On the Thunder Run

Ed Harriman

  • A Time of Our Choosing: America’s War in Iraq by Todd Purdom
    Times, 319 pp, US $25.00, November 2003, ISBN 0 8050 7562 3

Few Western journalists saw much of the war in Iraq. Some were corralled in US central command headquarters in Qatar and dependent on Brigadier-General Vincent Brooks’s daily news briefings, some were stuck in Baghdad hotels under the protective wing of Saddam’s information minister, Muhammad al-Sahhaf, some were embedded with the coalition forces: they were all in different ways in the dark. News organisations did their best to pull together their teams’ reports, but they delude themselves and their readers and viewers if they think they were reporting the full story.

What, for instance, happened to Saddam’s dreaded Republican Guard, all eighty thousand of them? We heard that they ‘melted away’, that their units were ‘severely degraded’ by allied air strikes. Yet few if any journalists met any members of the Republican Guard, saw them in action, saw them get killed, saw them get bombed, or saw them sneak away home. We don’t know who gave their commanding officers the orders that resulted in their troops being exposed to air attack in daylight, or how many of their officers were bribed by the Americans, or how many told their troops not to fight.

Western journalists witnessed a hundred or so air-raids on Baghdad. There were more than twenty thousand coalition air-strikes in total . That’s about a thousand a day, forty an hour, one every ninety seconds. According to the US Air Force, more than thirty thousand bombs and missiles and hundreds of thousands of rounds of machine-gun and cannon fire were directed at Iraqi targets. Where did these missiles fall? Who was killed, and who escaped? US Special Forces did much of the crucial fighting on the ground before the arrival of the main columns of American armour, which were carrying the TV crews and embedded journalists. What went on during this fighting? Virtually none of this was covered.

At one point during the war, the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London gathered together all the TV and newspaper reports of a single day’s fighting, and tried to figure out in military terms exactly what was happening. They couldn’t. This is proof of the success of the Pentagon and the MoD’s news management, but it’s hardly an endorsement of the coverage of the war.

In this respect what happened at al-Hilla is instructive. Al-Hilla is a city of just over half a million people, about fifty miles south of Baghdad. Many of its residents are poor, living with their families and animals in areas of tightly packed mud-brick houses and dirt streets. On the morning of 31 March last year, the neighbourhood of Nadir, about half a mile south of the city’s main hospital, was attacked by US forces with cluster munitions which sprayed thousands of bomblets (Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions with a steel fragmentation case and an armour-piercing charge inside). More than a hundred casualties were treated at the al-Hilla hospital and 38 Iraqis, including several children, were reported to have been killed. It was the first killing of a large number of civilians by coalition forces to be well substantiated, and the Iraqi Ministry of Information was quick to bus the world’s press out from Baghdad. ‘They said: "We throw clever bombs.” Is the cluster bomb clever? Does it differentiate between the soldiers and the women, girls, boys, children? It doesn’t differentiate. I feel angry. Very, very angry,’ Dr Saad al-Fallouji, the Glasgow-trained medical director of al-Hilla hospital, said. The incident led to renewed calls for cluster munitions to be banned. The next day, the war, and the news coverage, moved on.

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