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Facts, some fiction and the reporting of war Print E-mail
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Reports of uprisings, break-outs and breakthroughs from thick of the action prove premature Stuart Millar and Michael White Saturday March 29, 2003 The Guardian The Pentagon had long predicted that the confrontation with Iraq would be unlike any other war in history. That claim has been proved correct, although not for the reasons the US top brass may have been thinking of. For the first time, the public back home has had access to round-the-clock reports of every cough and spit of the military campaign, much of it supplied by the 750-strong army of correspondents embedded with US and British military units in the thick of the action. From live television pictures of battles through up-to-the-minute internet headlines to acres of newspaper coverage, this has become the fastest, most extensively scrutinsed war ever. But in such a rapidly changing environment, the sheer volume of information has at times made it almost impossible to establish what is true and, just as importantly, how that affects the big picture. The problems of sorting out fact from fiction and claim from counterclaim have been compounded by the unpredictable nature of the war. With just nine days of the conflict passed, there have already been a series of apparently critical developments, all of them beamed instantly onto television screens and reported as fact in a blaze of newspaper headlines, that have subsequently turned out to be inaccurate. 1 Republican Guard convoys head south from Baghdad The Daily Telegraph front page headline on Thursday could not have been more dramatic. "Saddam sends out his tanks," it thundered. According to the paper, two Iraqi columns, each containing 1,000 Republican Guard vehicles, were heading south to attack coalition forces in what would be the pivotal battles of the war. The tank columns, however, failed to materialise. It seems to have been a case of a journalist embedded with the military being fed spurious information by forces on the ground. In this instance, the reporter was from CNN, embedded with the US 7th Cavalry, part of the main coalition advance force. The correspondent, Walter Rodgers, said Iraqi units were streaming out of Baghdad under cover of a sandstorm to engage US marines around Najaf. The claim was downplayed almost immediately by the Pentagon. General Richard Myers, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told reporters that a few "light vehicles" were understood to be heading in the general direction of the US forces. But that was not enough to calm the headline writers. The following day, the Mirror described the Iraqi move as a "pincer attack on US force", and both the Mail and the Independent carried similar stories. "One of the problems we have got is that journalists embedded with our forces are talking to people all the time. So 'military sources' could just be a conversation with a squaddie who's shining his boots," said one Whitehall official. 2 The taking of Umm Qasr As coalition ground forces poured across the Iraqi border from Kuwait on the first night of fighting on March 20, a pooled despatch from a reporter with the Royal Marines gave an action-packed and detailed account of the British assault on the Faw peninsula and the port of Umm Qasr. The marines, the report said, had successfully secured the port. A couple of hours later, an advisory note was sent out by the Press Association telling newsdesks to hold the Umm Qasr copy because the taking of the town was not yet complete. By that time it was too late: most newspapers had gone to press and both Sky and BBC News 24 were reporting that Umm Qasr was in British hands, reading verbatim from the pooled report. By the next morning, it seemed academic anyway: Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, chief of the defence staff, announced that Umm Qasr had been "overwhelmed" by coalition forces, a claim repeated again by both US and British commanders on Saturday. But last Sunday, it became clear that Umm Qasr was far from being under control, as television news broadcast dramatic live pictures of a prolonged firefight between US marines and about 150 Iraqis, who held out against artillery shelling and intense air strikes until Tuesday, when the port, finally, was secured. Whitehall admits it was a "bit forward" about Umm Qasr. 3 Chemical weapons factory The news story that politicians and media alike have been waiting for broke late on Sunday evening: the apparent discovery of an Iraqi chemical weapons factory and, with it, vindication of the coalition assault on Saddam Hussein. The story came from a correspondent from the Jerusalem Post who was travelling with the US 3rd Infantry. The plant, the paper said, had been discovered by American troops at Najaf. US television network Fox immediately began running the story, which also quoted Pentagon officials. On Monday, much of the British press treated the