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More myths, misconceptions and unanswered questions about the war in Iraq

by Brendan Nyhan and Bryan Keefer Saturday, May. 31, 2003 at 6:55 AM

In the wake of the war in Iraq, a number of questions have arisen about events during the war and Iraq's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction and ties to Al Qaeda. As in our earlier columns about the Iraq debate, this article is intended to deal only with claims that have been addressed definitively or near-definitively in the public record. It is our hope that this column will serve to clarify some of the key issues being debated in the aftermath of the war and correct some of the most pervasive myths in circulation.

May 28, 2003

In the wake of the war in Iraq, a number of questions have arisen about events during the war and Iraq's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction and ties to Al Qaeda. As in our earlier columns about the Iraq debate, this article is intended to deal only with claims that have been addressed definitively or near-definitively in the public record. It is our hope that this column will serve to clarify some of the key issues being debated in the aftermath of the war and correct some of the most pervasive myths in circulation.

Have weapons of mass destruction been found in Iraq?

To date, no weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) have been found. During and after the war, there were a number of highly publicized reports of WMD finds, such as this April 2 report in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune on the possible presence of chemical and biological weapons and this April 11 Fox News report on a discovery of possible weapons-grade plutonium. All have proven false or inconclusive, however (and usually receive far less attention when disproved).

On April 24, President Bush suggested for the first time that Saddam Hussein may have destroyed the WMDs Bush alleges he possessed before the war. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld offered the same suggestion yesterday for the first time during an appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The administration has claimed that two trailers it has found in Iraq were mobile laboratories used to produce biological weapons, but, as the New York Times reported, experts reached this conclusion by ruling out other possible uses of the trucks rather than finding direct evidence of biological weapons or the production of them.

Nonetheless, the White House has seized on these findings to support its claims about Iraq's WMD programs before the war. Last week, White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan cited the labs in response to criticism from Senator Robert Byrd, D-WV, and Reuters reported yesterday that Rumsfeld echoed these allegations at the Council for Foreign Relations.

Has evidence of links between Saddam Hussein's regime and Al Qaeda been found in Iraq?

So far, there are tentative indications of contacts between Saddam's regime and representatives of Osama Bin Laden, but no conclusive documentation of direct, high-level Iraqi support of Al Qaeda has been produced. Senior American intelligence officials told the New York Times that "they have not yet found any new and conclusive evidence inside Iraq of connections between Mr. Hussein's government and Al Qaeda." The best evidence of a connection now appears to be a three-page document recovered in the Baghdad headquarters of the Mukhabarat, part of the Iraqi intelligence service. The handwritten memo describes an envoy from Osama Bin Laden who reportedly visited Iraq in March of 1998 and stayed about two weeks as a guest of the Iraqi government.

US officials have also suggested that Farouk Hijazi, an Iraqi intelligence official captured in late April, had meetings with Al Qaeda operatives and possibly Bin Laden himself in Sudan in the early 1990s and in Afghanistan in 1998. Hijazi has reportedly denied that such contacts occurred.

Previous allegations of contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda have not been definitely proven. Nor has it been demonstrated, as we pointed out in a previous column, that Ansar Al-Islam, a extremist group based in Kurdish-controlled Iraq with alleged links to Al Qaeda, had any connection to Saddam Hussein. And contrary to reports during the war, there is no definite evidence that Al Qaeda formally linked up with the Fedayeen Saddam, paramilitaries who attacked allied troops while dressed in civilian clothing (though it is possible that some Al Qaeda members were involved in tactical battlefield alliances).

Finally, earlier this month, a federal judge in New York awarded 8 million in damages against Iraq to two families of people killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, ruling that Iraq had provided "material support" to Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden. However, the judge, Harold Baer only heard what the Washington Post called "hearsay evidence and uncontradicted 'opinion testimony' from one side" in an editorial. In addition, he was careful in his findings, writing that "plaintiffs have shown, albeit barely ... that Iraq provided material support to Bin Laden and Al Qaeda" and that his "decision reflects no more than that the facts and the available inferences meet the plaintiff's burden of proof."

Were thousands of items looted from the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad?

