Nov. 29, 2006
AP Defies Military, Bloggers on Story of 6 Iraqis Set on Fire
By E&P Staff and The Associated Press
Published: November 29, 2006 9:05 PM ET updated Wednesday
NEW YORK The U.S. military and conservative bloggers, such as
Michelle Malkin, lined up on one site, The Associated Press on
the other. Now the AP has taken a stronger stand and charged its
critics with making "ludicrous" claims. What next?
The clash grows out of what AP describes as an attack last Friday
on the small Mustafa Sunni mosque in Baghdad, which began as
worshippers were finishing midday prayers. About 50 unarmed men,
many in black uniforms and some wearing ski masks, walked through
the district chanting "We are the Mahdi Army, shield of the Shiites."
Fifteen minutes later, two white pickup trucks, a black BMW and a
black Opel drove up to the marchers. The suspected Shiite
militiamen took automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenade
launchers from the vehicles. They then blasted open the front of
the mosque, dragged six worshippers outside, doused them with
kerosene and set them on fire.
This account of one of the most horrific alleged attacks of
Iraq's sectarian war was confirmed, AP said, on Tuesday in
separate interviews with residents of a Sunni enclave in the
largely Shiite Hurriyah district of Baghdad.
The Associated Press first reported on Friday's incident last
weekend, based on the account of police Capt. Jamil Hussein and
Imad al-Hashimi, a Sunni elder in Hurriyah, who told Al-Arabiya
television he saw people who were soaked in kerosene, then set
afire, burning before his eyes. AP Television News also took
video of the Mustafa mosque showing a large portion of the front
wall around the door blown away. The interior of the mosque
appeared to be badly damaged and there were signs of fire.
However, the U.S. military said in a letter to the AP late
Monday, three days after the incident, that it had checked with
the Iraqi Interior Ministry and was told that no one by the name
of Jamil Hussein works for the ministry or as a Baghdad police
officer. Lt. Michael B. Dean, a public affairs officer of the
U.S. Navy Multi-National Corps-Iraq Joint Operations Center,
signed the letter, a text of which was published subsequently on
several Internet blogs. The letter also reiterated an earlier
statement from the U.S. military that it had been unable to
confirm the report of immolation.
"The attempt to question the existence of the known police
officer who spoke to the AP is frankly ludicrous and hints at a
certain level of desperation to dispute or suppress the facts of
the incident in question," AP International Editor John
Daniszewski said in a statement in response.
Rightwing bloggers had ridiculed the AP story, with some
suggesting the AP reporter was in league with the insurgents. On
Wednesday, the Powerline blog remained skeptical, asserting that
"the AP evidently thinks it knows what way the wind is blowing,
with the Democrats now in power in Congress and talk of defeat
and withdrawal in the air.
"I have infinitely more faith in the U.S. military than in the
Associated Press, but that doesn't mean the military is always
right or the AP always wrong. It seems that the AP believes it is
in a strong position. I'm tempted to say that one institution or
the other must emerge from this affair with its credibility damaged."
The AP received had no comment Friday when it first asked the
U.S. military for information. It then carried portions of a U.S.
military statement Saturday that said the U.S. had been unable to
confirm media reports that six Sunni civilians were allegedly
dragged out of Friday prayers and burned to death. The U.S.
military said that neither police nor coalition forces had
reports of such an incident.
The Iraqi Defense Ministry later said that al-Hashimi, the Sunni
elder in Hurriyah, had recanted his account of the attack after
being visited by a representative of the defense minister.
The dispute comes at a time when the military is taking a more
active role in dealing with the media.
The AP reported on Sept. 26 that a Washington-based firm, the
Lincoln Group, had won a two-year contract to monitor reporting
on the Iraq conflict in English-language and Arabic media outlets.
That contract succeeded one held by another Washington firm, The
Rendon Group. Controversy had arisen around the Lincoln Group in
2005 when it was disclosed that it was part of a U.S. military
operation to pay Iraqi newspapers to run positive stories about
U.S. military activities.
Seeking further information about Friday's attack, an AP reporter
contacted Hussein for a third time about the incident to confirm
there was no error. The captain has been a regular source of
police information for two years and had been visited by the AP
reporter in his office at the police station on several
occasions. The captain, who gave his full name as Jamil Gholaiem
Hussein, said six people were indeed set on fire.
On Tuesday, two AP reporters also went back to the Hurriyah
neighborhood around the Mustafa mosque and found three witnesses
who independently gave accounts of the attack. Others in the
neighborhood said they were afraid to talk about what happened.
Those who would talk said the assault began about 2:15 p.m., and
they believed the attackers were from the Mahdi Army militia
loyal to radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. He and the
Shiite militia are deeply rooted in and control the Sadr City
enclave in northeastern Baghdad where suspected Sunni insurgents
attacked with a series of car bombs and mortar shells, killing at
least 215 people a day before.
The witnesses refused to allow the use of their names because
they feared retribution either from the original attackers or the
police, whose ranks are infiltrated by Mahdi Army members or its
associated death squads.
Two of the witnesses — a 45-year-old bookshop owner and a
48-year-old neighborhood grocery owner — gave nearly identical
accounts of what happened. A third, a physician, said he saw the
attack on the mosque from his home, saw it burning and heard
people in the streets screaming that people had been set on fire.
All three men are Sunni Muslims.
The two other witnesses said the mosque assault began in earnest
about 2:30 p.m. after the arrival of the four vehicles filled
with arms. They said the attackers fired into the mosque, then
entered and set it on fire.
Then, the witnesses said, the attackers brought out six men,
blindfolded and handcuffed, and lined them up on the street at
the gate of the mosque. The witnesses said the six were doused
with kerosene from a 1.3-gallon canister and set on fire at
intervals, one after the other, with a torch made of rags. The
fifth and sixth men in the line were set afire at the same time.
The witnesses said the burning victims rolled on the ground in
agony until apparently dead, then the gunmen fired a single
bullet into each of their heads.
The witnesses said residents, in the meantime, had taken up arms
and began a gunbattle with the suspected militiamen that raged in
the neighborhood until 4 p.m. They said eight to 10 gunmen were
killed and left in the streets. Iraqi law allows each household
to own an AK-47 assault rife for protection.
One witness said he and other people from the neighborhood took
the six immolation victims to the Sunni cemetery near Baghdad's
Abu Ghraib suburb and buried them after the gunbattle. That
witness said one of the victims was the Mustafa mosque muezzin or
prayer caller, Ahmed al-Mashadani. He did not know the names of
the five others, but said they were all members of the
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