)

And yet, having devoted the entire article to this emphasis, in her last two paragraphs Baxter quoted Colonel Larry Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff at the State Department:

“‘Matters could unravel very quickly if a confluence of events occurs,’ Wilkerson warned. ‘If American support for the war falls off rapidly, if we are forced to set a timetable for withdrawal and the insurgents think they are not just stalemating us but winning they will let it all hang out.

“‘The enemy can smell blood and the more you counter them with hard power, the more you lose.’”

Suddenly, it is revealed, the United States has real enemies who really are opposing its occupation – this is not just sectarian violence, the Americans are not just peacekeepers. But this, quite remarkably, was tagged onto a piece that focused almost entirely on sectarian violence.

Also in early August, Rupert Cornwell wrote in the Independent:

“Far from pulling out, the US is this week stepping up its troop strength in Iraq by 5,000 in an attempt to quell the sectarian violence.” (Rupert Cornwell, ‘Caught on a headlong flight from reality,’ The Independent, August 5, 2006)

And yet according to a UK Ministry of Defence poll in August 2005, 82 per cent of Iraqis were “strongly opposed“ to the presence of coalition troops, with 45 per cent feeling that attacks on the coalition were justified. (Chomsky, op. cit, p.164)

An Exchange With The New York Times

At random, we decided to challenge several media journalists on their depiction of the war in Iraq as primarily a sectarian conflict. We wrote to Damien Cave of the New York Times on August 31:

Dear Damien

In today’s article, you write: “Shootings and hidden bombs at a market, a gas station and an army recruiting center killed at least 52 Iraqis on Wednesday, continuing a wave of sectarian violence that has defied stepped-up efforts to halt its spread.” (Damien Cave, ‘Violence Grows, Killing 52 Iraqis, in Face of Security Plan’, New York Times, August 31, 2006)

But surely the attack on the army recruiting centre was part of a wave of insurgent, not sectarian, violence. On August 17, your colleagues Michael R. Gordon, Mark Mazzetti and Thom Shanker emphasised the dramatic upswing in insurgent attacks in recent months in their article, ‘Insurgent bombs directed at G.I.’s increase in Iraq’. Am I missing something?

Best wishes

David Edwards

Cave responded the same day:

well, insurgent attacks are not necessarily non-sectarian. in fact, they are often intimately tied to it. the police forces here are widely seen as shiite controlled, and attacks on them seem to serve two purposes: to both undermine the american project here, and to kill off shiites who are believed to be involved (in some cases) in death squad activities targeting sunnis.

the fact of the matter is that trying to unravel the motivations for killing here can be difficult. it’s often a patchwork of sectarianism, political opposition, and just plain crime.

hope that helps…it’s a valid question and perhaps we need to find a way to get the point above into a story just to make it clear how *unclear* some of the violence can be.

thanks for writing….


We wrote again, also on the same day:

Dear Damien

Many thanks for such a prompt reply. I agree that it may not be the case that attacks on army targets are non-sectarian. But it seems a simple matter to write, at the very least, ‘continuing a wave of sectarian and insurgent violence that has defied stepped-up efforts to halt its spread‘. Given that, according to the Defense Intelligence Agency, 90 per cent of the roadside bombs are aimed at US-led forces, isn’t it perverse to focus primarily, much less solely, on the sectarian aspect of the violence?

It also seems inappropriate to talk of US forces seeking to ‘halt [the] spread‘ of violence. They are themselves agents of violence and, of course, are fuelling violence by their presence in Iraq. We wouldn’t have talked of the Soviet Union merely seeking to “halt the spread of violence” in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Best wishes


Cave responded again on August 31:

your first solution is indeed simple and a good idea; i’ll probably use it next time.

on your second point, you have to understand that roadside bombs are far from the only bombs i was referring to, as such, no it isn’t perverse to focus on the sectarian aspect of the violence. here, day to day, this is truly what dominates. it isn’t my opinion; it comes from talking to iraqis. in the past few days, we’ve observed a slight shift in that — attacks seem to have more of an insurgent air. but this is hard to assert without knowing the actual motivation.

still, i concede that your point is worth keeping in mind.

as for the last point, i again beg to differ. they may be fueling the violence but they are also clearly trying to stop it as well. we can argue about the logic of such an internal contradiction, but i don’t think afghanistan in the 80s is the right example. perhaps bosnia would be a better model.



Damien Cave has asked us to add this note:

“is it possible for you to append the story or note that you didn’t identify
yourself as a reporter when you sent me and the other reporters emails? just
to let the reader know that you approached us as a reader not a reporter?

damien cave
the new york times”


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Julian Borger
Email: [email protected]

Write to Rupert Cornwell
Email: [email protected]

Write to Daniel Howden
Email: [email protected]

Write to Sarah Baxter
Email: [email protected]