While initial reports indicated that most or all of the 170,000 items in the museum's collection had been stolen, it now appears that the scale of looting was considerably smaller. According to a report in the Daily Telegraph (UK), museum officials hid most of the museum's collection before the war, and the number of objects stolen "was in the low thousands, and possibly hundreds" (a full cataloging of the museum's collection is still ongoing). By contrast, as recently as April 29, the Associated Press reported that estimates of the number of artifacts lost ranged "from 170,000 artifacts (by the highest estimates) to 50,000 (by the lowest)." A few artifacts have also been returned by Iraqis. Among the items still missing, however, are 33 objects of major archeological significance, which will probably end up in private collections. Despite the more limited scope of the looting, however, the Telegraph states that it still amounts to "one of the biggest art thefts ever."

Early reports likely overstated the museum's losses for a number of reasons, according to the Telegraph. Reporters, seeing the museum empty after the American takeover, may have assumed that the entire collection was taken. Museum officials were also reluctant to speak to the media to clarify what had been taken, perhaps because there have been reports that the theft may have been planned with the collaboration of museum employees.

Where did the American flag come from that was placed on the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad?

It was widely reported that the flag that was placed on the statue of Saddam flew over the Pentagon on Sept. 11 or that it was recovered from the rubble of complex that day. The New York Post, for example, wrote that "As the Marines prepared to topple the statue, they draped a Stars and Stripes over it - a flag that had flown over the Pentagon on Sept. 11." The Daily Telegraph (UK) reported that "The Stars and Stripes used by US Marine Corporal Ed Chin to cover the statue in Baghdad's Firdos Square was under the debris at the Pentagon following the September 11 al-Qaeda terrorist attack."

But "Media Watch," a show on Australia's ABC network, has found that the flag was given to Marine First Lt. Tim McLaughlin (who handed it to Cpl. Ed Chin to place on the statue) by a member of the staff of Senator Charles Schumer, D-NY. The staffer, who confirmed the account, said she purchased the flag in the Senate as a personal gift to McLaughlin to thank him for his efforts to help people in the Pentagon after the Sept. 11 attacks.

What actually happened to Pfc. Jessica Lynch?

The capture and subsequent rescue of Private Lynch is one of the most famous stories of the war. But initial accounts have been contradicted by new reports, including one from the BBC that has become immensely controversial.

The conventional wisdom regarding Lynch's capture was established by an April 3 story in the Washington Post. According to "U.S. officials" interviewed by the Post, Lynch "fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers after Iraqi forces ambushed the Army's 507th Ordnance Maintenance company, firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition." According to one official, Lynch "continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die... 'She was fighting to the death,' the official said. 'She did not want to be taken alive.'".

While the Post noted that other officials described the details of the incident as sketchy, the image of Lynch valiantly trying to fight off her captors became iconic. However, her father and a military doctor quickly responded by saying that she had not been shot or stabbed. As Post ombudsman Michael Getler showed, further evidence in support of their statements accumulated over the next few weeks (along with a few contradictory reports).

At this point, while no completely definitive statement has been made, Lynch's father, at least two U.S. military doctors, other military officials and the Iraqi doctors who initially treated her have all said she suffered no bullet or stab wounds. Moreover, while the Army is currently investigating the incident, two Pentagon officials told the Washington Times that Lynch did not return fire as the Post originally described: "[A]ll evidence suggests that Pfc. Lynch's truck crashed in the chaos of the ambush in the central Iraqi town of Nasiriyah. She suffered several bone fractures and was in no position to put up a fight, the officials said."

Lynch's subsequent rescue from a hospital in Nasiriyah is one of the best-known incidents of the war. At the time, it was portrayed in the media as a dramatic mission to deliver her from the hands of the enemy. Brigadier General Vincent Brooks said during his April 2 briefing that "[T]he regime was holding her" and that "there were buildings outside of the Saddam Hospital, where we received fire -- or the assault force received fire -- during the night."

The media quickly seized on the drama of the operation. The New York Daily News, for example, described the operation as "a daring nighttime rescue," saying "[C]ommandos stormed the hospital, facing gunfire from guards outside. The resistance was quickly snuffed." It added, "Once more, as the commandos slipped out of the building, came the enemy gun blasts." In addition, a story emerged of an Iraqi lawyer who was said to have risked his life to tell American troops of Lynch's location and help them scout the hospital for a rescue operation. The lawyer described seeing an Iraqi guard slapping Lynch, raising questions of possible mistreatment of a prisoner of war.

