Accuracy in Media

Suicide bombers attacked crowds of Shiite pilgrims at two holy sites in Iraq on Ashura, the holiest day in the Shia Muslim calendar. Ironically, this year’s celebration was the first to permit pilgrimages to Shiite holy sites, which had been banned by Saddam Hussein. Authorities reported that additional suicide attacks had been thwarted in Basra and Kirkuk.

U.S. and Iraqi officials said the attacks were intended to provoke sectarian warfare in Iraq and seemed to be following a blueprint developed by Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. Last month, U.S. officials released a letter written by al-Zarqawi that described his strategy for preventing the spread of democracy in Iraq. He wrote of “targeting and hitting” Shiite religious, political, and military targets in hopes of “dragging them into the arena of sectarian warfare.”

In Baghdad after the attacks, a coalition official told reporters “you cannot ignore the significance of his letter when you consider how clearly it lays out a plan and then you see that plan being executed.” For the most part, however, the mainstream media has done exactly that?ignored the letter altogether or minimized its significance. Writing about the attacks for the Chicago Tribune, for example, Christine Spolar charged, “The memo’s credibility is still in question.” In its coverage, CNN interviewed an “expert” on the Middle East who made no reference to the letter in his “analysis” of root causes of the bombings.

Among the national media, only the Washington Post has devoted much attention to the contents of the al-Zarqawi letter. The day after the attacks, Post staff writer Walter Pincus included a number of quotes from the letter in an article about al-Zarqawi. Pincus is among the few journalists thus far to report that the letter depicts al-Zarqawi’s “plans for the next three months and hints about his broader long-range plans.” Pincus did find another academic expert, this one from the University of Michigan, to dispute coalition officials’ assessment that the al-Zarqawi letter is an “expression of desperation.”

On his Internet website, Professor of History Juan R.I. Cole also wrote that it is “far too simplistic to blame all such violence in Iraq on outside forces and al-Qaeda.” Cole was replaying another theme emerging in the media’s coverage of Iraq. Writing in the Los Angeles Times recently, two staff writers set out to debunk what they claim is the “widely held view that Iraq’s suicide bombers are exclusively foreign jihadists.”

In Baghdad, coalition spokesmen have tried to explain why they think suicide-bombing attacks like those against the Shia are not the work of “local Iraqis or former regime elements.” General Mark Kimmett has repeatedly told reporters that suicide attacks in Iraq share common characteristics with al-Qaeda attacks worldwide. In his letter, al-Zarqawi complained about the reluctance of the “Iraqi brothers” to participate in suicide-bombing attacks. Reports after the attacks indicate that several would-be suicide bombers were captured. Four are reported to be Farsi speakers and one a Yemeni.

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