discovery with some caution. Part of the scepticism stemmed from the fact that one of the board members of the Jerusalem Post is Richard Perle, the Bush defence adviser and most vocal backer of the invasion of Iraq. The Guardian gave the claims of a chemical factory find a short story on the front page, and warned that Pentagon officials had been unable to confirm the story. The London Evening Standard gave the claims lots of space but also enveloped them in health warnings, pointing out that the story had originated from unconfirmed reports. Its sister paper, the Daily Mail, was not so circumspect. Under the headline "Allied troops storm massive chemical weapons factory", it reported the discovery as fact, quoting Pentagon sources describing the installation as "very well-disguised". Within 24 hours, General Tommy Franks, commander of the US-led forces, was ccautioning that most claims about weapons of mass destruction finds were "based on speculation". Former weapons inspectors also dismissed the reports. 4 Executions A series of images broadcast on the Arabic television channel al-Jazeera have ignited one of the biggest controversies of the war. The channel showed lingering pictures of the bodies of two British soldiers, Sapper Luke Allsop and Staff Sergeant Simon Cullingworth, who had been caught in an ambush in southern Iraq. The Sun claimed the "sickening" al-Jazeera film showed the two men had been executed. "One trooper had a massive chest wound and the other's neck and upper chest was covered in blood," the report said. "Both men's faces were clearly visible on the film - shot at close range in the border town of Safwan." During a press conference with George Bush at Camp David on Thursday evening, Tony Blair claimed the soldiers were the victims of "an act of cruelty beyond all human comprehension". But the prime minister's official spokesman later began backtracking from that position, saying there was no "absolute evidence" that they had been executed. British commanders in Qatar also downplayed the story, pointing out that the pictures were of poor quality. Yesterday, the Mirror led with Luke Allsop's sister Nina emphatically denying that he had been executed. She said his colonel had told them he had died instantly when the vehicle was ambushed. But Downing Street was still insisting that it had acted on the basis of information from army commanders. 5 Basra uprising With coalition forces brought to a halt by a fierce sandstorm and facing repeated guerilla attack by Iraqi forces, both the military and the media were searching for a breakthrough in the campaign. That came on Tuesday evening when BBC News 24 began broadcasting reports of an uprising against Saddam Hussein's forces in the southern city of Basra. This was momentous news. About 1,000 troops and militia loyal to President Saddam had held off the British forces dug in around the city for almost five days. Inside, a humanitarian crisis was unfolding as many of the 1.2 million residents were forced to survive without water or power. The story was broken by Richard Gaisford, a GMTV correspondent embedded with the British. He cited "military intelligence" as the source, and soon television news and wire services were running reports of British artillery hitting Iraqi mortar positions which had been firing on civilians. Pooled despatches from reporters with other British units around Basra added weight to the story. On Wednesday morning, the Daily Telegraph greeted the uprising in a leader article as "the best news of the war so far for the allied forces". Except it was not so straightforward. Four days later, the much heralded uprising is yet to happen. The city remains under the control of Saddam Hussein's forces and the British remain camped on the outskirts. 6 Basra tank column On Wednesday evening, news broke of one of the biggest tank battles involving British forces since the second world war. A convoy of up to 120 Iraqi armoured vehicles had been spotted breaking out of the southern city of Basra in broad daylight, heading south towards the British-held Faw peninsula in what commanders described as an "offensive posture". TV news reports on Wednesday evening and newspapers on Thursday were filled with gripping accounts of the battle between British tanks and the Iraqi armour."British artillery and jets launched a fierce attack last night on a convoy of up to 120 Iraqi tanks and armoured personnel carriers seen pouring out of the city of Basra," the Guardian's front page story said. The story had come from correspondents with the British forces, who had been given accounts of the battle by commanders. It was not until yesterday's MoD press briefing that the truth emerged: rather than 120 Iraqi vehicles, there had been only three. A contrite military admitted that the error had stemmed from an "erroneous signal" from the coalition's electronic moving target indicators. US Brigadier General Vince Brooks described it as a "classic example of the fog of war".
 
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