Apr
04
2003

Media Should Follow Up on Civilian Deaths

Journalist's evidence that U.S. bombed market ignored by U.S. press

In two separate incidents last week, dozens of Iraqis were killed by what eyewitness survivors claim were U.S. airstrikes. U.S. officials, however, offered a range of denials and evasions about what may have caused the explosions. Despite evidence uncovered by one British newspaper about the second (and more deadly) of the incidents, however, most U.S. media outlets have allowed the story to end with the official denials.

On March 28, in an open-air market in the Shuala section of Baghdad, over 60 people were reportedly killed in what seemed to be a missile attack-- the Los Angeles Times (3/29/03), for example, reported matter-of-factly that "a missile slammed into a crowded market area." But as with an earlier explosion on March 26, the New York Times' John F. Burns reported (3/29/03) that "it was impossible to determine the cause," adding that "a Central Command spokesman in Qatar said Friday night that the United States could not tell what caused the bombing on Friday." Burns suggested that these incidents "threaten to become yet another major problem for the Bush administration." The PR angle was also highlighted on the CBS Evening News after the earlier explosion (3/26/03), with anchor Dan Rather noting that "scenes of civilian carnage in Baghdad, however they happened and whoever caused them, today quickly became part of a propaganda war, the very thing U.S. military planners have tried to avoid." (Of course, the extensive preparations the Pentagon made for communicating to the press before the war indicate that it was not hoping to "avoid" a propaganda war-- but to win one.)

While one might hope that reporters would be interested in uncovering the cause of more than 60 civilian deaths, U.S. media have so far made little effort to investigate the Shuala incident. One British reporter on the scene, however, found evidence that appears to shed light on the origin of the devastation.

On March 30, Robert Fisk reported in the London Independent that what appeared to be a missile fragment was found on the scene of the explosion-- and that it bore a visible serial number, which Fisk published. In a follow-up report on April 2, the Independent's Cahal Milmo reported that the serial number could be traced back to the Raytheon Corporation, and that the weapon was "thought to be either a HARM anti-radar missile or a Paveway laser-guided bomb." The Independent continues: "The American military has confirmed that a navy EA-6B 'Prowler' jet, based on the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk, was in action over the Iraqi capital on Friday and fired at least one HARM missile to protect two American fighters from a surface-to-air missile battery."

Some media accounts have pointed to the relatively small crater created by the explosion at Shuala as an indication that a U.S. cruise missile was not responsible. But cruise missiles are not the only weapons being launched from U.S. planes in Iraq. The Independent reported that, according to experts, "the damage caused at Shuala was consistent with that of Paveway or, more probably, a HARM weapon," which are smaller than cruise missiles.

So far, according to a search of the Nexis database, no major U.S. news outlet has picked up this new information; instead, reporters have continued to relay U.S. officials' denials of any knowledge about the Shuala blast. The New York Times' Burns (4/4/03) questioned why the Iraqis have not been able to explain the incident: "Often, as in Shuala, officials have delayed taking reporters to the site for hours, and have met with evasions the inquiries about the unusually small crater at the marketplace, and the fact that most victims appeared to have died from shrapnel wounds and not from the kind of blast associated with high-energy bombs and missiles."

On NPR's Talk of the Nation (4/2/03), the question of civilian casualties was discussed by host Neal Conan with guests Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution and retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson. In response to a caller's question, Conan explained that U.S. military officials still could not find any evidence that the first bombing was caused by a U.S. weapon.

O'Hanlon then explained that an investigation into these cases would involve answering three questions: verifying where you were shooting, and tracking "how many of the bombs or cruise missiles that you fired reached their proper targets"; looking for bomb fragments; and, finally, judging the size of the crater left by the explosion, "whether it's consistent with the size of the explosive charge that was on the warhead in question, possibly even the shape of the crater and things like that."

Interestingly, the report in the Independent provides what could be answers to all of those questions. But Conan summed up the matter this way: "There were other attacks, though, and as so far, the investigations by the U.S. military... are not complete, and again, as Michael O'Hanlon knows, it may be some time, if ever, before we actually know what happened there."

NPR's listeners might have been interested to know that more information was available-- even though it wasn't part of an investigation by the U.S. military.

ACTION: Encourage NPR's Talk of the Nation and the New York Times to continue to investigate what caused the March 28 explosion in Baghdad that killed dozens of Iraqi civilians. You might suggest that they interview reporters from the Independent who have pursued the story.

CONTACT: NPR Talk of the Nation totn@npr.org

If you're a regular listener to the show, you might try calling in live to Talk of the Nation at 800-989 8255.

New York Times nytnews@nytimes.com

To read the Independent's account, go to: http://www.robert-fisk.com/articles199.htm