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Spinning the Bloodshed in Basra

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, March 27, 2008; 1:43 PM

As fighting rages in Basra, the White House is unleashing a forceful spin campaign to frame the Iraqi government's offensive there as a positive outcome of the U.S. troop surge and a symbol of better days to come.

Speaking to an invitation-only audience at an Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio, this morning, President Bush argued that the Basra incursion "shows the progress the Iraqi security forces have made during the surge" and "demonstrates to the Iraqi people that their government is committed to protecting them. . . .

"The enemy, you know, will try to fill the TV screens with violence," he scoffed. "But the ultimate result will be this: Terrorists and extremists in Iraq will know they have no place in a free and democratic society."

But is the bloodshed in Basra an example of a unified central government asserting itself and the Iraqi army standing up? Or is it further evidence of the internecine strife ravaging the country? Will Basra become a symbol of the restoration of the rule of law? Or will it turn out to be a step toward heightened violence?

There is plenty of reason to doubt the White House spin. Just look at what's happening on the ground, compare that to what the U.S. military is saying about it, and recall the administration's many previous statements of optimism about Iraq.

The Iraq Coverage

Sudarsan Raghavan and Sholnn Freeman write in The Washington Post: "As Shiite militiamen and Iraqi security forces battled for a second day in the southern city of Basra on Wednesday, with growing shortages of food, water and other basic necessities, . . . Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gave the militias 72 hours to lay down their weapons or face severe penalties. But there were no signs of surrender. Instead, his troops, backed in places by U.S. and British intelligence aircraft, began battling gunmen in other Shiite-dominated parts of Iraq as well. . . .

"Politicians and analysts said that the Basra offensive, which appears to focus on Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, is a risky gamble by Maliki. Failure could strengthen the militias, increase Iran's ability to influence events in Iraq and lead to more reliance on the United States to bolster the central government. . . .

"In Washington, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley told reporters that the Iraqi government's efforts against the militias were 'an indication of the continued maturation of this government in its willingness and capacity to take increasing responsibility for security.'

"But Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish legislator . . . said the timing could help Shiite militias and neighboring Iran ahead of next month's visit to Washington by Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, who will deliver to Congress a report card on Iraq's progress. 'People have ill-advised Maliki,' Othman said. 'The militias like the timing. Iran likes the timing. They want to show there's no progress in Iraq.'"

And in Basra itself, "besieged residents described growing deprivation. . . .

"'Nobody can move,' said Hassan Muhammad Jasim, an emergency aid worker who lives in the Jubaila neighborhood in central Basra. Since Tuesday night, he's lived with the sound of heavy gunfire.

"In one neighborhood, a 23-year-old man carrying food and clean water for his family was shot, witnesses said. People called an ambulance, but there was no response. He bled to death."

James Glanz writes in the New York Times: "An assault by thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police officers to regain control of the southern port city of Basra stalled Wednesday as Shiite militiamen in the Mahdi Army fought daylong hit-and-run battles and refused to withdraw from the neighborhoods that form their base of power there.

"American officials have presented the Iraqi Army's attempts to secure the port city as an example of its ability to carry out a major operation against the insurgency on its own. A failure there would be a serious embarrassment for the Iraqi government and for the army, as well as for American forces eager to demonstrate that the Iraqi units they have trained can fight effectively on their own.

"During a briefing in Baghdad on Wednesday, a British military official said that of the nearly 30,000 Iraqi security forces involved in the assault, almost 16,000 were Basra police forces, which have long been suspected of being infiltrated by the same militias the assault was intended to root out. . . .

"[I]f the Mahdi Army breaks completely with the cease-fire that has helped to tamp down attacks in Iraq during the past year, there is a risk of replaying 2004, when the militia fought intense battles with American forces that destabilized the entire country and ushered in years of escalating violence."

And Glanz notes: "Though American and Iraqi officials have insisted that the operation was not singling out a particular group, fighting appeared to focus on Mahdi-controlled neighborhoods. In fact, some witnesses said, neighborhoods controlled by rival political groups seemed to be giving government forces safe passage, as if they were helping them to strike at the Mahdi Army."

