In Jaded, Perilous Capital, A Collision of Perceptions

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By Ellen Knickmeyer and Naseer Nouri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 29, 2005

BAGHDAD, July 28 -- At 11 a.m. in the Iraqi capital, the popping of automatic-weapons fire broke out from one end of a Tigris River bridge to another. Pedestrians jaded by gunfire walked for cover. It was Baghdad's equivalent of a car horn -- guards shooting into the air to clear the way for some dignitary.

Across the Tigris, gray smoke billowed over the city from a bomb. Under the bridge, ski-masked Shiite Muslim commandos cruised through checkpoints in pickups mounted with machine guns.

Nearby, a man stood in the middle of the street holding a gun to the head of another man in a car. Other drivers steered around them. No one stopped to help, or looked that carefully. After more than two years of war, Baghdad's people have learned to choose their battles, and this one didn't qualify.

On the city's streets, the daily reality involves death, random violence and routine deprivations for people who are beyond anger. But a different view has been presented in the Green Zone, the concrete-barricaded headquarters for U.S. troops, diplomats and contractors, and the interim Iraqi government. There, the situation is described as progressing toward a gradual handover from U.S. forces to Iraqi control.

During a visit to Baghdad this week by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey, said a partial troop withdrawal might begin in early spring. His assessment was repeated Thursday at a weekly briefing. "Every day you see the Iraqi people going about their lives -- sometimes under challenging circumstances -- gives confirmation we've got a good program," said the military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Donald Alston.

In statements to reporters in Iraq, the U.S. military has described the toll of the war, with regular reports on U.S. military deaths -- 1,790 so far -- and on some of the Iraqi civilian deaths. But the military has also attempted to highlight reconstruction, success against insurgents and the enthusiasm of the Iraqi people. "Iraqi, U.S. soldiers distribute frozen chickens," was the headline on a July 20 military press release.

When a bomber struck a Baghdad military recruitment center earlier this month, killing at least 10 people, Alston told reporters that the willingness of the Iraqis to keep showing up at such centers was a demonstration of their resolve. "To see these recruits come back again tomorrow or the day after these attacks, it is almost as if . . . the insurgency causing these attacks [was] giving the Iraqi youth the chance to express themselves," Alston said.

He said that Iraqis' commitment "to serving their nation" was "also a twist that is part of this particular sequence of attacks at this particular recruiting station."

Another U.S. military public affairs operation, Task Force Baghdad, issued a statement on a July 13 car bombing. The statement included this quotation: " 'The terrorists are attacking the infrastructure, the children and all of Iraq,' said one Iraqi man who preferred not to be identified. 'They are enemies of humanity without religion or any sort of ethics. They have attacked my community today and I will now take the fight to the terrorists.' "

On Sunday, the task force issued a statement about another attack in which a U.S. soldier and as many as 26 Iraqi children were killed. The statement included this quotation: " 'The terrorists are attacking the infrastructure, the ISF, and all of Iraq. They are enemies of humanity without religion or any sort of ethics. They have attacked my community today and I will now take the fight to the terrorists,' said one Iraqi man."

Several journalists pointed out the near-duplication. Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, a senior military spokesman, said Thursday that the U.S. military was looking into what happened and that procedures in Task Force Baghdad's public affairs office were under review.

U.S. military public affairs officers have also accused reporters of distorting the image of the U.S. campaign in Iraq. They have charged that reporters focus on insurgent attacks and ignore military accounts of U.S. and Iraqi troops finding weapons caches, blocking bombings and catching suspected insurgents.


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