False Claims Litter Iraq Conflict
Mon March 31, 2003 11:32 AM ET
By Merissa Marr

LONDON (Reuters) - Almost every day, Britain and the United States have rowed back from triumphal claims in Iraq after jumping the gun in the propaganda war.

Scrambling for positive news in the battle against President Saddam Hussein, the two allies have announced a string of successes, only to back away from them later after realizing they were inaccurate or even outright wrong.

In the latest example, on Monday, British forces retracted a claim that they had captured an Iraqi general in clashes with paramilitaries in southern Iraq on Sunday, saying they had misidentified an Iraqi officer.

Just 12 days into the war, the list of inaccuracies ranges from Iraqi uprisings to the premature fall of Iraq's second city of Basra, as Britain and the United States attempt to vindicate their controversial decision to go to war.

But why do they repeatedly fall into the same trap?

Part of the problem is Britain and America are under pressure politically to make the war a success but have an unclear strategy for psychological warfare, analysts said.

That comes against the backdrop of needing to keep up with the furious pace of media covering minute-by-minute developments in the conflict on 24-hour television news.

"It's not that authorities are trying to create disinformation. In this media-ubiquitous world, they have learned that doesn't work," said Michael Clarke, director of the International Policy Institute at Kings College London.

"They are just trying to influence a fast-moving news agenda and they are moving faster than they can or should."


At a news conference with President Bush last week, British premier Tony Blair said two dead British soldiers shown on Arab TV network al-Jazeera had been "executed" by Iraq.

The British government later backed away from the accusation after a relative of one of the soldiers told a British newspaper that she had been told the soldier had died in action.

In what would have been a key breakthrough last week, various media separately cited military sources as saying a mass uprising was taking place in Basra.

Iraq dismissed the reports as "hallucinations" while Arab television channels showed images of quiet Basra streets.

Blair later said there had only been a ..."limited uprising."

"There's a compelling need to be relentlessly upbeat and optimistic," said Jamie Cowling, research fellow at the Institute of Public Policy Research in London.

"One of the big things they are looking for is the smoking gun, the evidence for example of chemical or biological weapons, or mass torture that will prove them right."

In one example, media reported the discovery of a chemical weapons factory -- reports that were later officially dismissed.

Analysts say Britain and the United States have not plotted a clear enough message in their propaganda war, partly because of the speed with which the campaign was put together.

At the same time, they are under increasing pressure to get their case across to both their own people and Iraqis.

"This is a deeply political war. This is not an attempt to invade Iraq as a country but to chase out its regime. It's important to get their political message across," said Clarke.


Other claims that initially appeared to provide Britain and America with propaganda ammunition include the repeated fall of the Iraqi port city of Umm Qasr. U.S. officials also claimed an Iraqi commander had surrendered, but he later turned up on al- Jazeera television.

Bush separately made comments about a man being left to bleed to death after having his tongue cut out by the Iraqi government. But the comments were never backed up.

Unlike in previous conflicts such as the Falklands war where news sometimes took days to emerge, reporters are traveling with U.S.-led forces in this conflict, beaming back reports instantly from the battlefield.

"The way this war is going, it's very difficult to be as fully informed as quickly as modern media need them (governments) to be," said Roger Mortimore, political analyst at MORI in London.

"They are under pressure to make statements and they are often doing so on less than adequate evidence."

Original URL: http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=focusIraqNews&storyID=2479746

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