Leila Fadel writes for McClatchy Newspapers that the United States is "providing air cover and embedded advisers" for the offensive -- as well as upbeat assessments and misleading information about who is being targeted.

"Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner . . . said that the operation wasn't against the Mahdi Army, only against outlaws who didn't honor Sadr's freeze. . . .

"The situation on the ground suggested otherwise."

Time's Charles Crain calls the U.S. position on the Basra campaign "a charade" that "may end badly." He writes: "The U.S. military has been very careful to say that the current offensive by the Iraqi government in southern Iraq was simply 'enforcement of the law in Basra.' It was not directed against the Mahdi Army. . . . The U.S. maintained that line today even though it was clear that the 'criminal gangs' battling government forces in Basra were identifiable as elements of the Mahdi army."

And Crain raises an important question: "So far the U.S. has mostly stayed out of the fighting, preferring to let the Iraqi government and Iraqi troops take the lead. Bergner would not comment on whether the Americans would become involved more directly if the Iraqi government could not complete its Basra operation. 'I would say,' he said, 'that's a very hypothetical question at this time.'

"It is also the question of the hour. If the violence continues to intensify and the Iraqi government cannot finish what it started then the U.S. must choose whether to throw its troops into the fight. If that happens then the seven-month cease-fire, which was vital to the dramatic drop in violence late last year, will truly be over and a new round of blood-letting may be about to begin."

Alexandra Zavis and Peter Spiegel write in the Los Angeles Times: "Administration officials said the operation was an important sign that the Shiite-dominated Maliki government was finally willing to take the initiative against extremist elements within its own religious sect. . . .

"But some analysts warned against oversimplifying the rivalries within Iraq's majority Shiite Muslim community.

"'The current fighting is as much a power struggle for control of the south, and the Shiite parts of Baghdad and the rest of the country, as an effort to establish central government authority and legitimate rule,' military expert Anthony Cordesman said in an analysis for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies."

Darrin Mortenson writes for Time that "many Shi'ites are seeing this not just as an example of the Shi'ite Maliki taking on other Shi'ites (including Sadrists) but of America backing the Prime Minister up in a de facto Shi'a civil war. . . .

"If the U.S. decides to actively go after the Shi'ite forces in the south, it would mean reopening a southern front where American forces once fought some of the Iraq war's fiercest battles against Sadr but now have only a shadow presence. That would involve draining the concentration of surge troops around Baghdad and the Sunni triangle. It might even require more troop extensions or additional deployments to hold ground and maintain modest gains. Moving against the Shi'ite strongholds could then open opportunities for the Sunni fighters of al-Qaeda to strike Iraqi and U.S. targets in the Sunni triangle as the American heat turns south. . . .

"'[T]here has never been a real political settlement,' [Tufts University scholar Vali Nasr] said. 'No, the big battle for Iraq hasn't been fought yet. The future of Iraq has not been determined.' Nasr said the question now remains just how deep U.S. forces will get sucked into a Shi'ite civil war."

Jim Miklaszewski reported on the NBC Nightly News: "There's no question that this current fight in Basra is critical to both Iraq and the US, militarily and politically." He added that "military officials admit that any success there would be timed perfectly for General David Petraeus' Iraq status report that he'll deliver to Congress in two weeks."

Reason to Disbelieve

Particularly when it comes to Basra, we've been spun before.

Last February, when the British announced their pullout from the region and the beginning of their departure from Iraq, the move was hailed by the White House as -- you guessed it -- a sign of progress. Stephen Hadley called it "basically a good-news story." See my February 22, 2007 column, A Ludicrous Attempt at Spin.

Karen DeYoung and Thomas E. Ricks wrote in The Washington Post in August: "As British forces pull back from Basra in southern Iraq, Shiite militias there have escalated a violent battle against each other for political supremacy and control over oil resources, deepening concerns among some U.S. officials in Baghdad that elements of Iraq's Shiite-dominated national government will turn on one another once U.S. troops begin to draw down."

And yet, when the British officially transferred security responsibility in Basra Province to the Iraqis in December, Gen. Petraeus declared: "Iraqi Security Forces in Basra have been successfully operating independently, maintaining their own security for the past four months. Working with local government and military officials, they have demonstrated their readiness to assume responsibility for the provincial security. Today this responsibility is theirs.

