The BBC’s Mark Urban And The Independent’s Adrian Hamilton On Iraq

On the May 14 edition of Newsnight, the BBC’s Mark Urban reported from Iraq that the US troop “surge” was an attempt to “turn the tide of violence” in Baghdad. Urban did not mean it was an attempt to turn the tide of violence in America’s favour and against its enemies – the media essentially never present the war in terms of conquest and resistance. The Americans are fighting for ‘security‘, ’stability’ and ‘peace’, not victory.

Urban made his opinion clear, referring to “Baghdad’s sectarian nightmare” and to the “American struggle to stop its [Baghdad’s] descent into mayhem”. If America were fighting for its own version of victory, rather than peace, it would have to be charged with causing, not resisting, “mayhem” – but this was not Urban’s argument. Hence the following observation:

“Clearly a lot of people are supporting the insurgents. And that’s really the essence of all this – whether the Americans, with all their concerns for their own safety when they go into such dangerous neighbourhoods, can actually communicate the message that they’re here to help, and that they +can+ turn the tide in one of these really violent districts of the city.” (Urban, ‘Embedded with US surge troops,‘ Newsnight; newsid_6650000/newsid_6655700/6655705.stm? bw=bb&mp=rm)

This depiction of the American army as a peacekeeping force was presented after Urban had been driven around Baghdad in an armoured Humvee, “call sign Hellstorm Seven”. The irony was presumably lost on Urban who disembarked from “Hellstorm Seven” to conduct a straw poll among Iraqis: “I asked passers by whether they feel secure.”

An Iraqi trader responded: “The security situation, we are relaxed about it. We come and open our shops, even though business is down. There is stability now.”

An American soldier asked another Iraqi: “So you’re happy we’re here?”

The response: “Oh, very, very, very happy.”

Surprisingly, then, the Iraqis were keen to appear favourably disposed towards the heavily-armed troops surrounding them and due to return later that night.

Unlike Urban, the locals are no doubt familiar with the reality expressed by senior British army commanders in Iraq when they decried the “tragic” and “awful” American habit of viewing Iraqis “as untermenschen”, such that “they are not concerned about the Iraqi loss of life”. (Quoted, Sean Rayment, ‘US tactics condemned by British officers,’ Daily Telegraph, April 11, 2004)

As we noted earlier this month, a senior US military investigator described the view all along the US chain of command: “Iraqi civilian lives are not as important as US lives, their deaths are just the cost of doing business…”. (Josh White, ‘Report On Haditha Condemns Marines,’ Washington Post, April 21, 2007)

The American soldiers interviewed by Urban seemed friendly, likeable, if somewhat embittered. One was shown playing guitar, singing a ballad – Urban described them as “extraordinarily welcoming”. In a BBC Online article, he was full of admiration:

“You can marvel at the Americans’ can-do spirit, as some British soldiers do. You can see it in terms of America, the world’s hyper power staring failure in the face and refusing to accept it. But in the sergeant’s case the will to carry on comes from a sense of responsibility towards the people of Iraq.” (Urban, ‘”Can-do” spirit of US troops in Baghdad,’ May 17, 2007; from_our_own_correspondent/6663513.stm)

Urban was disturbed by the qualities of the men he met:

“From the odd glimpse or overheard remark, I do not doubt that the second platoon contains the odd bad apple or loud-mouth, but as my time with them went on I became aware of an uncomfortable feeling.

“When eventually I was able to identify it, I realised my unease concerned British soldiers, and how they compared with these Americans. Carlisle, Perez and the rest seem brighter, stronger and more committed.” (Ibid)

No doubt warriors in the front line have often seemed this way to their own: “The senators are good men, but the senate is a beast,” as has long been observed. It is close to unforgivable for reporters to fail to make the distinction, as Urban so patently did. This failure being the predictable first casualty of embedded journalism, as the military well know.

In his online article, Urban pondered a conundrum:

“If they are that good, you might ask, why are they not getting better results in Baghdad? There is history, of course, of terrible past mistakes. There are numbers: Baghdad is a city of six million. There is also ruthless intimidation by al-Qaeda of local people and the simple prejudice of those who will never like the Americans because they are unbelievers.” (Ibid)

As ever in mainstream journalism, our side merely makes “mistakes”, while the ‘bad guys’ mete out “ruthless intimidation”. The problem centres on the West’s favourite bogeymen, “al Qaeda”, not Iraqi resistance fighters waging war on a brutal occupation. Local people are being intimidated by these monsters, we are told, although a September 2006 World Public Opinion (WPO) poll found that 61 per cent of Shia and 92 per cent of Sunni approved of attacks on US forces, while 78 per cent of Iraqis (including 82% Shia and 97% Sunni) believed the US presence was “provoking more conflict than it is preventing”. (‘The Iraqi Public on the US Presence and the Future of Iraq,’ September 27, 2006; Iraq_Sep06_rpt.pdf)

Compare Urban’s version with the Iraq Study Group Report published last December:

“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; report/1206/iraq_study_group_report.pdf)

Intimidation and irrational hatred of “unbelievers“ aside, another possibility springs to mind – could it be that Iraqis have a problem with being illegally invaded by a superpower army sent by an American administration packed to the gills with former oil executives?

