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Iraq: In War, Truth Is Often Part Of The 'Collateral Damage'

The early days of the Iraq war have been marked by questionable claims and assumptions by the U.S.-led coalition -- from early reports that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein may have been killed in a U.S. air strike to assertions that residents of the southern Iraqi city of Basra were rising up against the regime. The Iraqis, too, have toyed with the truth, denying coalition military successes and charging the U.S. with deliberately targeting civilians. These are the types of claims and counterclaims that are expected in any war, but the overall effect is to harm the credibility of both sides.

Prague, 1 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- British wartime leader Winston Churchill once said the truth is sometimes so precious it must be protected by a bodyguard of lies.

The early days of the war in Iraq have seen numerous misstatements from both the U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi sides. Whether the comments have been deliberate attempts to mislead, or simply the result of errors or wishful thinking, the effect has been to harm the credibility of both sides.

The war of words began minutes after the first missile strikes on Baghdad in the early hours of 20 March. The strike was apparently aimed at killing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and members of his ruling elite.

Immediately, word leaked out of Washington that Hussein might have been killed in the strike. A television appearance by the Iraqi leader hours later did not quash speculation. Spokesmen noted that Hussein frequently uses doubles and that the television footage could have been taped in advance. The White House continued to encourage such speculation for many days after.

The argument was seemingly laid to rest on 24 March, when a vigorous and apparently healthy Saddam gave a lengthy television address in which he specifically referred to ongoing fighting between Iraqi forces and coalition soldiers in the southern port of Umm Qasr.

He also said: "The enemy has become embroiled on our holy land of the valiant people. Strike them, our heroic mujahedin. Strike your enemy with all force and precision, all noble Iraqis. Lure the enemy to the point where they find themselves unable to continue or to commit more crimes against you or your nation or humanity. At that time you will reap stability and grandeur as a result of your victory."

By that time, however, attention had shifted to the ground war and the coalition's claims of having taken the strategic Al-Faw Peninsula and the southern port of Umm Qasr.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters on 21 March that Umm Qasr was firmly in the hands of coalition forces. "Yesterday, the Iraqi information minister declared that the port of Umm Qasr is 'completely in our hands,' quote-unquote. Quote: 'They [coalition forces] failed to capture it,' unquote. In fact, coalition forces did capture it and do control the port of Umm Qasr, and also a growing portion of the country of Iraq," Rumsfeld said.

But this proved to be, at best, wishful thinking. The port and town were not yet secure, and several days of difficult fighting were to come. It was a full five days later, on 26 March, before British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon was able to announce that coalition troops were more or less in control of Umm Qasr.

"After six days of conflict, the coalition has made steady progress, following the main outline of our military plan towards the objective of overcoming resistance from the Iraqi security forces. The Al-Faw Peninsula, Umm Qasr and the southern oil fields have been secured and Iraqi resistance in those areas defeated," Hoon said.

The Iraqis, for their part, are no better at accurately portraying day-to-day events. Iraqi Information Minister Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf, speaking about Umm Qasr on the same day as Hoon, denied any coalition successes at all. "We are hitting [coalition forces] beautifully from Umm Qasr to the docks, and they are beautifully deceiving their public opinion," al-Sahhaf said.

Since then, al-Sahhaf has also accused the U.S.-led coalition of what he called the "savage and criminal" bombardment of Iraqi residential neighborhoods and made other highly doubtful claims.

Another piece of apparent misinformation concerned the southern Iraqi city of Basra, where last week British Major General Peter Wall said there were indications that a popular revolt might be under way. Such a revolt against Saddam Hussein would have been seen as a major success for the coalition. The story was downplayed later, however, when the uprising failed to materialize.

It's still not clear what, if anything, happened in Basra. Hoon later said that Iraqi militia had attacked their own citizens in Basra after they had tried to stage the uprising.

Initial reports also accused Iraq of firing banned Scud missiles at Kuwait in the early days of the war. None of the missiles fired so far from Iraq at Kuwait have been Scuds. The UN's chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, says there is no evidence that the Iraqis have used any banned weapons in the war so far.

To be sure, misleading, erroneous, or actual "disinformation" accompany any armed conflict. British military expert Charles Heyman, editor of "Jane's World Armies," told RFE/RL last week that disinformation -- deliberately false information intended to confuse the enemy -- is used to sow alarm and dissension among the enemy.

"There is a great danger of the analysts believing everything that Washington and London actually say. The purpose of the military public relations machine at this moment in time, and for the last two months or so, is to spread alarm and dissension among the potential enemy, all the way through Iraqi society, the Iraqi military, and the Iraqi government," Heyman said.

Much of the U.S. and British public relations effort is aimed at winning over skeptical world opinion that the Iraq war is just. A potent weapon in that effort would be proof that the Iraqi regime is violating the rules of civilized warfare.

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld spoke to reporters on 25 March about alleged Iraqi violations of the rules of war. "The regime has committed acts of treachery on the battlefield, dressing their forces as liberated civilians and sending soldiers out waving white flags and feigning surrender with the goal of drawing coalition forces into the ambushes, using Red Cross vehicles to courier military instructions. These are serious violations of the laws of war," Rumsfeld said.

The theme was picked up the same day by U.S. President George W. Bush. "We are fighting an enemy that knows no rules of law, that will wear civilian [clothes], that is willing to kill in order to continue the reign of fear of Saddam Hussein," Bush said.

The Iraqi information minister later denied that Iraqi soldiers were dressing in civilian clothes.

Bush, in his most recent radio address (29 March) went further, alleging the Iraqis have executed prisoners of war and had even hanged a woman for simply waving at coalition troops. "In areas that are still under its control, the [Iraqi] regime continues its rule by terror. Prisoners of war have been brutalized and executed, Iraqis who refuse to fight for the regime are being murdered. An Iraqi woman has been hanged for waving at coalition troops. Some of the Iraqi military have pretended to surrender and then opened fire on coalition forces," Bush said.

Some, or all, of these charges may be true. There is no way of knowing yet the full extent of any Iraqi war crimes. Part of the coalition effort no doubt will be to assemble evidence to back up these claims. But for analysts like Heyman, the effect of these kinds of allegations, ultimately, is to reduce credibility on all sides.

"The important thing is to believe none of the propaganda. Use your common sense. Have a look at what's happening on the ground. Treat every report that you can identify as propaganda with great skepticism," Heyman said.

So what to make of the most recent statements by the Pentagon that Saddam and his family may now be trying to flee the country? That assertion, by Pentagon spokesperson Victoria Clarke, was quickly denied by the Iraqis.

Only time will tell.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.