"The transition of responsibility for security in Basra Province represents the most recent step toward a future of improved security, self-reliance and increasing prosperity that will benefit all Iraqi citizens."

The Speech

Here's some initial coverage of Bush's speech this morning, from The Washington Post's Peter Baker and Reuters's Andy Sullivan.

Bush's argument about political progress is a tough one to make, given how far Iraq is from many of the achievements he promised when he announced the surge more than a year ago. See, for background, my April 26 column, Keep Your Eye on the Benchmarks, and come back for more truth-squadding tomorrow.

Is Anyone Listening?

Peter Baker blogs for The Washington Post that Bush "no longer commands the stage the way he once did. John McCain's foreign policy address leads the news and the latest crossfire between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton is played out again and again on the evening talk shows. Bush, on the other hand, finds it increasingly difficult to get anyone to pay attention.

"So it goes in the eighth year of a presidency that, to judge by polls at least, has pretty well worn out its welcome. Bush is still the commander in chief fighting two wars. He is still working on important issues, such as Middle East peace. Next week, he heads to Europe for a summit that will likely expand NATO further into the Balkans and then he will visit Russia to try to calm fears of a new Cold War. Yet it often feels as if the energy has been drained from the White House while the venerable old mansion awaits its next tenant. . . .

"Many news organizations have diverted top correspondents and travel budgets away from the White House to the presidential campaign. Only three newspapers sent reporters with Bush here today, the wire services have cut back on their traveling complements and the main broadcast networks are here mainly protectively in case he does or says something surprising, which the ultra-disciplined Bush rarely does. . . .

"The White House has tried to arrange 'exclusive' interviews with high-profile correspondents and low-profile news outlets to keep the president out there."

At the Pentagon

Robert Burns writes for the Associated Press: "Behind the Pentagon's closed doors, U.S. military leaders told President Bush [on Wednesday] they are worried about the Iraq war's mounting strain on troops and their families. But they indicated they'd go along with a brief halt in pulling out troops this summer.

"The Joint Chiefs of Staff did say senior commanders in Iraq should make more frequent assessments of security conditions, an idea that appeared aimed at increasing pressure for more rapid troop reductions. . . .

"The Joint Chiefs are particularly concerned about Afghanistan and an increasingly active Taliban insurgency."

Bush made no statement after the visit.

Opinion Watch

The Louisville Courier-Journal editorial board writes: "Five years and 4,000 American deaths into the war, President Bush has run through pretty much every reason that Dick Cheney could give him for America's military presence in Iraq. None has made much sense.

"But Monday, in once again prattling on about his strategy of 'making sure that we achieve victory,' he invoked his weakest argument for fighting indefinitely: 'I will vow so long as I'm president to make sure that those lives were not lost in vain.'

"In other words, the President is fully willing to sacrifice more young Americans in an effort to achieve an after-the-fact justification for casualties in a conflict that was unnecessary."

And Cheney's various pronouncements during his recent trip to the Middle East continue to reverberate.

Helen Thomas writes in her Hearst Newspapers column: "Back in President Lyndon B. Johnson's worst days when he was grappling with the Vietnam quagmire and raucous anti-war protests at home, he said that in the big decisions about war and peace: 'The people should be in on the take offs as well as the landings.'

"Tell that to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, who apparently couldn't care less what Americans think - except every four years at election time."

Marie Cocco writes in her syndicated opinion column: "Many startling comments tumbled from the vice president's lips. His verbal jousting with ABC's Martha Raddatz over the recent National Intelligence Estimate conclusion that Iran had stopped trying to build a nuclear weapon around 2003 is one scary discussion. Examining this back-and-forth, you cannot help but conclude that Cheney does not put much stock in the NIE, and considers there to be little, if any, difference between the ongoing Iranian uranium enrichment program and a weapons program. It is all eerily reminiscent of the lack of distinction Cheney made between Saddam Hussein's regime and the band of Afghanistan-based terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. Of course, Cheney uses the interview to deliver the obligatory shake of his saber in Iran's direction: 'The president has made it clear that our objective is to make certain they do not acquire the capacity to produce nuclear weapons.'

