Rumsfeld Says Media Exaggerating Iraqi Civilian Deaths

By Bill Brubaker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 7, 2006; 3:57 PM

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld today presented an upbeat report of the conflict in Iraq and said he agrees with the commander of the U.S.-led coalition, Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., that the news media has exaggerated the number of civilian casualties in the conflict.

Rumsfeld said that while insurgents are "obviously trying to ignite a civil war," Iraqi security forces have "taken the lead in controlling the situation" and the Iraqi government has taken "a number of key steps that have had a calming effect in the situation."

But the news media in the United States and abroad has misreported the number of Iraqi civilians that have been killed and the number of mosques that have come under attack, Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon news conference.

This misreporting, Rumsfeld said, has swayed American public opinion. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll reported yesterday that 80 percent of Americans believe that fighting between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq will lead to civil war.

Casey told reporters on Friday that in the initial days after the Feb. 22 bombing of a sacred Shiite shrine in Samarra, there was "a confusing jumble of exaggerated reporting that actually took us a few days to, kind of, sort through." He said 350 Iraqi civilians had died in a surge of sectarian killings, militia violence and revenge attacks on about 30 mosques around the country after the bombing.

Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari said last week that numbers reported by The Post were exaggerated, and that the toll was 379.

The Washington Post reported earlier last week that the death count was higher, quoting Baghdad morgue officials as saying it was more than 1,300 and, subsequently, an Interior Ministry official who put the number at 1,077. An international official knowledgeable about the case also confirmed that the death toll has reached at least 1,000 and said Iraqi officials, including morgue workers, had been intimidated into giving lower numbers.

"Interestingly, all of the exaggerations seem to be on one side," Rumsfeld said today, referring to recent reporting on the conflict. "It isn't as though there simply have been a series of random errors on both sides of issues. On the contrary, the steady stream of errors all seem to be of a nature to inflame the situation and to give heart to the terrorists and to discourage those who hope for success in Iraq."

The Post-ABC poll also said half of all Americans say the United States should begin withdrawing its forces from Iraq.

"There's been a public opinion poll reporting that the readers of these exaggerations believe Iraq is in a civil war -- a majority do," Rumsfeld said, adding that faulty news reports had "an effect" on the poll results, swaying the opinion of the American people.

Rumsfeld did not cite examples of the misreporting he and Casey say has taken place.

"I have no way to judge; I'm not going to judge them," Rumsfeld said of the news media. "It's just a fact that [Casey] is saying that. And I believe he's correct."

Later, Rumsfeld added: "We do know, of course, that al-Qaeda has media committees. We do know that they teach people exactly how to try to manipulate the media. They do this regularly. We see the intelligence that reports on their meetings. Now I can't take a string and tie it to a news report and then trace it back to an al-Qaeda media committee meeting. I'm not able to do that at all.

"We do know that their goal is to try to break the will; that they consider the center of gravity of this -- not to be in Iraq, because they know they can't win a battle out there; they consider it to be in Washington, D.C., and in London and in the capitals of the Western world."

In other news from Iraq, Rumsfeld said U.S. troops levels have been reduced from 160,000 to 132,000 during the past several months.

"Of course, there is always a lot of moving parts," he said. "We are also adding some people, simultaneously, to do various things. We're embedding some people with police; we are going to various other things, change. So it's in process, I think, would be the way to phrase it."

Rumsfeld spoke a day after the top commander of the Iraqi army division in Baghdad was killed when his car came under fire while traveling through the capital, the U.S. military said. Maj. Gen. Mubdar Hatim Hazya al-Dulaimi was one of the highest-ranking members of the new Iraqi army to be killed in insurgent violence. Under his leadership, the 6th Iraqi Army Division has been gradually assuming control of parts of the capital from U.S. forces.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company