Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Was there a massacre of innocents in Najaf?

Posted by metaphorical on 5 February 2007

Journalists can handle ambiguity, but we don’t do well with uncertainty and vagueness. Case in point: we don’t know what happened in Najaf the other day, so we’re just not writing about it very much in the U.S., and when we do, we’re not doing so very thoughtfully.

The Asia Times is reporting a “massacre”:

Pilgrims massacred in the ‘battle’ of Najaf

By Dahr Jamail and Ali al-Fadhily

NAJAF, Iraq – Iraqi government statements over the killing of hundreds of Shi’ites in an attack on Sunday stand exposed by independent investigations carried out by Inter Press Service (IPS).

Conflicting reports had arisen on how and why a huge battle broke out around the small village of Zarqa, just a few kilometers northeast of the Shi’ite holy city Najaf, which is 90km south of Baghdad.

One thing certain is that when the smoke cleared, more than 200 people lay dead after more than half a day of fighting on Sunday. A US helicopter was shot down, killing two soldiers. Twenty-five members of the Iraqi security forces were also killed.

Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now coverage uses the “massacre” word, but with a question mark: “Battle in Najaf: Is US-Iraqi Claim of Gunfight with Messianic Cult Cover-up for a Massacre?” The show did an extended report last week, which you can take in via video, audio, or transcript, but it doesn’t have anything much more conclusive than the lede:

There are new doubts about the US and Iraqi claim that the hundreds of people killed in a battle in Najaf over the weekend were members of a messianic cult. Journalist Patrick Cockburn of the London Independent reports the official story might actually be a cover-up for a massacre.

The general idea is this: the official story is that a religous cult attacked an Army checkpoint, and the Army fought back.

Cockburn says the “cult” was a group of pilgrims and may have gotten itself involved by accident:

there are allegations flying backwards and forwards at the moment, but there’s no real evidence for this. I mean, the commonsense explanation, the explanation that, as some people there give, is that there was a tribe called the Al-Hawatim, who were going on pilgrimage — this is a great Shia ritual this week, the Ashura — and about 200 of them were walking, which is very common in Iraq. Over this last week, millions of people have been walking the roads on pilgrimage. And they got mixed up in this battle. Their tribal leader was ill. He and his wife were in a car. When they came to a checkpoint, the soldiers at checkpoint opened fire, killed them both. And then the other tribesmen attacked the checkpoint. It seems to me likely that the pilgrims got involved in a battle that was already going on between the government of Najaf and this sect, which they much disliked, which had a camp just outside Najaf.

The one thing that does seem certain is that the response by the U.S. military was huge.

One of the really amazing things about it is that this is one of the greatest uses of US air power for two-and-a-half years since the battle for Fallujah, and we don’t quite know who was under attack, although some 300 people were killed. It appears that there was a battle there with a sect that was disliked by the local government in Najaf, but also that a tribe, pilgrims who were marching through the area, also came under attack and suffered heavy losses. All in all, it’s a very confused situation.

The air strike was huge, but was it disproportionate? Who knows. We do know that what little Western reporting there has been has largely not gone beyond the official statements of the Iraqi and U.S. government. And those accounts don’t entirely make sense. For example, the AP story says:

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraqi officials said today that U.S.-backed Iraqi troops had targeted a messianic cult called “Soldiers of Heaven” in a weekend battle that left 200 fighters dead, including the group’s leader, near the Shiite holy city of Najaf. A military commander said hundreds of gunmen planned to disguise themselves as pilgrims and kill clerics on the holiest day of the Shiite calendar.

The “hundreds of gunmen” apparently included wives and children, though you won’t find mention of them in the AP account. The Chicago Tribune—whose story was written by a “foreign correspondent” apparently located in the U.S., based on reports provided by someone based in in Najaf—mentions the women and children, but still calls the group a “cult” and “apparently well-armed zealots.” If you accept those words at face value, then you’re pretty much stuck with accepting the official accounts.

The Tribune reports that, according to military accounts, “F-16 warplanes were called in to support Iraqi security forces battling the militants among orchards of date palms, pounding the area with 500-pound bombs.” The cynical view, as expressed by the Daily Kos, is that “we are assisting the Iraqi army in the massacre of the Iraqi people.”

Scanlyze has compiled a good page linking to what coverage there has been, including links to the Daily Kos, which has some additional ones.

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