It would be big news if it turned out that the US was working with one of its sworn enemies to fight another in Iraq. A reporter for the AP reported such a development earlier this week in Baghdad. Unfortunately for her, the story turned out to be wrong. She has corrected it, but the correction makes little or no difference because of the way the media works these days. Allow me to explain.

You may remember this post back on May 7. It’s about an AP story that characterizes the US military as condoning militia activity, specifically security operations by elements of the Mahdi Army, to protect a Shia shrine in Baghdad. Here’s part of how the story read as originally published:

In Kazimiyah, a densely packed neighborhood of wooden shops and cheap hotels for Shiite pilgrims, the Americans and their Iraqi partners have opted for militia help to protect the shimmering, blue-domed shrine.

With tacit American approval, plainclothes militiamen loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr set up impromptu checkpoints and patrol alleys near the mosque day and night.

This development cuts to the heart of a dilemma for the US military three months into the campaign to pacify Baghdad: whether to risk fierce battles by confronting Shiite militiamen blamed for massacring Sunnis or to deal with ”moderates” in the Mahdi Army – which the US believes receives weapons and training from Iran…

Without the militia, US and Iraqi officers acknowledge that the 2,000 Iraqi security forces and 500 American soldiers based in the area would be hard-pressed to protect the neighborhood’s 120,000 residents and the shrine, which houses the tombs of two eight century Shiite imams.

US commanders have chosen to use the Mahdi security network already in place rather than divert resources from other parts of the city where security is worse.

”There are a lot of people affiliated with JAM, and if we made them all enemies, we’d be in trouble. So we try to sort out who’s extremist JAM and can’t be reasoned with because of their ideology, and who we can live with as long as they’re not killing US and Iraqi soldiers or civilians,” said Lt Col Steve Miska who commands US troops in northwest Baghdad.

The phrase “with tacit American approval” is key here. When I read the story back on the 7th, that phrase rang all sorts of alarm bells in my brain. Kazimiyah is also known as Khadimiyah, which may be familiar to you from the Hot Air trip to Baghdad. That’s the part of Baghdad that we visited. We walked the streets there. We saw (in the distance) the shrine that this story references. And the soldier quoted, Lt Col Steve Miska, is the commander of Task Force Justice at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Justice in northwest Baghdad. He was the commander of FOB Justice when Michelle and I visited Baghdad back in January. You see and hear him in our video about a foot patrol in Khadimiyah.

Lt Col Miska is a very impressive soldier. He briefed us the night we arrived at Justice and laid out counterinsurgency theory and strategy months before Gen. Petraeus became the commander of MNF-I and brought his considerable talents in the same field to bear on the battle. Miska knows his stuff. And I know that the Mahdi Army hasn’t won his “tacit approval” and never will. But I also know that he tolerates — because the reality of the battlefield dictates it — elements of the Mahdi Army even while fighting other elements of it. He understands that the JAM isn’t a monolithic force of goons loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, but that there are fissures and faults within JAM because many of its members joined up for non-ideological reasons. They needed money. They wanted to fight crime. And so forth. Part of the US strategy in Khadimiyah has been to drive a wedge between the less radical elements of JAM and the hard core Sadrists, to weaken Sadr and bring the non-radicals into the political and civil process. To do that, you have to know who’s who and who can be tolerated and who can’t. And sometimes there is no way to learn who’s who but to just tolerate some and find out. But toleration is not approval, tacit or otherwise.

So after reading that story, Michelle and I discussed it a little bit and I emailed the Lt Col to get his thoughts on it. He replied that he was working with the AP reporter, Lauren Frayer, to get it corrected and get the “tacit approval” part removed and some other things clarified. I offered space here to rebut or clarify the report if Lt Col Miska saw the need, but he declined, preferring to work with the AP to get the story corrected. That made perfect sense to me, but I offered to stand by in case the AP didn’t step up.

