The New York Times famously carried a front page story about Abu Ghraib virtually every day for a month back in 2004. While its obsession with Blackwater hasn’t quite reached those levels, it’s clear that as far as the Times is concerned, the private security company’s name has become the new byword for failure in Iraq.
Following yesterday’s story on the report prepared for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the Times today carries yet another new account of the shooting incident involving Blackwater contractors on September 16.
The Times now claims the incident began when, for no apparent reason, a Blackwater guard shot the driver of a car in a line of traffic close to an intersection that had been blocked to allow a Blackwater convoy carrying US officials to pass. According to the Times, with the driver incapacitated the car continued to roll towards the intersection, and “Blackwater guards responded with a barrage of gunfire and explosive weapons, leaving 17 dead and 24 wounded”.
Even if we accept that a Blackwater guard chose to shoot the driver of a car just for the hell of it, and that rather than crashing into the vehicle in front the car somehow managed to ‘roll’ towards the Blackwater team, there’s the question of that death toll, which started at eight, rose to 11 and now has become 17. Who’s to say the actual death toll isn’t five? Or seven?
And as the Times reports, several deaths apparently occurred in a separate, and previously unreported, incident at a different location. It’s odd that with Iraqi and US forces swarming over the scene in the aftermath of the shooting, and with several investigations being carried out, we’re only hearing of this new incident two weeks later.
Then there were the initial reports, seized on by the Times, of a dead mother cradling her dead baby in her arms. That ‘dead baby’ now appears to have been an adult. If witnesses can be ‘mistaken’ about something that clear-cut they can be mistaken about other things. Then again, ‘witnesses’ motivated by anger towards the US, and news ‘stringers’ with ties to political and militant groups, know that in Iraq, one dead infant is worth perhaps ten dead adults.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Times reported tomorrow that an entire ‘wedding party’ had been mown down in the incident. And isn't it funny that, as is so often the case in such incidents, one of the key witnesses just happens to be a 'lawyer', rather than, say, a kebab vendor or the local pickpocket – particularly given that the Times is forever telling us that most of Iraq's professional classes have fled the country.
Having breathlessly presented its preferred version of events, the Times later concedes that the role of Iraqi security forces (funny how you never hear those guys referred to as 'trigger-happy cowboys') in the incident has yet to be ascertained, and quotes a US official as cautioning that "important elements could still be missing from that account".
None of the above is to dispute that innocent civilians were killed, or to claim that Blackwater personnel didn’t act recklessly, and possibly illegally. If Blackwater employees are found to have used excessive force, or otherwise broken Iraqi or US law, then they should face justice. But we don’t know the full facts yet, and perhaps we never will.
The Times is fully aware of how hard it is to get to the truth in Iraq when reports from hospitals, the police, government officials and other contacts are unreliable at best, and distorted or manufactured for political reasons at worst. Far from building the case against Blackwater, the Times’ rash of conflicting, uncorroborated accounts, each more sensational than the last, demonstrates just how difficult it is to separate fact from fiction.
Unfortunately, for the Times and others on the anti-war left, this is about neither truth nor justice: it's about propaganda. The tide of political and public opinion has turned in recent months from calls for an immediate withdraw from Iraq to a growing realisation that progress is being made, and can only be sustained by keeping large numbers of troops there for a good while longer.
Abu Ghraib, which opponents of the war seized on at a time when support for the war, and for President Bush, was still strong, is over. Haditha hasn’t lived up to the hype. In the absence of a steady stream of bad news from Iraq, the Times and others are taking one tragic, chaotic incident, and from it weaving a narrative of politically-connected mercenary armies rampaging around the country slaughtering civilians.
But while the Times’ obsession with Blackwater is irritating, it’s also encouraging. Because as long as Blackwater remains on or close to its front pages, we can be confident that things are going pretty well in Iraq, and in the War on Terror.
Update: Of course, it's not just the Times – Ace tears the WaPo a new one here.