"Cheney also declared that it didn't really matter that two-thirds of Americans think the Iraq war wasn't worth fighting--'So?' the vice president responded. After all, real leaders in a democracy don't give a hoot about what the people think and don't follow those cursed opinion polls. Given a second chance a few days later to elaborate on his point, Cheney likened President Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq with Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon."

Cocco calls that a "jarring, even contemptible analogy . . . The Nixon pardon was an entirely political decision, made for purely political reasons, and which cost Ford nothing but political support. No geopolitical catastrophe was set in motion when Ford decided that in order to govern, he had to remove the stain of Watergate from the front pages and the television screens.

"No historical hindsight is needed to see that, unlike in Iraq, no lives were lost or bodies shattered by the Watergate pardon. No families were ruined emotionally and financially. No civilians were forced to flee their own country, or to become refugees within it. No thousands of prisoners were incarcerated without hope of charge or trial, and none were tortured.

"Ford unquestionably had the power, as president, to pardon Nixon. No such right exists for Bush's unconstitutional overreaching in Iraq and in the larger war on terror."

The White House and the New York Times

In a fascinating excerpt on Slate from his upcoming book, "Bush's Law: The Remaking of American Justice," New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau writes about a December 2005 meeting with senior Bush aides who were adamant that the Times not break the story of the National Security Agency's wiretapping program.

"[T]he message was unmistakable: If the New York Times went ahead and published this story, we would share the blame for the next terrorist attack."

Lichtblau writes that the decision to publish the story anyway reflected "the media's shifting attitudes toward matters of national security--from believing the government to believing it less."

For quite a while after 9/11, he writes, the media was, well, terrified.

"After all, the fear and trauma that gripped the country in the months and years after 9/11 gripped the media, too; the country's outrage was our outrage. Coverage of 9/11 and its aftermath consumed all else for reporters in Washington. As federal officials scrambled to avert the much-feared 'second wave' of attacks, reporters likewise scrambled to follow any hint of the next possible attack and to put it on the front page--from scuba divers off the coast of Southern California to hazmat trucks in the Midwest and tourist helicopters in New York City. One example of the shift: On Sept. 12, 2001, another major newspaper was set to run a story on the extraordinary diplomatic maneuverings the U.S. Secret Service had arranged with their Mexican counterparts to allow Jenna Bush, then 19, to make a barhopping trip south of the border. (She had just been charged with underage drinking in Texas.) A few days earlier, a scoop about a presidential daughter's barhopping trip getting special dispensation from the Secret Service and a foreign government might have gotten heavy treatment. But the story never ran, and the Secret Service's maneuverings remained a secret until now."

Over time, things changed -- somewhat.

"By 2004, I had gained a reputation, deservedly or not, as one of the administration's toughest critics in the Justice Department press corps; the department even confiscated my press pass briefly after I wrote an unpopular story about the FBI's interest in collecting intelligence on anti-Iraq war demonstrations in the United States. To John Ashcroft and his aides, my coverage reflected a bias. To me, it reflected a healthy, essential skepticism--the kind that was missing from much of the media's early reporting after 9/11, both at home in the administration's war on terror and abroad in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

"That shared skepticism would prove essential in the Times' decision to run the story about Bush's NSA wiretapping program. On that December afternoon in the White House, the gathered officials attacked on several fronts. There was never any serious legal debate within the administration about the legality of the program, Bush's advisers insisted. The Justice Department had always signed off on its legality, as required by the president. The few lawmakers who were briefed on the program never voiced any concerns. From the beginning, there were tight controls in place to guard against abuse. The program would be rendered so ineffective if disclosed that it would have to be shut down immediately.

"All these assertions," Lichtblau writes, were "largely untrue."

