Thursday, March 15, 2007

You're not supposed to snort Sticky Bumps

The Pentagon yesterday released its bleakest assessment of Iraq yet, reporting record levels of violence and hardening sectarian divisions in the last quarter of 2006 as rival Sunni and Shiite militias waged campaigns of "sectarian cleansing" that forced as many as 9,000 civilians to flee the country each month.
Weekly attacks in Iraq rose to more than 1,000 during the period and average daily casualties increased to more than 140, with Iraqi civilians bearing the brunt of the violence -- nearly 100 killed or wounded a day, according to statistics in the Pentagon's latest congressionally required quarterly report on security in Iraq.

Those figures may represent as little as half of the true casualties because they include only violence observed by or reported to the U.S.-led military coalition, the report acknowledged. It cited a United Nations estimate, based on hospital reports, that more than 6,000 Iraqi civilians were killed or wounded in December alone.

The above, noted by Martha, is from Ann Scott Tyson's "Pentagon Issues Dire Look At End of '06 in Iraq" (Washington Post) and especially pay attention to the last paragraph above. Why?
Because the waves of Operation Happy Talk never stop. In fact, you've got a lot of surfers, but not a whole lot of reporters. Take McClatchy Newspapers' duo who seems to have gotten high on Sticky Bumps or maybe they're just so eager to catch that wave that they forgot they were reporters.

As the Pentagon report comes out -- which could fall under 'bad news' -- good tidings are sloshing all around as 'reporter' after 'reporter' rushes to tell you that Baghdad's 'improved' and 'better' and the 'crackdown' has worked.

But let's give credit where it's due and note Damien Cave's "Baghdad Violence Declines in Security Push, Iraq Says" (New York Times):

With the first full month of the Baghdad security plan completed, the Iraqi military announced Wednesday that the level of violence in the capital had decreased substantially. But the degree of improvement was unclear, partly because of the continued confusion over casualty counts here, and an American general cautioned against reading too much into optimistic reports, given that January and February were two of the worst months for car bombings since the invasion.
The Iraqi review came from Brig. Qassim al-Moussawi, a military spokesman, who said at a news conference that civilian deaths since the start of the plan on Feb. 14 were counted at 265 in Baghdad, down from 1,440 in the four weeks before. He said 36 car bombings struck the capital over the past four weeks, down from 56.
[. . .]
It was not clear what his statistics were based on, though, and they may not have taken into account the bodies found strewn around the capital each day. An analysis by The New York Times found more than 450 Iraqi civilians killed or found dead during the same 28-day period, based on initial daily reports from Interior Ministry and hospital officials.

Now that last sentence doesn't pop up elsewhere. Not in any form. No news outlet offers it (either noting the Times or their own paper). So credit Cave with reporting while everyone else is in a rush to hang ten.

But there are a few other issues at play as well.

There is John McCain's point from August, when he objected to one version of the crackdown, noting it was nothing but whack-a-mole. (McCain is for more sending more troops to Iraq -- to be clear for any visitor who stumbles past confused. This community is opposed to that.) His point was that these service members get pulled and poured into Baghdad and you see a bit of a decline in Baghdad while violence increases elsewhere.

That actually factors into the second point as well which has to do with the press. The Iraq reporting has fallen. We mentioned McClatchy earlier, there daily roundup of violence? Was it a week this month that they dropped it? Reuters, famous for their Factbox of developments, now lags behind usually issuing updates the next day on what CNN or another outlet has reported in terms of corpses discovered in Baghdad. Did everyone go on an extended spring break?

It's also true that Baghdad was always the area with the most coverage. The areas outside of Baghdad have always been covered (and accounted for) less well. So it's really amazing that, as the reporting has fallen, some want to tell you that the crackdown is a success.

What often happens is a bunch of articles, from various outlets, noting a drop in corpses (for Baghdad) and the reality is the next day the corpse count comes in for the previous day and it wasn't as low. "Only five corpses discovered!" becomes twelve or fifteen or seventeen. So, if you pay attention, this idea that that the crackdown is a success really doesn't bear out.

The Sadr militia, it's generally agreed, has gone into a hide and hold pattern (which was expected -- and the expectation was reported -- ahead of the latest crackdown version). So where is the success to be found? When even the Pentagon (see excerpt at the top) is noting the problem with figures, where is the success?

Judging by reports, it's coming from the Iraqi military which the puppet, Nouri al-Maliki, is in nominal control of. And what was the big story there yesterday? That he's worried he's on the way out. That Allawi is attempting a comeback. al-Maliki's already clamped down on what ministries can report. All of which would seem to give reporters pause when they hear claims but, if you read the reporting, most of them are more than happy to present claims as facts and rush on to whatever else they have to do.

Each juiced up crackdown is going to see some sort of a drop in violence, War Hawk McCain can (and did) point that out. But the drop being gushed over by some of the press just isn't there.
Take yesterday's number of corpses discovered in Baghdad. Reuters yesterday had none. Today they tell you it was 16. This is happening over and over. (McClatchy reported the 16 corpses discovered Wednesday -- reported it on Wednesday.)

How effective is the crackdown? That's really up in the air when the reporting is in decline. It appears (from daily reporting) that all the troops poured into Baghdad, combined with the Sadr milita's pulling back, has resulted in (possibly) the daily violence in Baghdad being cut in half while it's increased outside of Baghdad. That's not really news or a surprise. It's exactly what John McCain was addressing back in August. Note this from Reuters on the Pentagon report:

There were an average of 1,047 attacks per week on U.S-led forces and Iraqi soldiers, police and civilians in January and early February, according to statistics released with the report.
That figure compared to an average 904 attacks per week from late May 2006 to the end of the year.

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