Media war with Iraq insurgents

Revelations the US military has encouraged Iraqi reporters to write stories focusing on positive aspects of the country’s occupation and reconstruction were published by the Los Angeles Times on November 30.

A day later, the Knight-Ridder group, one of America’s largest newspaper publishers, reported that money payments were involved and that Iraqi journalists were paid up to US$200 a month for writing favourable stories.

“We don’t lie, we don’t need to lie, we do empower our operational commanders with the ability to inform the Iraqi public,” US military spokesman Major General Rick Lynch said.

However the general and his assistants would not respond to questions about whether money was exchanged, saying they could not comment on the specifics of the arrangements.

“Because this is part of our ongoing operations and an important part of countering misinformation in the new by insurgents, I can’t provide details of what this entails,” the head of the US military’s press department, Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson, said.

White House ‘concerned’

The claims have sent ripples of concern through the White House, with spokesman Scott McClellan saying the Bush administration is “very concerned about the reports.”

“We have asked the Department of Defence for more information,” Mr McClellan added.

“We want to see what the facts are. The United States is a leader when it comes to promoting and advocating a free and independent media around the world, and we will continue to do so.”

With just under two weeks until parliamentary elections in Iraq, pressure is mounting on the government of US President George W Bush to set deadlines for transferring authority and security to Iraqis.

A day after President Bush outlined his strategy for victory in Iraq which omitted any timetable for withdrawing US troops, calls have strengthened from opposition Democrats for a more definitive policy.

“If we just continue along the road we are going now without a more concrete transfer of responsibility… I think a lot of people fear it’s going to be more of the same,” 2004 US Democratic presidential rival Senator John Kerry said.

But Democrats are reluctant to move away from their cautious support of America’s role and risk being seen as willing to ‘cut and run’ before insurgents in Iraq are brought under control.

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll has shown 55 percent of respondents do not believe US Bush has a workable plan for Iraq, compared to 41 percent who do.

However, the survey found six in 10 Americans believe US troops should not be pulled out until certain goals are achieved, and 35 percent said they want a schedule for their withdrawal.

Iraqi forces ‘not ready’

With 128,000 out of 212,000 trained Iraqis placed in operational battalions, the man responsible for building Iraq’s new army and security forces told the Agence France Presse (AFP) news service that a military handover is still well off into the future.

“I don’t think that we’ll be done by the end of 2006 in any sense,” Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey reportedly said.

“We have to make sure that they absorb what we are providing, and at the same time that we don’t stay so long that they become dependent on us to do it for them.”

As fresh US and Iraqi joint operations began in the area around Ramadi, insurgents made a show of strength in the city, 110 kilometres west of Baghdad.

Residents said heavily armed men wearing masks attacked a US garrison in the centre of Ramadi and fired on nearby council offices before occupying several streets for about 45 minutes.

The US military was quick to play down the magnitude of the strike.

“Reports of insurgents taking control of Ramadi are completely unsubstantiated,” Marines Captain Patrick Kerr said in an emailed statement.

“There have been sporadic small arms engagements, but nothing out of the ordinary.”