Media uncritically reported Bush's statement touting Iraqi success in Najaf

››› ››› JULIE MILLICAN

Numerous media outlets reported -- as President Bush claimed in an interview on National Public Radio -- that Iraqi troops took the lead in the battle near Najaf against religious militia the Soldiers of Heaven, without noting that the Iraqis were reportedly "overwhelmed" until U.S. forces joined them.

While reporting on the recent battle between U.S. and Iraqi forces and a cult of religious extremists outside Najaf, Iraq, numerous media outlets -- including ABC News, The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, CNN, and Fox News -- reported that, as President Bush claimed in a January 29 interview on National Public Radio, Iraqi troops took the lead in the battle, without noting that the Iraqis were reportedly "overwhelmed" until U.S. forces joined them. For instance, during the January 30 edition of CNN Newsroom, despite CNN's repeated reporting to the contrary, co-anchor Tony Harris asserted that "[t]he Iraqis were in the lead, and coalition forces were called in later to apply the knockout." He then suggested that the battle near Najaf may have showed that "the surge" of U.S. troops in Iraq could "actually work." In fact, according to The New York Times, "Iraqi forces were surprised and nearly overwhelmed" by the militia "and needed far more help from American forces than previously disclosed." Additionally, throughout the day on January 29, CNN video correspondent Arwa Damon repeatedly reported that because "[t]he enemy they faced [was] so fierce, senior Iraqi officials" said that "U.S. forces had to step in" and "tak[e] the lead on the battlefield."

On January 28, about 10 miles northeast of Najaf, Iraqi forces attacked a little-known religious militia -- the Soldiers of Heaven -- that was reportedly planning to kill top Shiite leaders in Iraq. On the January 29 edition of CNN Newsroom, Damon reported that "U.S. forces ... end[ed] up taking the lead in this operation." Similar reports aired that day on other CNN shows, including American Morning, Your World Today, Situation Room, and Anderson Cooper 360.

From the Times' January 30 article:

Iraqi forces were surprised and nearly overwhelmed by the ferocity of an obscure renegade militia in a weekend battle near the holy city of Najaf and needed far more help from American forces than previously disclosed, American and Iraqi officials said Monday.

They said American ground troops -- and not just air support as reported Sunday -- were mobilized to help the Iraqi soldiers, who appeared to have dangerously underestimated the strength of the militia, which calls itself the Soldiers of Heaven and had amassed hundreds of heavily armed fighters.

[...]

The Iraqis and Americans eventually prevailed in the battle. But the Iraqi security forces' miscalculations about the group's strength and intentions raised troubling questions about their ability to recognize and deal with a threat.

Nevertheless, during an interview with NPR senior correspondent and Fox News contributor Juan Williams on January 29, Bush pointed to Najaf as a source of encouragement, stating: "[T]he Iraqis are beginning to show me something." While Williams uncritically reported Bush's comment throughout the day on NPR and Fox News, on the next day's edition of NPR's Morning Edition, Williams noted, while discussing Bush's remarks, that "reports from Baghdad later indicated that the Iraqi forces did not perform all that well in Najaf."

Yet, numerous other media outlets uncritically reported that the Iraqis led in the fighting near Najaf, without noting that U.S. troops reportedly had to take charge. For instance:

  • Despite CNN's repeated reporting to the contrary, on the January 30 edition of CNN Newsroom, Harris asserted that in Najaf, "[t]he Iraqis were in the lead, and coalition forces were called in later to apply the knockout," and because of this, asked Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, "Couldn't the surge actually work?"
  • In a January 30 article, "Iraqis Describe Plot to Kill Shiite Clerics," The Washington Post reported only that "Iraqi and U.S. military officials characterized the attack as a positive signal that the Iraqi security forces were able to lead a major battle and were willing to target extremists from the same Muslim sect that runs the central government." The Post did not mention reports that the Iraqis were in danger of losing the battle and had to call in U.S. reinforcements, who then took the lead.
  • In another January 30 article, "Iraqi Forces Showing Initiative, Bush Says," the Post uncritically reported that "Bush said yesterday that Iraqi forces 'are beginning to show me something,' " without noting the difficulties the Iraqi forces reportedly experienced in battling the militia.
  • Similarly, in a January 30 article, the Chicago Tribune reported Bush's claim, noting only that "[t]he battle, five weeks after the U.S. military transferred authority in the province to the Iraqi army, demonstrated the capabilities of the new army, President Bush told National Public Radio on Monday. 'My first reaction to this report from the battlefield is that the Iraqis are starting to show me something,' he said."
  • Likewise, on the January 29 edition of ABC's World News, anchor Charles Gibson stated: "U.S. and Iraqi troops defeat a religious army in Najaf. President Bush declares it a sign of progress." ABC senior national security correspondent Jonathan Karl added: "U.S. commanders say they, too, are pleased with how the Iraqis performed. This was an Iraqi-led fight, but it was one that was backed with a lot of American firepower." Karl further aired a video clip of retired Gen. Jack Keane, former Army vice chief of staff and ABC News contributor, who strongly advocated for an increase in U.S. troops in Iraq, stating: "This force reacted well to a force that was very sizeable and was willing to fight. The Iraqi security forces handled themselves well, used the air power effectively. We should feel good about it."
  • Also, on the January 29 edition of Fox News' Special Report, Fox News national security correspondent Mike Emanuel aired Bush's statement without comment and concluded his report on the battle by saying: "Najaf was turned over by U.S. forces to Iraqi forces last month, and U.S. military commanders say this worked the way it was supposed to, with Iraqi forces responding aggressively to a threat and calling in coalition forces for support. Too early to call this a trend, but U.S. officials say it is a positive sign."

