Media score keeping in Iraq

Jack Kelly:

IN THE opening game of the baseball season between the Boston Red Sox and the Oakland Athletics in Japan, 11 runs were scored.

That lead would be unsatisfying to most sports fans because it doesn't indicate which team won. But it is very like most of the reporting of battles in Iraq:

"The deadliest clashes were in Basra, where at least 47 people were killed and 223 wounded in the two days of fighting," wrote the AP's Kim Gamel.

Ms. Gamel was writing about the opening clashes of Operation Knight's Charge, the effort by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to take control of Iraq's second most populous city from Iranian-backed militias, chiefly the Mahdi Army nominally headed by the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Fighting subsided after al-Sadr called for a cease-fire last weekend.

The cease-fire "is seen as a serious blow" to Mr. al-Maliki because "he had vowed that he would see the Basra campaign through to a military victory," wrote Erica Goode and James Glanz of the New York Times.

But Nibras Kazimi, an Iraqi who is a visiting scholar at the Hudson Institute, says his sources in Iraq tell him "the Mahdi Army is losing very badly."

So who's right? It is rare in the annals of war for the side that is winning to seek a cease-fire. "The Iraq army has cordoned off the city and is methodically advancing to allow residents to leave the city amidst the fighting, militants to turn over arms, while gradually isolating the factions they intend to uproot," a Marine liaison officer to the Iraqi security forces said in an e-mail Tuesday to radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt.

Why might al-Sadr have sought a cease-fire? "Sources in Basra tell Time that there has been a large-scale retreat in the oil-rich port city because of low morale and because ammunition is low due to the closure of the Iranian border," the magazine's Web site reported.

"They were running short of ammunition, food, and water," a U.S. military officer told Bill Roggio, editor of the Web-based Long War Journal. "In short, [the Mahdi Army] had no ability to sustain the effort."
That sure doesn't sound like al-Sadr's forces were winning. It is easier to maintain the illusion that they were if friendly, enemy, and noncombatant casualties are lumped together.

Mr. Roggio said his sources in the U.S. military tell him the Mahdi Army was getting pounded. "According to an unofficial tally … 571 Mahdi army fighters have been killed, 881 have been wounded, 490 have been captured, and 30 have surrendered over the course of seven days of fighting. … The U.S. and Iraqi military never came close to inflicting casualties at such a high rate during the height of major combat operations against al-Qaeda in Iraq during the summer and fall of 2007."

The Mahdi Army has won by surviving, media analysts say. But it seems apparent the Mahdi Army survived by quitting.

The media coverage of this battle has been as bad as any in the war. At best they are relying on a "violence" metric that is misplaced in this case. In their mind any violence means the government is losing, even if the government is initiating the violence and achieving its major objectives. That is why they conflate body counts rather than give an indication of which side has suffered the most casualties.

That leads to another problem with the coverage. They let Maliki's rhetoric color their coverage of events. When Maliki got bombastic about the Sadr militia, the media interpreted that as a battle of annihilation and thereby they overlooked the real purpose of the battle, to control the strategic real estate that Iraqi oil had to go over. In other words, the government was looking to secure its hold on the free flow of its most valuable asset, its oil.

If the media had bothered to look at the facts on the ground rather than the rhetoric of the two parties they would have recognized that the governments primary objective had been met.


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