The Difference Between Terrorists and Wedding Guests
By Jefferson Morley
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 1, 2004; 11:30 AM
A terrorist safe house? Or a wedding celebration? Or both?
What exactly did U.S. military aircraft attack in the western Iraqi desert in the early morning of May 19, 2004?
If you read the U.S. press, that question is the subject of legitimate dispute and official investigation. If you read the overseas online media, you will find little doubt that the U.S. forces, deliberately or accidentally, perpetrated a "massacre" near the village of Qaim that killed up to 45 people, including many women and children.
The difference in coverage of the May 19 attack illuminates a key difference in the way news organizations reach definitive judgments on matters of fact. U.S.-based news organizations, much more than their overseas counterparts, are willing to take statements from U.S. officials at face value. Overseas journalists are more likely to put faith in the accounts of Iraqi eyewitnesses and local officials.
As a result, the story of the Iraqi civilian casualties inflicted by U.S. forces, already fading from the U.S. news cycle, remains very much alive in international commentary.
"New wedding video fuels suspicion of U.S. account," declared the New Zealand Herald. "Iraqi Wedding Inferno... What Really Happened," was the headline in Islam Online, a news site based in the Persian Gulf.
The story broke on May 20 when Associated Press reporter Scheherezade Faramarzi reported that "A U.S. aircraft fired on a house in the desert near the Syrian border Wednesday, and Iraqi officials said more than 40 people were killed, including children. The U.S. military said the target was a suspected safehouse for foreign fighters from Syria, but Iraqis said a helicopter had attacked a wedding party."
Rory McCarthy, Iraq correspondent for liberal daily the Guardian of London followed up by interviewing doctors and survivors. In McCarthy's account, one woman said she and her children had gone to bed after a day of celebrating a wedding.
"'The bombing started at 3 a.m. We went out of the house and the American soldiers started to shoot us. They were shooting low on the ground and targeting us one by one,' she said. She ran with her youngest child in her arms and her two young boys, Ali and Hamza, close behind. As she crossed the fields a shell exploded close to her, fracturing her legs and knocking her to the ground.
"She lay there and a second round hit her on the right arm. By then her two boys lay dead. 'I left them because they were dead,' she said. One, she saw, had been decapitated by a shell. "
McCarthy quoted a doctor as saying that 11 women had been killed, along with 14 children.
Justin Huggler, correspondent from another London daily, the Independent, was shown a video obtained by AP Television News footage of the burial of about 40 men, women and children, including a decapitated child.
The news stories in the Guardian and the Independent both expressed open skepticism about the U.S. military's claims that guns, Syrian passports and a satellite phone had been recovered from the scene of the attack.
"One U.S. general asked, 'How many people go to the middle of the desert 10 miles from the Syrian border to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilisation?' " Huggler wrote. "The Iraqis replied that the victims of the attack were holding the wedding in the village where they had lived all their lives."
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