Facts spin wildly in Iraq’s information war
RAMADI, Iraq — When it comes to the fog of war, things don’t get any clearer when viewed through the Internet’s deadline-a-minute news cycle. At least that’s the conclusion some may draw from a recent blizzard of confusing reports on an explosion in Ramadi’s violent downtown Tuesday evening.
One widespread report — that 16 children were killed by a car bomb while playing soccer in downtown Ramadi — was offered up by Iraqi police sources and local tribal leaders. According the U.S. military, it is entirely false.
While insurgents have repeatedly used car bombs to kill Ramadi officials and civilians (15 people, mostly adults, died in a car bomb blast Monday), the U.S. military said no car bombings occurred in southeast Ramadi at the time of the reported soccer field bombing.
What did happen, they said, was that 31 men, women and children were injured when U.S. bomb disposal technicians conducted a “controlled detonation” of seized explosives and propane tanks and misjudged the size of the blast. The blast occurred around 5:30 p.m., and all but one of the injured were civilians.
“The blast was much larger than expected, shattering glass in surrounding buildings and injuring the civilians,” a U.S. news release read. The victims were struck by flying glass and debris; none of the injuries appeared to be life threatening.
Despite the fact that no soccer field bombing occurred, media across the globe seized on the story. Both the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times carried quotes from the offices of President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki condemning the bombing. Maliki blamed “criminal gangs” for the “crime against children in their innocent playgrounds.”
At best, the confusion was the result of simple coincidence. Tuesday’s controlled blast by U.S. forces occurred after the discovery of a dump truck containing explosives. Experts disabled the truck bomb and searched for more ordnance, discovering 15 rice bags filled with a substance that appeared to be explosives as well as a dozen propane tanks.
The demolition crew detonated the materials on a cement pad in a courtyard, leaving a ragged crater more than 20 feet wide.
In the resulting confusion, residents and Iraqi security officials may have assumed it was the dump truck that exploded. As news spread by word of mouth — Ramadi lacks any formal newspapers, television stations or even a cellular phone network — the incident may have been confused with Monday’s car bombing.
In that attack, a pickup truck loaded with explosives covered by a layer of fire wood detonated in an area where Iraqi police have been very active. U.S. officers believe the target was a nearby Iraqi police station. Trucks carrying firewood are rarely seen in Ramadi’s downtown, and two off-duty Iraqi police stopped the vehicle because it looked suspicious. It was there, in a dense residential area, that the driver triggered the bomb.
There is also the possibility, however, that the false reports of a soccer field bombing were a calculated lie, the result of a breakneck news cycle increasingly used as a weapon in an information battle between militants, tribes and the U.S. military.
Initially, government and tribal leaders in Ramadi said the bombing occurred on Tuesday, at roughly the same time as the controlled detonation conducted by U.S. forces. When the U.S. military denied the claim, some Iraqi officials changed the story.
In a Washington Post story, Col. Tariq al-Alwani, the security supervisor in Anbar, said the soccer field bombing occurred Monday, not Tuesday.
“It’s a tragedy that the kids are targeted,” the colonel was quoted as saying. The colonel said news of the bombing had emerged a day late because most reporters have left Ramadi.
In fact, the U.S. military reported Monday’s bombing in a press release that included photographs of wounded civilians undergoing treatment at a medical facility in Camp Ramadi. Some U.S. officers in Ramadi said it appeared that local officials were either confusing the two incidents or altering the facts to sway public opinion.
The conflicting reports highlight an information war waged daily in Ramadi. It parallels the very real and violent battle as U.S. troops attempt to kill or capture fighters holed up downtown.
U.S. officials say they are constantly responding to false claims made by insurgents regarding collateral damage and the deaths of civilians. The enemy, they say, is intent on destroying a recently formed alliance between the U.S. military and more than a dozen local tribes in this provincial capital of 500,000.
The reports are spread through handbills, homemade DVDs, Web postings and calls to news outlets.
By the same token, U.S. officials are quick to produce press releases for the media and handbills for local residents detailing insurgent atrocities or clarifying incidents of collateral damage.
In today’s military parlance, such efforts are known as “information operations.”
“The difference is, the enemy lies,” said Marine Capt. Paul Duncan, a public affairs officer. “We have to tell the truth.”
On Tuesday when officers learned of the controlled blast incident, information and public affairs officers immediately swung into action.
They wrote up press releases, contacted local officials to apologize and assured them that the U.S. military would pay compensation to those injured.
Speed was key, they said, as the enemy would also seize on the incident and spin it as an attack on city residents.
What the officers didn’t expect was that local police officials and sheiks would tell reporters that the insurgents had killed 18 people, mostly children, in a car bombing.
While the facts may not be true, the officers felt some satisfaction in seeing local Iraqi officials waging their own information campaign. The story, as the saying goes, had legs.
Among other things, the false report highlighted a very real rift between local Sunni Arab tribes in Iraq’s west and Islamic fighters connected to al-Qaida in Iraq.
“It may be a matter of confusion, and it may be a matter of them making it up on purpose,” said one officer. “I’m just glad to see that the officials here are getting out in front. They’re dealing with the enemy on their own level.”