But recall that in the fall of 2004 -- during Bush's re-election campaign! -- administration officials had succeeded in persuading the Times not to run the story. The Times only changed its mind after Lichtblau's colleague James Risen decided he would write about it in a book. Lichtblau also notes that additional reporting "brought into sharper focus what had already started to become clear a year earlier: The concerns about the program -- in both its legal underpinnings and its operations -- reached the highest levels of the Bush administration. There were deep concerns within the administration that the president had authorized what amounted to an illegal usurpation of power. The image of a united front we'd been presented a year earlier in meetings with the administration--with unflinching support for the program and its legality--was largely a fa┬┐ade. The administration, it seemed clear to me, had lied to us."

Lichtblau writes that word that the White House "had considered seeking a Pentagon Papers-type injunction to block publication of the story" led editors to "post it on the Internet the night before. . . . The administration might be able to stop the presses with an injunction, but they couldn't stop the Internet."

Tibet Watch

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush sharply confronted China's President Hu Jintao on Wednesday about Beijing's harsh crackdown in Tibet, joining an international chorus of alarm just months before the U.S. and the rest of the world parade to China for the Olympics."

Steven Lee Myers and Katrin Bennhold write in the New York Times: "In a statement, the White House said that Mr. Bush, in his telephone conversation with Mr. Hu, had urged that diplomats and journalists be allowed access to the region. . . .

"Mr. Bush's national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, later said that the president had 'pushed very hard' on Tibet, urging restraint and a renewed effort to address Tibetan grievances."

Karl Malakunas reports for AFP from Beijing: ""No talks were possible until the Dalai Lama gave up his independence push for Tibet and stopped 'fanning and masterminding' the ongoing Tibetan unrest, Hu told Bush, according to a Chinese foreign ministry statement.

"'Especially (the Dalai Lama) must stop . . . activities to sabotage the Beijing Olympic Games,' Hu said."

Barry Schweid writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush is using the prestige of his office on behalf of Tibetan protesters, but his direct appeal to Chinese President Hu Jintao lacks a trump card.

"Through a White House spokeswoman last week, Bush made plain he would attend the Olympic Games in August in Beijing, the crackdown on Tibetan protesters aside."

A Visit With Putin

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush announced yesterday that he will make an unexpected trip to Russia after a NATO summit next week to meet with President Vladimir Putin in hopes of repairing relations that have grown strained over missile defense, Kosovo independence and NATO expansion.

"The decision surprised even some key U.S. officials and set both governments scrambling to accommodate the last-minute visit and put together an agreement to justify it. . . .

"'I'm optimistic we can reach accord on very important matters,' Bush told a group of foreign journalists at the White House. 'I think a lot of people in Europe would have a deep sigh of relief if we're able to reach an accord on missile defense. And hopefully we can.'

"Wary White House advisers later tried to douse expectations that such an accord will necessarily be reached during the trip but expressed cautious optimism that the two sides can defuse the tension that has divided them for months. . . .

"The visit may also smooth what could otherwise be a tense moment next week when Bush travels to Bucharest, Romania, for a NATO summit. The alliance is poised to admit three new members -- Croatia, Albania and Macedonia -- but Bush wants it also to offer road maps to eventual membership for two former Soviet republics, Ukraine and Georgia. . . .

"The idea has infuriated Moscow, which sees Ukraine and Georgia as historically in its orbit, and Putin threatened to aim missiles at them if they join NATO."

Cheerleading Watch

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush said Wednesday the sagging economy will 'come out stronger than ever before' with the help of tax rebates from the recently enacted economic stimulus package. . . .

"The administration says that although the economy has slowed, it will be revived when millions of Americans begin receiving tax rebate checks in the second week of May.

"'A lot of folks are going to be getting a sizable check,' the president said. 'I'm looking forward to that day and I know they are as well.'"

Gerson on Obama

Hannah Strange writes in the Times of London: "A former senior aide to President Bush today hailed Barack Obama is an 'extraordinary political talent' who would make a tougher opponent for John McCain than Hillary Clinton.

"In a remarkably frank interview with Daniel Finkelstein, Comment Editor of The Times, Michael Gerson said Obama's ascent to the White House would be 'one of the great culminating moments in American history'."

Cartoon Watch

Bill Mitchell on filling Bush's shoes; Ann Telnaes on mission accomplished; Jim Morin on Cheney's "So?"

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