A day and then another go by and then the AP corrects the story. Meanwhile, the original had been picked up in newspapers all over the world, and potentially millions of readers now had the erroneous idea that MNF-I had given “tacit approval” to the Sadrists in Khadimiyah. The correction gets picked up almost nowhere, though you can now read it at the original link — here. “Tacit approval” is nowhere to be seen, and neither is any hint that the AP’s story has been changed at all. The new version captures much more of the nuance at work in Khadimiyah and even of the fissures within JAM. Altogether it’s still an imperfect account, as it would have to be given its length relative to the amount of space needed to clearly convey all of the detail that’s necessary to understand the story, it’s much better than the original. But hardly anyone will read the new version. Newspapers are unlikely to pick it up. The AP hasn’t to my knowledge run any kind of correction notice. It carries the same headline and the May 7 date, so it looks like the same old story it always was. It’s just been airbrushed by a ghost.

Understandably, this outcome wasn’t what Lt Col Miska was seeking. It didn’t fix the problem that the original story may have created, which is a misperception that the US Army is now tacitly approving the Mahdi Army when it isn’t. So Lt Col Miska wrote a letter to the editor of the LA Times, which ran the original story but not the correction, and he has given me permission to print his letter here:

Task Force Justice
2nd BCT, 1st Infantry Division
APO AE 09344

9 May 2007

Dear Editor,

This letter is a response from Task Force Justice, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division to an article written and subsequently modified by Lauren Frayer of the Associated Press. Ms. Frayer embedded with Task Force Justice from May 2nd to May 6th. The original article, US allows Mahdi Army security role, was released by Associated Press on May 7. That evening, Lt. Col. Steve Miska, Task Force Commander called Ms. Frayer to discuss some disagreements he had with the article. The basic disagreement stemmed from an inaccurate characterization of condoned US policy to include the militia as part of the security plan. No US leaders condone the militia activity. We recognize the delicate realities of the militia vicinity the Shrine, and we are cautious not to further inflame religious and political sensitivity surrounding the Shrine.

Temporarily accepting an intractable reality is distinctly different from actively condoning the militia as part of US policy. Thus, phrases like “with tacit American approval,” inaccurately describe the US policy with respect to the militia. The militia in Khadamiyah have undermined the rule of law and legitimacy of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). They have been conducting extortion and infiltrated the ISF formations so that the good soldiers and leaders cannot stand up to the militia without having their families threatened or themselves targeted. Usually the targeting occurs when soldiers get off duty or take vacations, since the majority of militia members are uneducated and untrained military aged males. They threaten anyone who makes a stand against them.

Ms. Frayer agreed to change the article to reflect a more accurate account of the situation. Within a couple of hours of their phone conversation, Ms. Frayer emailed her altered article, Security found from unlikely source, which she submitted to her editors at AP. Her revised version of the article was updated on Yahoo.com although the original version got released to mainstream media organizations including the Washington Times and the LA Times. The original version inaccurately describes the security situation with respect to coalition force leaders and our actions to undermine the militia influence.

Attached are two articles: the original and Ms. Frayer’s revision, which did not make most of the media outlets.

Please send comments to the undersigned at [email protected] or to CPT Cassidy Eaves, TF Justice Public Affairs Officer at [email protected]

Respectfully,

Steven M. Miska
Lieutenant Colonel, Infantry
Task Force Justice Commander

We’re happy to provide the space to correct and clarify the record, but it’s a shame that it has to be done. Lt Col Miska and all of the MNF-I forces in Iraq are dealing with the most complex battlespace in US history. But he has to spend valuable time getting a correction to a story that, unfortunately, very few will see even though millions probably saw the erroneous original story. But leaving the original story as is is unacceptable, because it will over time lead to the public’s further misunderstanding of the war. Lt Col Miska’s letter says it all: The initial AP report’s inaccuracies led to erroneous perceptions of the war and of his strategy in prosecuting it, but while the correction is a substantial improvement, it will make little or no difference because hardly anyone will ever see it or know that the original story has been corrected.

This problem is at the heart of why it’s vital that wire services and major outlets get their facts straight the first time. The first report, whether it’s true or not, might get picked up by thousands of outlets worldwide. You can probably count the number of outlets who ran and acknowledged the correction on one hand. The AP itself didn’t even acknowledge the correction on its own story. This is how a world misunderstands a war, one reporter’s error at a time.