More recent accounts have emerged that complicate this narrative. On April 15, the Post reported that Iraqi doctors "said no Iraqi soldiers or militiamen were at the hospital that night, April 1, when the U.S. Special Operations forces came in helicopters to carry out the midnight rescue." Later reports from The Toronto Star, CNN, Daily Telegraph (UK) and Times of London have echoed these accounts, with Iraqi doctors claiming they took careful care of Lynch and protected her from Iraqi government forces. The doctors also claim to have attempted to return her to American lines before the rescue, saying the ambulance driver was forced to turn back due to gunfire from US troops. Finally, Iraqi doctors deny that Lynch was slapped or otherwise abused.

BBC correspondent John Kampfner picked up on these stories in a televised May 18 report that has come under close scrutiny. While Kampfner adequately recapitulates the reporting of his predecessors in some respects, he made several mistakes. First, and most blatantly, Kampfner credulously quotes Iraqi doctors asserting that US soldiers used blanks when storming the hospital. But as blogger Wilbur Smith argues, it is improbable that combat troops would not have live ammunition ready for use in their weapons (the Pentagon strongly denies the allegation).

In addition, the online article based on Kampfner's story -- which has probably received more attention than the actual televised report -- states that US troops "were said to have come under fire from inside and outside the building." But Kampfner's televised report actually said that "They took fire on their way in and out of the building," not that fire came from inside the building or that troops fired shots inside. Moreover, Brooks specifically denied this claim during his April 2 briefing, saying "There was not a fire fight inside of the building, I will tell you, but there were fire fights outside of the building, getting in and getting out." While a few media reports may have gotten this wrong, almost all got it right.

Finally, the article asserts that "Witnesses told us that the special forces knew that the Iraqi military had fled a day before they swooped on the hospital." But the only source cited in the televised report is a man who claims to have told a US military advance team that the Iraqi paramilitaries were gone. Certainly it is understandable that the US team would not simply accept the word of this person or any others who were consulted. In an interview with CNN's Bill Hemmer, Kampfner conceded that "perhaps" the US was within its rights to prepare for the worst, saying "[e]verybody ought to anticipate the highest level of danger."

There has also been a dispute over the implications of Kampfner's piece. In the online article, he calls Lynch's rescue "one of the most stunning pieces of news management ever conceived." (The TV script also had a suggestive lead-in: "This was a script made for Hollywood. Made by the Pentagon.") Many have disregarded Kampfner's direct meaning - that the Pentagon manipulated the media in presenting Lynch's capture and rescue as more dramatic than they actually were - and leaped to the supposed implication that the raid was staged, which Kampfner did not allege but could be inferred based on the quotation claiming that US troops used blanks and a lack of context regarding possible threats to US troops to the hospital. (When questioned by CNN's Leon Harris about this, Kampfner specifically said the rescue was not staged and that "The Americans had a legitimate right in getting Lynch out of the hospital.")

One example comes from Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer, who falsely condemned the "premeditated manufacture of the rescue." He mistakenly claimed that, "[a]ccording to the BBC... the truth appears to be that not only had Iraqi forces abandoned the area before the rescue effort but that the hospital's staff had informed the U.S. of this and made arrangements two days before the raid to turn Lynch over to the Americans." (Actually, the person who allegedly told the US advance team is apparently unconnected to the hospital.)

Former Rep. Cynthia McKinney went even further. According to an online transcript, she made wild, unsupported allegations about Lynch's rescue during a recent speech at the graduation ceremony of the UC-Berkeley African Studies Department. McKinney claimed the operation was "staged by the US military" and that "the Pentagon ignored efforts by Iraqi doctors to return Private Lynch in an Iraqi ambulance." Instead, the military "fired on the ambulance so they could then stage a rescue and stage a firefight at the hospital and remove Private Lynch." But in reality there is no indication of coordination with the Defense Department in the alleged shooting at the ambulance, nor is there evidence of a staged rescue or firefight.

Though far more responsible than Scheer or McKinney, critics of the BBC report from the right have used Kampfner's miscues to try to dismiss or play down the entirety of the Lynch story, though the main contentions of the original revisionist reporting on Lynch have stood up to scrutiny thus far. Blogger Glenn Reynolds, for example, wrote that "there's no story, really -- just a claim that things weren't as dangerous as they might have been, and that the Pentagon got as much PR out of the event as it could, neither of which strikes me as earthshaking." Andrew Sullivan simply dismissed the BBC report as a "smear." But these commentators have not directed the same outrage the BBC has faced at the press outlets that credulously repeated the original, mistaken reports about Lynch's capture and rescue. Certainly, it's news that several key aspects of what was arguably most famous single incident of the war were apparently misleading and/or false.

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