From the January 30 edition of CNN Newsroom:

HARRIS: Representative, let me stop you there for a moment and take a case in point here. Maybe it's a pretty good case study, in fact: the fighting Sunday in Najaf. Now, it looks like it played out just the way the administration envisions the surge of new troops, moving into as many as 23 neighborhoods around Baghdad and Anbar province -- that the fighting in Najaf played out just the way the administration envisions this. The Iraqis were in the lead, and coalition forces were called in later to apply the knockout. Couldn't the surge actually work?

LANTOS: No, this was not at all an analogous situation. As a matter of fact, it was exactly the opposite. This was not urban guerrilla warfare, which is what is taking place within Baghdad. Moreover, we have more than enough troops to deal with 2-300 insurgents. So that clearly is not a rationale for sending in 21,000 more troops.

From the January 29 edition of ABC's World News with Charles Gibson:

GIBSON: Trial by fire: U.S. and Iraqi troops defeat a religious army in Najaf. President Bush declares it a sign of progress.

[...]

GIBSON: Well, to Iraq now. There are new details today about one of the biggest battles in Iraq in recent years: the clash between U.S. and Iraqi forces outside of Najaf yesterday. Two hundred militants were killed. President Bush seemed buoyed by the performance of the Iraqi troops, telling National Public Radio, "My first reaction ... is that the Iraqis are beginning to show me something."

Our national security correspondent, Jonathan Karl, joins us tonight from Washington. Jon?

KARL: Charlie, U.S. commanders say they, too, are pleased with how the Iraqis performed. This was an Iraqi-led fight, but it was one that was backed with a lot of American firepower.

[begin video clip]

KARL: The battle raged all day long. An Iraqi police officer captured some of the action with his cell-phone camera. It started when Iraqi forces responded to a tip that an armed group had gathered north of the city of Najaf. An Iraqi unit that included a handful of American troops went to investigate. They came under fire and called in U.S. Apache attack helicopters. One of the Apaches was brought down, apparently by heavy machine-gun fire. The two soldiers on board were killed.

KEANE: The insurgents were fighting out of dug-in positions, and they stayed to fight. That means that they believe they could probably win this battle.

KARL: Coalition forces responded with a massive display of firepower, including F-16, A-10, and British Tornado fighter jets, and an AC-130 gunship. The planes dropped several 500-pound bombs. About three dozen armored Stryker vehicles were also sent from Baghdad to join the fight. Iraqi officials say about 200 gunmen were killed; another 100 captured.

KEANE: This force reacted well to a force that was very sizable and was willing to fight. The Iraqi security forces handled themselves well, used the air power effectively. We should feel good about it.

KARL: Iraqis may have been in the lead here, but several hundred American troops were involved, and most of the killing ultimately done by U.S. air power. Iraqi officials say the gunmen were part of a religious cult composed of Shias, Sunnis, and foreign fighters. Iraqi officials say the group planned to attack Shiite religious leaders and pilgrims gathered for the Shia holiday of Ashura.

[end video clip]

KARL: In an indication of just how difficult it is to understand the enemy in Iraq, U.S. officials have a different version of who they were fighting in this battle. They say it was a group of Shia extremists, or, in the words of one official, Charlie, "a bunch of thugs."

From the January 29 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

EMANUEL: Near the Shiite holy city of Najaf, Iraqi forces with U.S. support killed some 200 fighters that Iraqi officials say belong to a religious cult called Soldiers of Heaven. Iraqi officials say the cult members were plotting to dress up as religious pilgrims gathering for Ashura, the holiest day on the Shiite calendar, and then planning to kill leading clerics and Shiite faithful.

SHERWAN ALWAELI (Iraqi national security minister) [through translator]: Today, we have almost finished the security operations in Najaf. Our army is currently continuing its search for insurgents and any other hostile activity in the area.

EMANUEL: U.S. F-16s and A-10s and British fighter planes were called in for close air support, and U.S. officials emphasize this was an Iraqi-planned and Iraqi-led operation, with American training teams and air power assisting. In a radio interview with NPR's Juan Williams, President Bush said he wants to see more of this from Iraqi commanders and security forces.

BUSH: One of the things that I expect to see is the Iraqis take the lead and show the American people that they're willing to do the hard work necessary to secure their democracy. And our job is to help them. So, my first reaction from the -- on this report from the battlefield is that the Iraqis are beginning to show me something.

[...]

EMANUEL: Najaf was turned over by U.S. forces to Iraqi forces last month, and U.S. military commanders say this worked the way it was supposed to, with Iraqi forces responding aggressively to a threat and calling in coalition forces for support. Too early to call this a trend, but U.S. officials say it is a positive sign. Brit.

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