John Pilger puts Urban’s film in perspective:

“The US government, together with the British government, have brought bloodshed on a scale unimagined to Iraq. The so-called civil war is a direct result of an illegal, rapacious invasion carried out by these two governments on the basis of demonstrable lies. That is not opinion; that is a fact — a fact recognised, it is fair to say, by most of humanity. Mark Urban’s deeply embedded, nineteenth century view of the benign intentions of the invaders is laughable in the blackest, most profane sense.” (Pilger, email to Media Lens, May 18, 2007)

Ulterior Aims – The Pickles And Lettuce Conspiracy

Most insidiously, journalists of the ‘liberal’ press are obscuring the truth even while bewailing the mendacity of others. Thus the Independent’s comment editor, Adrian Hamilton, recently wrote an article dramatically titled, ‘A desperate attempt to rewrite history’. Hamilton commented:

“The latest attempt to rewrite history comes from Geoff Hoon who was Defence Secretary at the time of the Iraq invasion… Anyway he’s now popping up to explain that, yes, there were some damaging errors made in the aftermath of the invasion, but that he and Tony Blair had advised the US administration strongly against the two worst mistakes – the decisions to disband the Iraqi army and to de-Baathify the ministries.” (Hamilton, ‘A desperate attempt to rewrite history,’ The Independent, May 3, 2007; columnists_a_l/adrian_hamilton/article2504610.ece)

The ugliest aspect of this blame shifting, Hamilton observed, “is that it is all there to avoid the central question of whether we were right to invade Iraq in the first place”. The incompetence and indifference afflicting that “mistake” were staggering and rooted in the same ugly truth:

“We didn’t go to war for the sake of the Iraqi people. We went to war to change a regime. The Americans wanted it as the first move in reshaping the Middle East. Tony Blair wanted it because he fancied himself as the toppler of a tyrant.”

The motivation “was to do with ulterior aims bought at the cost of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilian lives”.

Amazingly, nowhere in his article did Hamilton feel inclined to spell out the “ulterior aims” guiding the US in “reshaping the Middle East”. Noam Chomsky has commented:

“The party line we have to rigidly adhere to says you’re not allowed to talk about the reasons for invading Iraq. We’re supposed to believe that the US would’ve invaded Iraq if it was an island in the Indian Ocean and its main exports were pickles and lettuce. This is what we’re supposed to believe. Now the truth of the matter, obvious to anyone not committed to the party line, is that Iraq has huge oil resources, maybe the second in the world, mostly untapped, that it’s right in the middle of the main energy-producing region of the world and that taking control of Iraq will strengthen enormously the US’s control over the major energy resources of the world.” (Chomsky, ‘On the Iraq Election,’ December 18, 2005;

But this is not a fit subject for mainstream discussion, not even in an article focusing on “a desperate attempt to rewrite history“.

Curiously, an August-September, 2003 Gallup poll found that forty-three per cent of Iraqis believed US and British forces invaded primarily “to rob Iraq’s oil”. 5 per cent believed the United States invaded Iraq “to assist the Iraqi people”, and 1 per cent believed it was to establish democracy. (Walter Pincus, ‘Skepticism About U.S. Deep, Iraq Poll Shows,’ Washington Post, November 12, 2003)

This fits well with a January 2006 WPO which found that 80 per cent of Iraqis believed that the US government planned to have permanent bases in Iraq. A further 76 per cent said they thought the US would not withdraw if asked to do so by the Iraqi government. (‘What the Iraqi Public Wants,’ January 31, 2006; jan06/Iraq_Jan06_rpt.pdf)

An April 2007 WPO poll of Islamic countries found that an overwhelming majority in Egypt (93%) said that maintaining “control over the oil resources of the Middle East” was a goal of the United States (84% definitely), as well as strong majorities in Morocco (82%), Indonesia (74%) and Pakistan (68%). On average 79 per cent had this perception. (Muslim Public Opinion on US Policy, Attacks on Civilians, and al Qaeda, April 24, 2007; pipa/pdf/apr07/START_Apr07_rpt.pdf)

None of this is allowed to exist for mainstream journalism – “mistakes” and “bad apples” are recognised, but not facts that challenge the fundamental benevolence of Western power.


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: [email protected]

Write to Peter Barron, editor of Newsnight
Email: [email protected]

Write to Adrian Hamilton
Email: [email protected]

Write to Simon Kelner, editor of the Independent
Email: [email protected]